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Understanding is more helpful than fear

Rev. James Hopkins

December 5, 2018

The headline of the Associated Press article was terse, “Shooting suspect was twice hospitalized for mental illness.” The first sentence of the article read, “The suspect in a deadly shooting at a Florida video game tournament had previously been hospitalized for mental illness, according to court records in his home state of Maryland, reviewed by the Associated Press. The third paragraph of the article noted that the suspect “was twice hospitalized as an adolescent in psychiatric facilities and was prescribed antipsychotic and antidepressant medications.”

How is a person, a person of faith, a faith leader, to respond to information like this? Are we to understand that mental illness and acts of violence are uniquely linked? Are we to infer that persons with mental illness are inherently dangerous and need to be subjects of increased scrutiny? Are we to assume that the mental health professionals that worked with the suspect failed to help him? Are we to deduce that the mental health systems of his city, county and state were inadequate? Are we to reach the conclusion that his family failed a desperate member? Are we to opine that “If he had only known Jesus” this all could have been prevented?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are questions that merit our consideration for they are questions that reflect the fear, the confusion, the stereotyping, the othering and the struggle that go with the realities of mental illness and the care of mental illness in our society.

There are a few things we know:

  • In our families, in our churches, and in our wider communities it is still difficult to talk about mental illness. (Many have noted that a report of a broken leg is likely to result in a kind card and the delivery of a plate of cookies, while the report of mental illness results in an awkward silence and hurried end to the conversation.)
  • In most communities, systems of mental health care are underfunded, understaffed and underappreciated. Not all medical insurance plans make adequate provision for mental health.
  • Persons in need of mental health care often do not seek it because of expense, stigma and accessibility.
  • Persons who are mentally ill often feel like they are unwelcome and alone.
  • Persons who are mentally ill are more likely to harm themselves than they are to harm others.
  • Families with members who are mentally ill often do not know how to care for and support them. They report not knowing what to say and feeling like they are “living on pins and needles.”
  • Faith communities, even those committed to the inclusion of all, do not know how to respond in healthy and helpful ways to the mentally ill in their midst. They want to be welcoming but some behaviors that arise from mental illness are very difficult to deal with.
  • A strong faith is not an antidote to mental illness. People can be devoted followers of Jesus and still be mentally ill.

There is, however, a difference between knowing these things and knowing what to do with them. There are times when all we can do is acknowledge our insufficiency. Yet, there are times when we can take some positive action.

For instance, while acknowledging that we are not mental health professionals, rare are the occasions when it is not helpful to ask someone “How are things going?” or “How are you doing?” Rare are the occasions when the invitation to “Tell me a little bit about what you are going through” is inappropriate. Rare is the instance when the acknowledgment “That must be very hard” is not fitting.

Further, we do not need to feel like we are the only ones ever to struggle with our response to mental illness and turmoil. The Bible contains several examples of this struggle. When King Saul was “tormented by an evil spirit” his advisers called on David to play his harp (music can be excellent therapy) for the troubled king, with the result that Saul “would be relieved and feel better.” (I Samuel 16:14-23 NRSV) The people of Gerasa did not know what to do with their neighbor who had “an unclean spirit.” It seems that they had tried restraining him and exiling him from the community but “he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Mark 5:1-10 NRSV) When Jesus was in extreme distress on the night before his crucifixion, telling his disciples that he was “deeply grieved, even to death,” they simply fell asleep. (Mark 14:32-42 NRSV)

We do well to educate ourselves on the contours of mental illness, as well as the resources available in our communities, so that we can be empathetic, supportive and, as appropriate, insightful. Mental illness can be terribly isolating. Yet, even when expertise is lacking, we can communicate the messages “You are not alone’ and “We are seeking understanding.”

We can take the take the presence of mental illness and the mentally ill in our families and communities to heart without surrendering to despair. We can be aware without living with perpetual suspicion. We can incarnate understanding rather than perpetuating fear.

Finally, we can remind ourselves that while there are times people who are mentally ill do terrible things, there are also times when people who are not mentally ill do terrible things. We can take the take the presence of mental illness and the mentally ill in our families and communities to heart without surrendering to despair. We can be aware without living with perpetual suspicion. We can incarnate understanding rather than perpetuating fear. As is the case in so many situations, the call on the faithful is to let love grow in the places fear wants to take root.

May you be able to receive the fruits of suffering.


May memory bless and protect you

With the hard-earned light of past travail;

To remind you that you have survived before

And though the darkness now is deep,

You will soon see approaching light.


May the grace of time heal your wounds.


(From, “For Suffering,” from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, John O’Donohue. New York: Doubleday, 2008.  Page 124)

The Rev. James Hopkins is pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, Oakland, California.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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