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Newtown tragedy sparks mental illness debate

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Flowers, candles and stuffed animals are seen at a makeshift memorial in Newtown, Connecticut December 17, 2012 (Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer)

As families continue to bury their first-graders in Newtown, our nation is engaged in the most passionate discussion about mental illness I can remember.  What are we learning?

Psychologists say that school shooters generally have a history of antisocial-personality traits, suffer from mental illnesses such as depression or psychosis, and tend to obsess about how others have wronged them.  Often there is no obvious connection between the shooter and the victims.  As one expert says, “these perpetrators have lashed out against society in the most vicious way possible, inflicting the most pain they could.  That is the point of targeting a school.”

A writer named Liza Long responded to the Newtown tragedy with a blog that has gone viral: “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” She describes her 13-year-old son, a gifted student who has been treated for a variety of mental disorders and threatens his family regularly.  In her experience, society offers little help for such people unless they are charged with a crime.  She cites studies reporting that the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006.

As we add Adam Lanza’s name to an ever-growing roster of mass murderers who suffered from mental disorders, let’s add another voice to the discussion: What does God’s word say to the subject of mental illness?

First, all sickness is the result of the Fall.  In the Garden of Eden there was no disease or suffering.  But when humans chose to sin, all of creation was afflicted as a result (Romans 8:22).  Mental illness was not part of God’s plan for his creation, but is one of the symptoms of our fallen world.

Second, our Father loves each of us and hurts as we hurt.  Speaking of God’s concern for Israel’s suffering, the prophet noted that “in all their distress he too was distressed” (Isaiah 63:9).  In a culture that so often ignores the suffering, he feels what we feel (Hebrews 4:15) and grieves for our pain.

Third, God wants us to share his compassion for those in need.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, states cut $1.8 billion from their mental health budgets during the recession.  The “Fiscal Cliff” would cut funding even further.  While our society has not given mental illness the attention or finances it needs, our Lord calls us to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  There is much that only professionals can do (www.nami.org is a good resource), but there is much that any concerned Christian can do as well.

We know that one day “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).  Until that day, God’s people are called to be instruments of his grace.  What hurting person will see his love in yours today?