Mental Health is a Spiritual and Religious Issue

More than a week after the Tucson shootings, it seems increasingly uncertain that the bloodshed will yield any kind of a turnaround in American life or public policy.

The people of Tucson are trying to build from tragedy the beginnings of a “civil discourse movement,” even as the “job-killing” health care repeal act makes its way to Congress and Sarah Palin cries “blood libel” rather than demonstrate the humility and capacity for self-examination that is a requisite of true leadership. Stricter gun control regulations? Slim chance. Improved mental health services? An impossibility in cash-strapped states like Arizona.

I’m sort of ashamed to admit it now, but in the first hours after the shooting, I went to the internet—then awash in conflicting reports about the fate of Gabrielle Giffords—with one question in mind: was the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, a Mormon like me? In Arizona, where 6% of the population is LDS, it certainly seemed a possibility, even more so given the rumors that his rampage was fueled by anti-government sentiment tinged with Skousen-Beck flavor.

But upon reviewing his biography and YouTube videos I found no hints of LDS affiliation. Nor did it seem that the attack happened primarily for political motives.

No, it seemed clear to me that Loughner was mentally ill.

And that’s when my heart fell.

Since then, even as the dead have been buried and Gabrielle Giffords has made her remarkable recovery, I’ve been thinking about Jared Lee Loughner, reading about his descent as a young adult into what some experts have identified as paranoid schizophrenia. And I’ve been thinking about those New Testament scriptures where Jesus casts devils out of lunatics.

Which leads me to this: Mental health is a profound spiritual issue, just as appropriate and accessible health care for all forms of illness is a religious one. 

One in five families in this country face mental illness. Not only are resources for addressing mental health issues drastically limited in this country, but an incredible stigma surrounds its diagnosis and treatment. (God bless NBA player Ron Artest for doing his best to combat it.)

From the time I was a little girl well into my young adulthood, I had serious bouts with depression: even at ten years old, I was so sad, I wanted to die. I did not know how to talk about being so sad—few children do. But my faith gave me a great deal of comfort, and somehow I kept on moving until I came to a place in my life where I was able to get the help I needed.

None of the major public institutions he passed through—schools, the military, the legal system—managed to help Jared Loughner. Depression and paranoid schizophrenia are different struggles; Jared Loughner has dealt with a much more grievous form of illness than I ever did. But, God, I wish Jared Lee Loughner had something to comfort him, something to calm him, something to carry him through.

For me, the Tuscon shootings finally offer this message: we are so vulnerable, each of us, to illness, and we are so vulnerable to one another.

As a progressive person of faith, I’d like to see affordable and accessible mental health care for all Americans. I’d like to see mental illness sufferers and survivors treated with greater dignity and understanding. If our public institutions and our society fail to do better, faith may be among the only resources we have to deal with our vulnerability.