James Holmes killed 12 at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. Nidal Hasan killed 13 at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center in Fort Hood, Texas. Aaron Alexis killed 12 at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard. Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va.. Jared Lee Loughner wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others outside a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Adam Lanza killed 20 children and seven adults, including himself, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Why would these men in the “prime of life” slaughter other human beings? These shootings so horrify us that even the question “why?” seems absurd. The loss of beautiful children at Sandy Hook and brave service members at the Navy Yard leaves us speechless and forlorn. We’re left with the twisted, lonely, and withered lives of Aaron Alexis, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Lee Loughner, Nidal Hasan, and Seung-Hui Cho.
A Better Response to Mental Illness
Encountering a person with mental illness, many of us squirm in discomfort — we don’t know what to say, when to intervene, or how to help. In our discomfort, we often reject, ignore, blame, fear, or try to “fix” the person who desperately needs someone to respond with compassion and concern. How can we respond differently, providing hope for those who may have lost hope themselves? Amy Simpson, author of “Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission,” offers a few ways to start:
• If you don’t know what it’s like to live with a mental illness, acknowledge to yourself that you don’t understand.
• If you don’t know what you’re talking about or you don’t know what to say, be quiet — but be there.
• Recognize that many of your ideas about mental illness are based in superstition and inaccurate portrayals in pop culture.
• Get better information — read a book, attend a workshop, do some research online.
• Understand the need for treatment and encourage rather than discourage it — refuse to belittle, mock, or demonize medical intervention.
• Resist the temptation to believe that people in treatment are having all their needs met; doctors and therapists don’t provide spiritual guidance or loving community.
Thinking about these men is tough. It’s easier to find a scapegoat — guns, violent video games, childhood abuse or neglect, mental illness. If we could just label the problem and fix it, we would feel more secure. We wish for a Staples “easy” button to ensure our safety. But if we rest in Christ as the only source of true, enduring safety, then our hope is not in fixing the problem, but embracing it more fully.
Vivid, Pervasive Brokenness
All the men who so vividly displayed humanity’s brokenness in their acts of violence earned a label almost immediately: mentally ill. This label doesn’t require much thought — it’s pretty easy to say that someone who shoots other people is sick in the head. Yet the vast majority of the mentally ill don’t murder. In fact, studies have shown that the contribution of mental illness to violence is extremely small – mental illness in itself does not make people more violent than the rest of us. During our time on earth, will we ever fully understand how “the world, the flesh, and the devil” conspire to accomplish such evil? Certainly mental illness is an incomplete answer to the question “why?” of these tragedies, but it is a place to start. If we believe that God desires to redeem the most broken and wayward people, whom He made in His image, how can the Gospel inform our thinking about mental health?
In her book “Troubled Minds: Mental Health and the Church’s Mission,” Amy Simpson wrote, “Most people are surprised to learn that mental illness is incredibly common. In fact, mental disorders are the number-one cause of disability in North America. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health and other experts, about one in four adults — a little more than 25 percent of Americans ages eighteen and older — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Yes, one in four. That’s around 50 million people in the United States. And that’s only in a given year.” The mentally ill are not just those “crazies” shooting children in schools or wheeling their belongings in grocery carts. They are the people standing in line behind us at the grocery store, sitting at the next table in the restaurant, working in the cubicle across the hall, and singing with us Sunday morning.
The pervasiveness of mental illness in our culture aligns with the Bible’s description of the human experience. Not only is this world suffering under the corrosive effects of the Fall, but the human psyche is frantically grasping at a fullness of life that is unattainable on this earth. As C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory”: “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”
All of us suffer in the face of a horribly broken world that can never fulfill the desires planted by God in our hearts. Despite this blight on all humans, the very term “mental illness” implies that the rest of us are mentally healthy. Why is it, then, that the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” is 991 pages long? While we may not all warrant a label, most of us probably exhibit one or more of the symptoms outlined. “We have a lot of trouble dealing with the very deep, conflicting, confusing, powerful, sometimes warring, dynamic impulses and feelings that roll through our heart,” said Tim Keller in his sermon “The Wounded Heart.” “The Bible’s understanding of human nature is more fully nuanced, more complex than any other answer that I know of,” said Keller.
In his sermon, Keller outlined five dimensions of the inner life of the creature made in God’s image. First, we are physical beings. In verses such as Proverbs 14:30, the Bible highlights the sophisticated relationship between our physical bodies and our emotional health. Second, we are emotional/relational beings. We were created for intimacy and emotional connection, not for isolation. Third, we are moral beings created with a conscience. Fourth, we are existential beings who grapple with the philosophical problem of death. Fifth, we are beings made for faith so that we would place our hope and trust in our unshakeable God. All these dimensions reflect a divine intricacy to human nature that leads even to misunderstanding ourselves (Proverbs 16:2).
To reduce a person’s entire nature to just one of these dimensions is simplistic and denies the divine imprint on human beings. However, some Christians offer only moral solutions to psychological or psychiatric problems. Simpson wrote, “For some Christians, every problem — and every solution — is spiritual. In this environment, mental illness is obvious evidence of a lack of faith. Medical and psychiatric interventions are suspect, while more prayer and more faith are prescriptions of choice.” Yet these same Christians would not flippantly advise a diabetic to pray instead of taking insulin or a cancer patient to rely on faith rather than chemotherapy. A multifaceted person calls for multifaceted ministry to body, mind, and spirit.
