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the-real-problem-in-america2Like most other Americans, I was heartbroken upon hearing the news of the elementary school shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Words cannot begin to describe how I was affected. My response, like so many others, involved lots of prayer and lots of tears. The lives of 26 people — 27, if you include the gunman’s mother — were snuffed out in an act that can only be classified as an expression of pure evil.

Within minutes of this news, the stage was set for a national conversation about gun control. This was particularly troubling for me, since we were still getting conflicting and confusing reports from the scene of the carnage. For years politicians have looked for any opportunity to advance their agendas, and this incident would be no exception. An Administration known for its ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ mentality would be sure to lead the charge.

For me, the issue is not all about guns. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s mostly not about guns. After all, the information we’ve seen shows that the guns used were legally purchased and registered to the shooter’s mother — this, in a state that has some of the toughest firearms restrictions in the nation.

I don’t hunt animals — unless you count my camera habit — and I’m not what you would describe as a gun enthusiast, but I do believe in the Second Amendment — the right to keep and bear arms, to defend our homes, our families, and ourselves in the face of life-threatening danger. I’ve received some negative feedback in social media from some who don’t take kindly to my more measured approach to this discussion. You see, I have great concern anytime knee-jerk reactions are hailed as thoughtful responses. In my experience, rarely does such reflexive movement ever accomplish anything helpful. A government that would seek a swift legislative response is extremely troubling to me. That’s like sticking a dry bandage on a nasty and infected wound. The solution just isn’t that simple.

Which brings me to the issue of mental health.

Yes, the other part of the Newtown equation has to do with mental healthcare in the United States. There has been a lot of talk about proper screening of people — particularly those who would seek to purchase firearms. And there has been much bickering about the lack of access much of our population has — for one reason or another — to professional mental health resources. Having lived in several rural areas, I can attest to the fact that solid mental health services are not easy to find.

But that’s also not the main problem. The problem no one seems to be talking about is the fact that the mental health issues that are driving our ongoing problems are not as easily explained as an individualized approach. As a licensed mental health professional, I have diagnosed the problem. And it required me to take a giant step back and look at the big picture of mental health in this country. I believe our biggest hindrance is the collective mental and spiritual health of our nation as a whole. And it’s a primary diagnosis for which there is no clear-cut treatment — and definitely no cure.

There are several key factors that drive the frailty of our nation’s mental and spiritual health. I’ll attempt to categorize them for ease of reading.

1. A Failing Economy

The media seems hell-bent on sticking to their story that our economy is improving, but the facts simply don’t support that prognostication. Our nation has been in an economic slide for a number of years now. I lost my job after the market downturn in 2008, so this economy has affected me and my family in a very personal way. Economic recessions and depressions bring with them a barrage of unwelcome consequences, including unemployment, home foreclosures, and paycheck-to-paycheck living. In that scenario, just one personal crisis could result in disaster. Many families in our nation are just one crisis away from homelessness and hunger. Many others have already fallen below the poverty line and have little hope of things getting better.

For those who have managed to keep their jobs — and some form of healthcare coverage — many are on psychotropic medications, including antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs (which ironically is about as likely to be a symptom as a cause of an increasingly violent culture). And many who don’t have healthcare find peace in similar but different ways through substances, sex, etc., which often lead to crippling addictions that further exacerbate the problems. Like it or not, drugs, whether prescription or illegal, alter brain chemistry.

These factors contribute significantly to our increase in self-harm behaviors, including suicide attempts — and ‘successful’ suicides — across all demographics. And those in our military are unfortunately leading the way.

2. A Negative Media Culture

Americans are fed a steady diet of 24/7 negativity via cable news channels, talk radio, the internet, and smart phones. The broadcast reports, interviews, and discussions are filled with excessive hyperbole from both the ideological right and left. And sadly, two things are driving the negativity: (1) top-level bigwigs who have a political agenda to push, and (2) ratings — which yield revenue, so that the bigwigs and their underlings don’t have to worry too much about joining the ranks of the unemployed. Folks, as a former journalism major and lover of all things news-related, I can tell you that journalism in our country is dead. Our media and our political system are controlled by corporate interests. Right, left, Republican, Democrat — it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the money.

