The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
I think a lot about the state of our collective mental health, especially in this age of growing mental health needs and the rise of mass shootings. Over the past decade Samaritan’s witnessed a significant rise in people seeking mental health services. It’s led to a shortage of therapists and long waiting lists for some counseling centers (we’ve worked very hard to ensure that we have minimal wait lists).
Most people blame the pandemic for the higher demand for counseling, but that’s only part of the story. We noticed a rise in demand even prior to the pandemic. We also noticed a rise in anxiety disorder diagnoses from 15% to 28% between 2017 and 2019. That’s a remarkable increase, and it happened prior to the pandemic. Why the increase?
I think it’s because of the massive polarization of our culture. I liken it to growing up in a household of angry, arguing parents who constantly attack and accuse each other. Who would expect children growing up in that environment to be healthy and happy? We would expect them to be depressed, anxious, angry, misbehaving, and/or self-abusive.
Over the past decade our culture has experienced a surge in rude, aggressive, crass behavior from leaders, media personalities, and more. We are inundated with angry, attacking accusations on cable, social media, and personal interactions. We live in a culture where abusing each other publicly is now commonplace. We hold no one accountable to it. In fact, we gravitate toward it.
It’s clear that humans are entertained by conflict. From soap operas to reality TV, Twitter to Facebook, cable news to talk radio, podcasts to politics, we gravitate toward conflict. The self-righteous anger it generates may stir us, but it also demeans, denigrates, and slowly deteriorates our lives. How can we be healthy when toxicity constantly encircles us like a cawing congress of crows?
Lately I’ve been studying the typical mental health profiles of mass shooters. There are significant commonalities among them that reflect how the ways we speak to each other can harm or heal us. Most have grown up in abusive homes and were bullied at school. They’ve struggled to fit in and have felt increasingly isolated, hopeless, and rejected. As they’ve become more self-loathing, our culture of division and polarization teaches them to turn their anger outward into a searing hatred of others—toward schoolmate who bullied and rejected them, workplace bosses and colleagues who they felt demeaned them; women, minorities, and others who they believe have replaced them. They want to be noticed, even if it’s by being a mass-murderer (often asking, “Do you notice me now?”). They are a twisted microcosm of a culture that’s becoming increasingly aggressive, crass, and rude.
I’m really not saying that cultural rudeness is solely responsible for mass shootings. I am saying that cultural crassness and rudeness slowly deteriorates our collective mental health, which leads to greater incidences of rage and emotional/physical violence. By tolerating and participating in our societal anger, we are making our country mentally unstable.
I don’t expect this article to change our world, but I do want to offer you ideas on how you personally can change your part in it. First, I would encourage you to learn from Samaritan’s incredible therapists and coaches. Every single day we see clients who are struggling. Some are easy to like, others can be prickly and difficult. It doesn’t matter what they’re like, our therapists and coaches look for what’s best in them. Like the biblical Samaritan, we see them as people who are struggling and need compassionate companions committed to helping them heal and grow. This is a lesson for us. Even with those who are difficult, strive to see what’s good and find ways to respond to them with kindness. Don’t give in to our cultural crassness and rudeness because it will never improve things. If it did our therapists would spend all day yelling at and insulting our clients.
Second, adopt a perspective of respect, even in, or perhaps especially in, conflicted situations. Stop tuning into and imitating social media, cable news, talk radio, and political posturing. Consider adopting what I call the Platinum Rule (the Golden Rule one step further). Don’t just treat others how we want to be treated. Treat them better. Respond to rudeness with respect, crassness with kindness. I’ve had two significant experiences with how effective this can be.
For about ten years I wrote periodic op-ed pieces for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After one I received a blistering email criticizing everything from how terrible I must be as a pastor misleading a congregation to how awful I am as a person because of my beliefs. I wrote back a very respectful email positively commenting on his passion, summarizing his views, and asking him to simply consider my perspective born out of my experiences. He wrote a heart-felt apology and said something to the effect of, “When I wrote that it never really occurred to me that you were a real person with real feelings.”
Last year I received an angry email responding to an op-ed from 8 years earlier, saying “I hope you’ve evolved from your stupid opinion from 8 years ago.” Again, I responded respectfully and compassionately, stating how I understood his point of view and just had a different perspective. He not only apologized, but it led to a series of emails back and forth as he asked me to help him discern what to do about moving his family to take a new job in a new city, and how to be the father of a toddler.
Finally, respond to conflict to collaboration. Look for commonality in disagreement rather than differences. I’ve always found that when we do this, we can transform conflict into collaboration that leads to greater creativity and community.
I wish we all had the power to change our world into one that nurtures mental health. We don’t. But we can change our part of the world and nurture better health in the people we know.
Blessings to all.