Friday, February 16, 2018

Mass Killings, Mental Illness, Spiritual Nourishment

We are quick to suppose that perpetrators of mass shootings are “mentally ill.”  It is our go-to explanation for senseless murders such as the Columbine High School massacre (Jefferson County, Co., April 20, 1999), the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival shooting  (Las Vegas, October 1, 2017), the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attack (Parkland, Florida, February 14, 2018).

When I look for a definition of “mental illness” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition), I find in DSM-IV that “although this manual provides a classification of mental disorders, it must be admitted that no definition adequately specifies precise boundaries for the concept of ‘mental disorder’…The concept of mental disorder, like many other concepts in medicine and science, lacks a consistent operational definition that covers all situations.”

Further, “Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual...”

And further still, DSM-IV acknowledges that “in most situations, the clinical diagnosis of a DSM-IV mental disorder is not sufficient to establish the existence for legal purposes of a “mental disorder,” “mental disability,” “mental disease,” or “mental defect.”

Categorizing the behavior of mass shooters as “mentally ill” may assuage our inability to explain their deviant behavior, but in truth there may be other elements, either ignored or forgotten,  which must be considered before we can arrive at an accurate conclusion.

A diagnosis of mental illness or a mental disorder in the perpetrators of horrific crime does not necessarily preclude their ability to think or plan.

After each killing spree, we hear public officials, desperate to respond sympathetically to the tragedy and suffering, call for more money for more mental health care. Without denigrating that response or denying the need, I want simply to suggest that another response should be a call for better spiritual care as well.
There is a spiritual side to every human being, and like the physical it too needs to be nourished.

Art is one way we feed our souls. Art, whether painting, music, literature, has the ability to sensitize us to the good we should do and the evil we should avoid. Education is meant to give us knowledge not only for the head but also for the heart. Conscious awareness of nature, whether walking in the woods or gazing at the stars, can tap what President Abraham Lincoln once termed “the better angels of our nature.” 

This notion speaks to the point made more than a century ago by English art critic John Ruskin, that we should thank God for the glory of his works, that we should be reminded of  "the duty of delight."

Recall the famous quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot, when the prince (a Christ figure) says that "the world will be saved by beauty." It is necessary to stop and smell the roses.  A population that fails to sensitize its spirit in the light of goodness, beauty, and love is a population in darkness, and that darkness first harbors alienation, secondly shrieks in pain, and then strikes out in rebellion, hard-heartedness, and destruction.

You may remember the story of the boy who admitted to his grandfather that he felt there was a war going on inside him, as he struggled with temptation and rebellion. Grandfather explained that there are two wolves within us, a good one and a bad one, and throughout our lives they will fight with each another. “But,” the boy asked, “which one will win?” Grandfather smiled and replied, “The one you feed, my son, the one you feed.”

For many of us, religion is a primary source of nourishment, helping us discern what is right and good. Whether the teacher is Buddha, Ghandi or Jesus, the instruction and example of their lives arouse sympathy, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

People who kill innocent people may well have mental disorders, but I have to think that one of the antidotes to such disorders is spiritual nourishment. Exposing the troubled person to beauty, to compassion, to acceptance is surely a healing balm for those suffering from hardened hearts.

Home, school and church are avenues for awakening sensitivity and discernment in troubled souls. Perhaps each institution needs to re-think its role and meet the need.

When I checked the DSM-IV for reference to “spirituality,” the manual simply listed “Religious or Spiritual Problem,” and explained this is the category for focusing clinical attention to a religious or spiritual problem, such as distressing experiences involving loss of faith, conversion to a new faith, or questioning spiritual values.

DSM-IV gives only diagnoses. What we need is preventative medicine.

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