In our climate of instant information — and frequently misinformation (consider the first 12-24 hours after the Newtown shooting, for example) — it’s way too easy to get confused. And confusion is a breeding ground for anxiety. Headlines heralded as ‘breaking news’ increasingly come through tweets and re-tweets from ‘underground’ or alternative news sites such as Drudge Report, World Net Daily, and Before It’s News. (If you’re not familiar with these sites, you can search them on your own. I won’t do them the service of providing a link.)

Add to that the endless online clutter of Facebook updates and blogs from anyone who has internet access and can string a few words together — educated, informed, or not. And unfortunately, it’s the seeming ‘freaks’ among us who get the largest platforms from which to display their thought processes for the world to see. Whether it’s the folks over at the Economic Collapse blog or the survivalist ‘preppers,’ there is no shortage of extremism.

3. A Shrinking World

No, the physical size of the world isn’t shrinking. At least I don’t think so. However, as society marches on, technology and its vulnerabilities create a sense of psychological claustrophobia. We are the most monitored society ever. With red light cameras, computer spyware, drones, and hugely invasive security procedures, our privacy is hopelessly compromised.

It’s no wonder that distrust of government is at an all-time high. And our country is more divided than at any time since the Civil War. That’s sad enough to think about, but because of our increasingly mobile society, there are no geographical lines to bond us or protect us. Any future civil war will literally be neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. I don’t want to think about that too deeply, or I too will become depressed.

4. A Chronic Watchfulness

We are constantly being told to be aware of our surroundings, to pay attention and look out for anything that could be potentially harmful. The list is mind-boggling. Intruders (home, school, and business), food and drug tampering, would-be terrorists, and phone/financial scammers and computer hackers top the list. Then there are the other things we hear about all throughout the year: extreme weather events, solar storms, the fragile power grid, the vulnerable food supply, the crumbling infrastructure (particularly roads and bridges).

Of course, the whole issue of decreasing freedom is always being touted. If I had a dollar for every petition I’ve been asked to sign, every politically-charged email forward I’ve received, and every politician I’ve been told to contact, then I could retire in style. If it’s not Hillary’s secret signing of the UN’s gun treaty or the President’s desire to dissolve America’s sovereignty, then it’s Glenn Beck’s FEMA concentration camps, the annual meeting of the Bilderberg Group, and the coming New World Order. I’m telling you the truth when I say that I just can’t even keep up with it all. I do have a very full-time job, you know. And depending on who you talk to, the lines between legitimate news and conspiracy theories are increasingly blurry.

I suppose we all have days when we wonder if the preppers are right. The reality is that there’s no way to know for sure about most of these things, which just underscores our near-complete lack of control.

5. A Slipping Support System

As the sacred bonds of marriage hold less value, and America openly embraces the anything-goes mentality, our support system will continue to crumble. We’ve come a long way from the days when families ate nearly every meal together — and almost never ate out. Today’s fast pace means that inhaling a McDonald’s burger in three minutes en route to a soccer game now counts as quality family time in the minds of many. And our cocooning behavior — in conjunction with our automatic indoor lighting systems — means no one ever really knows for sure if anybody’s home. Or cares, for that matter.

With the family in such a terrible shape, it’s easy to understand why people are checking out of church in droves. The church was the second institution created by God, and it was created in large part to support his first established institution, the family. It’s not just our government and our schools that have kicked God to the curb. It’s the millions of families who have fallen away from their faith. Many people, though unchurched or de-churched, still describe themselves as being spiritual, but we need one another to bear each other’s burdens.

Those who think Americans don’t have idols don’t fully understand how much people invest in sports and recreation. As a pastor I’ve long questioned how the same people who will sit in a cold rain for an outdoor ballgame will skip church if it starts to sprinkle. And as a courtesy to my international readers, I can tell you that most American churches are indoors.

Without the strong connections of family and faith, we all risk becoming even more isolated and left to stew about those things we find unsettling, disturbing, and worrisome.


Lack of Control

All these things I’ve mentioned feed what we already know to be true at some level — that there are precious few things in life over which we exercise complete control. We have less control over our personal lives, our professional careers, and our political system. One thing I know both from clinical practice and personal experience: lack of control increases anxiety and depression which leads to so many other issues, many of which have been described in this post.

