The Best Response - Doing Good In The World

We are all trying to make sense of what has been a summer filled with far too many senseless acts of violence at home and abroad. We have witnessed tragedies in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas . . . and before that Orlando. And last week we learned of another horrible terrorist attack--this time in Nice--that claimed 84 lives.

There has been so much sadness lately that it hardly seemed possible to absorb any more. But as I began writing this essay on Sunday, a news alert popped up on my screen reporting that three police officers were killed, and three more injured, in a firefight in Baton Rouge.

There are unaddressed and unresolved tensions in our country that contribute to the unrest, the anger, and the strain we are seeing in many of our communities. In addition to the racial, social, and economic issues that continue to divide us, we are seeing signs that terrorists are now being "raised" here at home. The shooter in Orlando, who had a history of emotional instability, and before him the couple in San Bernardino who opened fire at the county public health department's Christmas party last December were influenced ideologically and poisoned psychologically by the extremist views of radical jihadist groups overseas that successfully use the internet to recruit and influence.

As we continue to seek answers and explanations for each individual tragedy, we must guard against becoming complacent or worse, hopeless, as a result of the cumulative impact of these disturbing events.

When individuals and communities are assaulted and traumatized, the tendency is to withdraw and shut down. When we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a challenge we are more likely to become avoidant, depressed, or resigned. While these are understandable human reactions, we mustn't allow ourselves to turn away or give up. We must draw strength from one another and remain focused on identifying solutions to the serious challenges we face as a nation and as a global society.

And there is reason to be hopeful. There is much that we can do to address disparities, encourage compassion, and build healthy communities--if we work together to harness the goodness and skills of our citizens.

Following several days of racially charged violence here at home, several of our national leaders stepped up to encourage calm and restraint. They asked us to practice tolerance, and they reminded us to listen to one another. President Obama participated in a televised town hall gathering to answer questions from those directly affected by the racial tensions apparent in our communities. The President didn't profess to have all of the answers. Instead he encouraged us to move toward each other to find solutions. He reminded us that we must stop looking to our police to solve and contain all of the issues that plague our most challenged communities.

While it is helpful to hear from our leaders during times of crisis and instability, it is also important for each of us to lead by example when and where we can. We mustn't abdicate personal responsibility or ignore the power we all have to become part of the solution that our nation needs, that our world needs. The key is to recognize what we each have to offer and identify mechanisms and channels to deliver our gifts to effect change where change is desperately needed. Over the past several weeks I have often found myself thinking of the famous inaugural address that President John F. Kennedy delivered on January 20, 1961: " . . . ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." These words have never been more important.

The issues affecting our communities are complex. There is no single approach or simple answer. But we know what healthy communities look like, and we know what the ingredients are to build them. For example, we know that emotionally healthy individuals are less likely to engage in random acts of violence and, in fact, violence of any kind. We know that emotionally healthy parents raise emotionally healthy children, who in turn are more likely to lead productive and successful lives because they are emotionally healthy. And we know that certain conditions promote--and others interfere with--the emotional well-being of a community.

And while we all have talents and gifts to contribute, some of us also have valuable skills that can be applied directly to alleviate the emotional suffering we see in our communities here at home and around the world.

Providing effective mental health care for those in need is not a panacea for what ails our nation or the world. But providing such care is a necessary step in building healthy and peaceful communities. There are many people suffering as a result of the violence and societal turmoil we see today. And our most vulnerable citizens who struggle with mental illness are at greater risk of falling through the cracks in society during times of unrest and strain. All of those who are suffering emotionally are in need and deserve our help. Those of us in the mental health field have important expertise: we can respond and we can make a difference.

Over a decade ago, I founded Give an Hour, an organization whose mission is to "harness the expertise and generosity of volunteer mental health professionals capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions that arise within our society." We began our efforts by asking mental health professionals to give an hour of their time each week to provide critical mental health care to those who serve and their families. Mental health professionals across the country responded. They are still responding. Thus far our network of nearly 7,000 has provided over 192,000 hours of free care to those who serve, our veterans, and their families.

Over the years we have developed critical partnerships with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, other nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporations--all in the service of collectively addressing the mental health needs of this deserving population. In addition to providing direct care, we have developed relationships and projects that are changing the way we think about the challenges and address the issues affecting those who serve and their families.

Lately I have been thinking about what we might be able to accomplish if we harness the skills and expertise of more of the 400,000 mental health professionals in our country--professionals who have the skills and expertise we need to address the emotional suffering affecting so many of our citizens. Clearly, we could do a lot. We could add to the available resources in communities all over the country by providing direct care, consultation, and coordination where needed.

In addition to the direct positive effect of providing more resources to communities in need, there would be indirect benefits as well. Bringing together individuals with different perspectives and different backgrounds to focus on common goals would lead to greater understanding and sensitivity between groups. And those who agree to serve would benefit as well, because we know that volunteering is as good for those who give their services as it is for those who receive care. The benefits are both personal and professional.

My daughters--now 15 and 20--have grown up in the post-9/11 world. When they were little I worried they might be overwhelmed by the pain and suffering they too frequently heard reported in the news and saw on the internet. I used to tell them that the best thing to do in the face of ugliness and brutality is to do good in the world. It seemed to help them.

I still believe in that simple idea--and I believe that we in the mental health field have important skills to offer our communities, our country, and our world during these challenging times. Our skills won't be sufficient to solve all of the issues that need to be addressed, but they don't need to be. We can do our part, and we can set an example for others to follow.