“Throughout history, mental illness has met with confusion, misunderstanding and mistreatment — even horror, persecution and torture,” wrote Simpson. “Though we have made progress in fits and starts, people with mental illness have never had more hope for productive life than they have now. But despite progress we live in a society that is still deeply confused about mental illness.”
Simpson said, “One of the problems that reinforces stigma is a misunderstanding of the brain itself. Somehow we don’t see the brain as a physical organ. There is no reason to believe that our brain is not subject to decay or injury like our heart, lungs, liver.” But even among church leaders who believe that mental illness is “a real, treatable and manageable illness caused by genetic, biological or environmental factors,” only 12.5 percent said mental illness is discussed in a healthy way in their church, according to a survey Simpson conducted.
As Keller described in his book “Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering,” a major factor in this silence may be the desire to cultivate an illusion of safety. “Others stay away [from the afflicted] because, like Job’s friends, we need to believe that the afflicted person somehow brought this on or wasn’t wise enough to avoid it. That way we can assure ourselves that it could never happen to me. The afflicted person challenges us to admit what we would rather deny — that such severe difficulty can come upon anyone, anytime.”
A Broken System
The irony is that by avoiding mental health issues to create an illusion of safety, we may be endangering ourselves. Dr. E. Fuller Torrey of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Washington, D.C., said, “This is not rocket science. We know what the good [mental health] programs are. Everyone has decided: It’s better to save money, and we’ll close down hospital beds; people who want to get help, we’ll try to get them help, but we won’t do much more than that. If you keep doing that, you will continue having these kinds of disasters.” We are compounding the horror of mental illness by our political and personal negligence.
Elizabeth H. Bradley and Lauren Taylor described the story of James Holmes, the “Dark Knight” shooter of Aurora, Colo., to illustrate: “Classmates, teachers, and family all have confessed that they knew this was a young man in distress. He had even sought and received some care from a psychiatrist.” But when he left school, this relationship ended, and eventually he fell through the cracks. “This story belongs to a larger narrative about what it is to be mentally ill in America. Although rarely included in the public discourse regarding health reform, stories like Mr. Holmes’ reflect the ways in which our faltering health care system is even more problematic when it comes to mental health.”
The writers continued, “The mental illness Mr. Holmes was experiencing when he opened fire does not excuse his egregious crime. But it forces us to reconsider the questions that we typically ask about why such travesties happen. Too often, we look to one another and wonder, ‘How can evil like this exist in the world?’ when the more appropriate question may be, ‘How can illness like this persist in our world?’ Had Mr. Holmes been properly diagnosed and under close, continued care of a trained professional, the earlier signs of his mental illness may have catalyzed medical intervention. In order to make this hypothetical a reality, we must reinvigorate conversation about how we design and deliver mental health care in this country.”
Embracing the Problem
“Christian faith has a terrific explanation for why we suffer this way. The only true antidote to that kind of suffering,” Simpson said. “To send the message that we don’t have the answer is basically to drop the Gospel on its head.” She says that by avoiding, ignoring, and blaming those with mental illness, “we send the message that God is OK with people until they get a little too messy or hard to be around, a little too needy, and then He’s out of there.”
Only when we acknowledge that we are all susceptible to the effects of the Fall, vulnerable to mental illness, and capable of unspeakable evil will we respond with the kind of humility, love, and compassion that Jesus did. Michael Spencer, the late “Internet Monk,” wrote: “My challenge to the church is to invite the mentally ill to Christ, and to find Christ in the mentally ill who are with us. I invite each one of us to consider that the lines between ourselves, the mentally ill and Jesus are largely irrelevant. When we see them, we see ourselves, and we come face to face with Jesus Christ.”
This dynamic is played out in Jesus’ meeting in Mark 5. Spencer wrote that the man Jesus meets may have been afflicted with spiritual forces, but his affliction may also have included mental illness. “This man cuts himself and lives much as many manic depressives or psychotics would if left uncared for or unmedicated,” he wrote. “Jesus responds to this man with compassion his community and family did not have for him. He treated him as a human being, and not simply as a collection of demons.” This interaction with Jesus radically changed the man, and he became a witness to the power of the Gospel: “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled” (Mark 5:20).
What if the paths of men like Aaron Alexis, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Lee Loughner, Nidal Hasan, and Seung-Hui Cho had encountered Jesus? Our calling as Christ’s followers is not to “fix” the mentally ill, but to follow Jesus into relationship with them. If we rest in Christ as our shield and security, we can risk reaching out to those we fear — those who may be legitimately dangerous, or at least make us dangerously uncomfortable. In his book, “The Briarpatch Gospel,” Shayne Wheeler wrote: “God says that when we reach into the pain of others — the briarpatch of their lives — and help to carry their burdens, it brings us closer to his heart. That doesn’t mean that we have to take on the mantle of solving world hunger or anything like that. It can be as simple as reaching out to the friendless and broken in our neighborhoods and communities, offering a listening ear and a caring heart. When we break the yoke of loneliness and alienation, God draws near.”
The world needs leaders who will reach into the life and pain of the next Adam Lanza or James Holmes and bring light into his darkness. Equipped with the courage and humility that comes from our own redemption, we can offer hope to those who won’t find it anywhere else. And perhaps we will learn things from them that we couldn’t learn anywhere else. We won’t make headlines, but that’s exactly what we hoped to avoid.
Susan Fikse writes alongside her full-time job of wife to Jonathan and mom to three energetic kids. She and her family live in San Diego and attend Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Encinitas.