Our loss of relationships has led us to engage in self-centered, mind-numbing strategies to self-medicate. In my opinion, one of the most dangerous factors in our culture today is violent video games. Not only does repeated exposure to these games rewire the brain to objectify fellow human beings, they also give the player a false sense of power and control that when extracted from the intended setting to the real world can become deadly. I’d personally be more inclined to ban violent video games than guns.

Sure, some psychologically challenged individuals seek to regain control through gun violence. While I don’t doubt that we can do a better job of screening people who wish to purchase guns, that screening will never prevent someone from stealing the guns from another. And someone who has decided to end his or her life has nothing to lose by doing so.

My concern is that the only way to completely end gun violence is by confiscating and destroying all guns, which would only increase the anxiety of those who fear the government. And I don’t think that would go very smoothly. Think about it. Right or wrong, guns are part of American culture. And the vast majority of those gun owners are respectful and law abiding citizens. They’re the ones who are not shooting up schools, malls, and other public places. As long as firearms are part of our landscape, then would-be criminals will have access to them, if only by theft. And all the legislation in the world will not make these people suddenly decide to respect the law. By definition, criminals break laws. Why would we ever think new laws regarding firearms would suddenly get them to change their behavior?

The talking heads are correct when they describe our problems as complex. They are indeed complex, compounding, and extremely complicated. The solution lies not squarely in gun control or availability of mental health services. The solution will be found when we take the time to know one another, to love and help one another, and to rebuild bridges of trust.

From my vantage point the only thing that will turn the tide of anxiety and violence in our nation is a return to basic respect for one another, as indicated by the ability to sustain meaningful dialogue about emotionally-charged issues. Can we come together without another senseless, gut-wrenching tragedy? A quick survey of TV news and social media feeds shows that we have a long way to go.

My worldview dictates that I must learn to love God effectively before I can love others effectively. Our nation’s only hope is a return to God through prayer and genuine repentance. Yes, our problems are great, but our God is greater.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. – 2 Chronicles 7:14, ESV

Share your thoughts on this emotional and controversial subject. Be respectful!

I spent this past Friday night and Saturday in Mississippi with my family. It was just the kids and me this time, since Michelle had a women’s ministry meeting scheduled. On Saturday we got up early and spent most of the morning fishing with my brother and his wife. The kids had a ball!

As we made our way back to Little Rock on Saturday evening, I received a phone call from my dad to let me know that an uncle (my mom’s sister’s husband) had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. As I processed this new information, I couldn’t help but think about how significant his injuries must be to warrant flying him by helicopter to the hospital in Tupelo and from there to the trauma center in Memphis.

After dropping off the kids at the house, I showered and shaved, refreshed my overnight bag, and headed out to be with my aunt and her sons. Spending time with family in the hospital provides a different perspective. It’s important to identify lessons from our life experiences. Here are a few of the ones I’ve been reminded of over the past few days:

1. Life is unpredictable. We never know what each day will bring. We are not in control; God is. Lives can be forever changed in one moment’s time. James 4:14 says, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (ESV)

2. God is always present. Even during times that are dark, when we feel all alone, there’s no place we can go to escape His presence. Psalm 46:1 says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (ESV) I really like the way the New International Reader’s Version puts it: “God is our place of safety. He gives us strength. He is always there to help us in times of trouble.”

3. Storms of life provide a new perspective. Isn’t it funny how the little things that trouble us each day seem so incredibly insignificant when a major trial comes our way? People of every nation, race, background, and religion status experience very real problems from time to time. Pain, laughter, and music are universal languages.

4. Waiting is never easy. Whether we’re waiting to hear a medical update on a loved one’s condition, waiting on test results, or waiting on God to take away the pain, fear, and anxiety, it’s always hard to wait. Anxiety builds in the absence of information. No news is not always good news. And our patience is often pushed to the breaking point.

5. True friends are always there. In times of great difficulty, I’ve been reminded over and again how many people love me, care for me, and pray for me. Even when no words can change the situation, just having friends ‘be there’ makes a world of difference.

This song reminds me to trust God even when difficulties arise. I hope it will bless your heart.

My uncle remains in very critical condition. Thank you for your prayers for my family.

What are some lessons you have learned in times of crisis?