Can We Afford Not to Care for Each Other?

The political chaos and threats in our country today are reminding us we must begin to wake up, and renew and change our country for the better. We must face our reality.

The following article is from my book Students Under Siege. You can read or listen to the rest of the book here. Invite your discussion group to join as a community in focusing on the “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” in the back of the book. Please let us know how these discussions go. Thank you!

We Have Another Serious Problem, We Are Afraid of Facing Real Life

It is incredible how deaf, dumb, and blind we are to nonphysical pain. If you break a leg, have cancer, the flu, or some other disease, people sympathize and want to help you. They show you respect. If you are in an area where a hurricane has trashed everything, people rush in with boats, food, shelter, and all sorts of help. But if you are paralyzed with despair, scared to get out of bed, can’t see a reason for living, have lost hope, or are just sinking into a swamp of bitterness and misery, it almost seems like no one can help you—or in fact really wants to try to help you. Plus, our addiction to positive thinking enables our denial of the psychological suffering around us, as well as our view of it as a personal, embarrassing, and humiliating failure.

In 1989, when my wife and I arrived in Asheville, North Carolina, we found a very active state mental health system. The offices in Asheville were welcoming and well staffed by psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and supporting staff. Counseling and therapy were available for adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children on a sliding scale depending upon income. This system was supported by two private psychiatric hospitals in the city, two solid addiction treatment programs, and a supporting network of private practitioners. My wife and I were glad to join this climate of professionalism and caring.

By the year 2000, all these facilities were gone—the state facilities, the psychiatric hospitals, the addiction treatment programs, and many of the supporting professionals. What happened to these programs fills me with a cold rage—a rage that eliminates my detachment and any chance of forgiveness. Where did they go, you might wonder? The answer is that “managed care” came on the scene. Under the rubric of cutting medical costs and delivering “better care,” the true focus was on increasing profits.

Too many people have bought the illusion that therapy or counseling shows weakness and that all it consists of is vomiting one’s feelings.

These are very destructive fictions. These former facilities had the purpose of helping people to build a foundation for living productively and responsibly, to build skills to break out of loneliness—which our research shows kills us. Our mental health systems were meant to help us find hope, direction, and the capacity to love, and to make a contribution to society. They were meant to express our caring for each other and our compassion for the truly mentally ill so they could live in dignity and their families could live securely.

The reality was this. If some man or woman was drowning in despair, anger, or confusion, if some teenage boy or girl was struggling to stay afloat, if some couple or family was caught in the riptides of modern life, if someone was caught in a hurricane of addictions, there was a safe harbor—a place to find care and support. Such a harbor gives support to the whole community. It gives parents, teachers, ministers, and even the police a feeling of security that facilitates empathy, caring for each other, and civility. It does so because we know our backs are covered if we pay attention, listen to each other, and get involved.

In a recent book, Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, the author Alisa Roth points out that more than half the prisoners incarcerated in America suffer from some kind of mental illness (New York Times 5/27/18, p.11, BR). One study reports that 75 percent of all women in jail are mentally ill. For God’s sake, this isn’t rocket science. We have a clear need for community mental health systems, hospitals, therapeutic communities, farmsteads, and recovery campus settings. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Are we becoming as blind to what’s happening to some of our fellow citizens as the Germans were in the 1930s? We are treating each other in incredibly cruel ways. Surely we can’t think this is acceptable in our country, the richest country in the world.

Take it from me—I know—I am a mental health expert. I have been in practice for over forty years. The fact that some of these shooters have seen several counselors or therapists does not mean that we have a mental health system or that these people couldn’t have been helped. I did an internship on an inpatient adolescent unit in a state hospital in 1974. That unit did a good job of combining healing therapy with structured learning theory to help adolescents find themselves and the skills they needed for living responsibly. That institution, which was also a teaching hospital for Emory University, is now gone and nothing has replaced it, that is, except a new and bigger jail.

In my heart I know that the children who were murdered are children of God. The students who were traumatized are children of God, and in my heart I know the shooter in Parkland, Nicolas Cruz, is also a child of God. We have failed them all.

In the dark early hours after midnight, when I am lying awake, I have to ask myself: How can we spend over $68 billion on an endless war and can’t support the needs of hearts breaking all around us?

We can do better than this, and once we have the courage to open our eyes, we are morally bound to.

art credit: The Lonely Ones, Edvard Munch

Categories: Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris, Book Excerpts and Resources
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