Christian Faith and Mental Health Care
We’re just a few days past yet another mass murder, this time in Santa Barbara, California. I’d written a short article not long after one about three years ago in which U.S. Congressional Representative, Gabby Giffords, and many others were shot, some killed. It can be found here. It has a couple points different than my emphasis today.
I can’t say how Christians of various persuasions and types have responded since then, or over a longer period in which America has seen an all-too-regular sequence of similar killings and attempted killings (one high school student injured and traumatized many of his fellow students in a knife-slashing rampage although I believe all survived). Of course, there are many more killings that get no more than local attention which are also “senseless” in their own ways. And often preventable.
One might say all kinds of murder are preventable, which is true in one sense. But here, I want to focus on those by particularly and long-term unbalanced people who carefully pre-plan vicious attacks and often have been observed to be at least suspicious in terms of violence.
Now, in relation to mental health needs that are tied to this kind of violence, I can’t say that people of faith have done nothing new to reach out to potential perpetrators or to address underlying societal problems, but nothing much has “crossed my radar” and I pay more attention to such things than most people do. I have had substantial past involvement in both mental health counseling and in church ministry, and sometimes the two as they overlap.
I will point out just two issues which I think further attention on by church leaders or others can stimulate communities of faith to have more positive impact than they currently do on violence-prevention. First, I’ll emphasize the word prevention, as over against blame. It is our natural human response to look for people or things to blame for these kinds of tragedies. Then we tend to leave it there…. Perhaps we’ve satisfied our need to make some sense out of them and to regain some mental/emotional equilibrium thereby. But often our blame-laying is just wrong (nothing more than ill-founded opinion). It also does nothing to help prevent the next tragedy. And the scars of such tragedies are deep!
So let’s each try hard to move from mere analysis (and blame) to understanding and dealing with root causes and what can be done about them, particularly within communities of faith. I’ll say first that merely maintaining genuine communities, whether faith-based or not, itself helps deal with one root cause – emotional isolation combined with a build-up of rage (which can be from a number of causes – often neither of these issues is a simple thing.) When a community of faith, whether Christian or some other, works at both care for its own members and for others it touches or is surrounded by, it does help prevent severe emotional and/or social isolation and is thus positive for mental health.
But such communities can also do more in the couple ways I’ve referred to:
1. They can actively integrate psychological and spiritual principles in their educational and other programs. The two are not actually distinct anyway, but conscious exploration of how they overlap and affect each other is a step ahead. In my earlier years of involvement with Evangelical churches, it was abundantly clear that “psychology” was often regarded with at least great suspicion if not outright disdain…. It was seen as an enemy of God, of Scripture or of true godliness. This attitude seldom seems to exist in the Progressive churches I’m now more involved with, but they also can go much further in seeking active learning about human thinking and behavior patterns, especially those related to social systems and the “social psychology” of individuals and groups.
2. Every person, and particularly us deliberate “Jesus-followers”, can seek to at least engage with and listen to, as far as it’s possible, people who seem different, aloof, perhaps troubled. Yes, it can be risky. It’s often not comfortable. But even one person deeply hearing another’s pain and perhaps gradually “calling them” on the irrational stuff that is usually interwoven, can be enough to dispel a bit of that pain and keep them from a violent way of demonstrating their isolation (largely self-caused though it may be).