It has been nearly six months now since I have been writing for "In All Things" and I want to thank the America staff for their great help and support. Very few psychologists have the opportunity to reach a such large audience, so I view this opportunity as a great gift. Responses from readers, both here on the blog and at firstname.lastname@example.org, mean a great deal to me, and I hope that my observations of mental health from a Christian perspective have been useful.
When I had the tremendous opportunity to work with Eugene Kennedy and Frank J. Kobler during my doctoral training in clinical psychology at Loyola University of Chicago, there was both a certain prestige and wariness toward the field. On the one hand, psychologists such as Kennedy and Adrian van Kaam brought high levels of energy to incorporating the freeing aspects of psychology to Catholicism. At the same time, some embraced certain psychological theories and gurus, notably Carl Rogers' "Person-Centered Therapy," that favored subjective feelings (Would life be happier with another? Well, have an affair, etc.) over a natural law developed over thousands of years. It is also a fact that many priests and nuns who attended psychological graduate programs left their vocation or married each other. Cause and effect? I am not sure, but in the 1980s church leaders saw this happening and grew suspicious of the field. A few intelligent prelates such as Cardinal John O'Connor and Bishop Howard Hubbard continued to see the good that trained therapists could bring about and supported their work.
In the 1980s the secular culture changed the face of mental health; insurance companies took on a greater role, and too many therapists, clinics, and hospital took advantage of the easily accessible reimbursement systems. This has brought about, in the 21st century, a system that strives to define specific behaviors that are "maladaptive" and to fix them as quickly as possible. These efforts, along with great advances in medication, have alleviated much suffering. Yet at the same time, the role of therapy may have become ennervated, neglecting the true quest for life's meaning and the discernment of God's call.
The great gift of psychology and psychiatry to our culture includes effective treatment for many different conditions. Due to some good government legislation, such as PL 94-142 and IDEA, many kinds of psychological treatment are now available to young people. Of the 25 or so pieces I have written, I've been especially gratified by our discussions of the tremendous problem of child abuse and neglect (apart from the priesthood), and how to strike a effective balance between punitive and therapeutic responses to youth crime. I was slightly surprised that the topics of gambling and anorexia did not draw as many readers: within the mental health field, these are life-sapping problems where clinicians are going to require greater assistance from the public to bring about further healing. Is it possible each of us brings a little bit of denial to some of the painful issues surrounding us?
While the Sermon on the Mount calls on us to meet the needs of the economically poor, I am reminded always that Jesus also calls us to meet the needs of the meek and poor in spirit--Scriptural termas that I believe encompasses people with mental illness, dementias, developmental disabilities, and autism. And in the end our response to them, our help, is just as important as offering help to the economically needy.
In this year of Newman, I have become more aware of my own interdisciplinary background (educated at DePaul and Loyola), and I am grateful for the opportunity to write within what I think is Newman's "liberal" tradition. So thanks to all for reading. I will continue to do my best in both a faithful and intellectually honest manner, qualities which I believe have defined Jesuit spirituality and education, now into their fourth century of stewardship and service, and these ideals continue to guide me.
William Van Ornum