Oct 20, 2013

Christian stenographer's rant offers clues to mass violence

Last week's outburst by House of Representatives' official stenographer Dianne Reidy is a mild lesson about stress, pressure, boundary crossing and violence.
This image (c) 2013 Paul Komarek

At least one anti-government blogger is claiming that the government has declared Christianity crazy. Take a look at the commentary and video here.  I certainly don't think Christianity itself has been declared a mental illness. It was the disturbance, the ranting and disruption, more than the content of the words Mrs. Reidy said, that caused her to be ushered off stage, and referred for a check-up.

What I find interesting is the violence in this incident. Mrs. Reidy's outburst was a mild example of expressive violence, the kind of incident that happens when stress and tension is so high a person violates a conduct boundary and acts out.

This is exactly the pattern playing out in most mass-shooter cases. People under pressure become so stressed, so anxious, so pushed by the thoughts in their head, the emotions they feel, or the pain they are experiencing, they are driven to act out -- even if this violates basic rules of normal life. Once a person crosses that threshold, almost anything can happen, depending on the nature of the person's grievance or distress, and what the person is capable of doing. If the person regards himself as willing to do violence, and there is access to weapons, things can turn bad fast.

Friends, family and neighbors might see  clues about what the person is experiencing. They might be able to keep the crisis from ever happening by providing effective support, the right referral, or a healthy way of addressing the tension.

Mrs. Reidy and her family believe the outburst was the work of the Holy Spirit. They view the four weeks of sleep disturbance that preceded the incident as a period of spiritual discernment.

But what if what happened turned out to be more serious? Think about Aaron Alexis and the DC Naval Yard shootings. We can't disregard real-life trouble just because a person also has faith.

Mrs. Reidy's husband, a pastor, said that he would have tried to dissuade her. 
“If she had told me, ‘I think God wants me to get up and say something,’ I’d be the first one to say, ‘No you don’t!’” he reports.

Oct 15, 2013

The short shelf life of mental health theories

The way we think about mental health might be seriously out of date.

The author Mary Pipher notes that much of what we believe about human behavior comes from outdated theories connected with long-gone times and cultures. In her 1996 book The Shelter of Each Other, Pipher writes
Theories have zones of applicability and work best for particular places and times. Freud knew middle-class families in Vienna in the late 1800s and Perls knew German families of the 1940s and 1950s. The dysfunctional family theory worked best for the families for whom it was invented, those of longtime alcoholics. The humanists understood American families in the 1960s. Most children had two parents, one of whom was a stay-at-home mother. Parents had more control, communities existed, and families had walls. Certain kinds of therapies made sense. But psychological theories have a short shelf life. Our old ideas about how to help are useless in the face of new realities. We attempt to solve problems with theories developed for a world that no longer exists.


Many theories are as out of place and time as dinosaurs in a shopping mall. How do we discuss sexual repression in the world of MTV? How would Alice Miller handle date rape? How would Fritz Perls help a family who lost their only source of income in a corporate takeover? Each of these therapists was helpful in his or her own time. But in a war zone, it’s crazy to ask people if they were breast fed as babies or to analyze their dreams.
Pipher goes on to identify some of the weaknesses of family therapy.
Ten mistakes that therapists make.
1.    Family is the cause of all problems.
2.    Therapy has been hard on women.
3.    Therapy has pathologized ordinary human experience and taught that suffering needs to be analyzed.
4.    We have focused on weakness rather than resilience.
5.    Some of our treatments have created new problems.
6.    We have encouraged narcissism and checked basic morality at the doors of our offices.
7.    We have focused on individual salvation rather than collective well-being.
8.    We have confused ethical and mental health issues, empathy and accountability.
9.    Some therapists abuse their power.
10.    We’ve suggested that therapy is more important than real life.
The lessons for the world of mental health is that theories don't last forever, and methods don't stay mandatory. We are free to learn from what we have done in the past, and adapt to what we face today.

Photo: Harvey Washington Wiley, a food-safety crusader, at left.   (Wikimedia Commons)