The Gospel Versus Statistology
An "epidemic" of mental illness exists in the United States according to a report of The Joint Commission On Mental Illness And Health. It is estimated that there may be as many as 17,500,000 Americans who have mental illnesses that should be treated. This is roughly one person in every ten. The fact of the possible high proportion of mental illnesses is alarming and calls for sober consideration. However, one of the worst possible things that can happen is for charlatans to seize upon available statistical data and begin using it as a means to gain some sectarian objective.
Hysteria is among the communicable forms of mental illness. The improper use of such statistical data as the above can very possibly result in hysteria. The seriousness of a condition of hysteria points up the danger of irresponsible mental illness "statistic rattling."
The problem of the high prevalence rate of mental illness in the United States is a matter of concern to the government. Congress, in 1955, empowered The Joint Commission On Mental Illness and Health to conduct a study of the mental health of the nation. This commission was to report its findings and make recommendations. Reports on various facets of the problem were issued in a series of six volumes. In addition to this series a final report has been issued which is called Action For Mental Health. Thus the problem is of sufficient moment to attract the attention of the Congress of the United States and to call forth intense efforts from psychiatrists, psychologists, and other groups which have a professional interest in the problem.
The Christian's Interest In The Problem
What is the Christian's interest in the problem? What place does this problem have in a journal such as this? The immediate thing which qualifies this matter for attention in the Gospel Guardian is the bad effect which the improper use, which is being made of some mental illness data, can have upon peoples' attitude toward the gospel. The duty to "contend earnestly for the faith, once for all delivered to the saints" obligates the Christian to oppose any force which hinders the gospel.
The data referred to is that prepared by a preacher who "worked with the patients" in "Tennessee's largest mental hospital." According to this data, forty-two percent of the patients were members of the church of Christ.
This data is being used in an attack which is allegedly against "authoritarianism" or "legalism." It is claimed that psychiatrists have found that "legalistic religions are extraordinarily harmful to mental health." With these brethren, "legalistic religion" is any religion which demands strict adherence to the will of God. It seems that these brethren call "authoritarianism" what some of the rest of us call "respect for divine authority" and a legalist, according to their view, is one who contends that doing the will of God is essential to spiritual well being. Webster defines "authoritarian" as "advocating the principle of obedience to authority as opposed to individual liberty." Now, if it be "authoritarian" to contend for obedience to the authority of Christ in opposition to every one's doing "that which is right in his own eyes," then give us more of it. It should be kept constantly in mind that it was the Son of God who said, "Not every one that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Fear propaganda is recognized as a highly effective weapon. This device has experienced a frightening development in our day. (Its wide use by politicians, economists, educators, doctors, parents, etc., should be "eyed" by psychiatrists as a possible causative agent in the present wave of mental illness.) Mankind has been exposed to "saber rattling," "rocket rattling," "economic threats" etc., in civil and physical affairs; now we have "statistic rattling" in spiritual affairs. Such holds no terror for those who receive the New Testament "as the word of God," but for the great multitude who are "of little faith," the effects upon their souls can be devastating. A pressing need of the hour is for men who are "not ashamed of the gospel," men who realize that it can he fully relied upon "for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
Causative Factors In Mental Illness
The data before referred to has been arbitrarily interpreted to sustain these brethren's contention that the insistence upon strict obedience to the New Testament is bad for the mental health of men. They confidently affirm that "legalistic religions are extraordinarily harmful to mental health." In striking contrast to this are the reports of psychiatrists that they do not have a generally accepted theory of the cause of mental illness! They report that there is an absence "of specific and definite scientific evidence of the causes of mental illness." This uncertainty as to the cause of mental illness, which is recognized and freely admitted by psychiatrists, rebukes these brethren's haste in expressing their conclusions.
The description and classification of mental disease has experienced great changes over the years. Even now there is not a clearly defined standard description and classification of mental disease. Symptoms are now interpreted as evidence of mental illness, which twenty-five years ago were not thought of in connection with mental illness. Some modern psychiatrists consider certain behavior as deviate while others do not consider it as evidence of mental illness. The "spread of characteristics," considered abnormal or potentially abnormal, is so wide in some cases as to cause one psychiatrist to comment, "a place would seem to exist in the case count for about every resident in the county." Among six types of mental cases described by a recognized psychiatrist, at least two would not be considered as mental illness by the average person and perhaps most psychiatrists would not regard them as sufficiently severe to justify professional treatment. A little thought will show that the standard of classification used by the particular hospital is an important factor in interpreting the statistical data in determining the rate of prevalence of disease.
Use Of Services
What is revealed in the data of forty-two percent of the patients in Tennessee's largest mental hospital being members of the church of Christ? Consider this data in connection with the fact that the better educated people are able to more readily recognize the need of treatment and thus avail themselves of the services of professional psychiatrists. Does this allow us to conclude that the members of the church of Christ in Tennessee are better educated than people of denominational groups?
The attitude of a community toward deviate behaviour, availability of facilities and trained personnel, ability to pay, personal realization of the need of treatment, etc., are all factors that determine the number of admissions to mental hospitals. The number of patients treated is only one of the factors to be considered in determining the comparative prevalence of illness.
The very "common mistake of confusing coincidental events with cause and effect" is one which makes those trained in the interpretation of data extremely wary. It is not often that professional men will jeopardize their reputations by indulging in hasty generalizations.
Consider the following data:
1. 42% of patients in a mental hospital were members of the church of Christ. This, according to a preacher's survey.
2. 42% of people seeking professional help reported that their problems centered around their marriages. This, according to the report of the commission appointed by Congress to make a study of the problem.
3. 42% of the mentally sick, who sought outside help, consulted preachers. This according to the report of the above mentioned commission.
What inferences are to be properly drawn from the fact that in each of these separate lines of inquiry, the percentage was the same? Is there any significance to be drawn from the popularity of 42%? Before some one goes off on a tangent, let me hasten to suggest that the possibility of coincidence be first considered!
Mental Illness And The District Of Columbia
Statistics reveal that in 1959 the District of Columbia had 866 mental hospital residents per 100,000 population. New Mexico had only 116 mental hospital residents per 100,000 population. In the District of Columbia there were 27.8 recognized psychiatrists to every 100,000 population, while North Dakota and Alabama had only 1.4 psychiatrists for every 100,000 population. How should these data be interpreted? What a field day irresponsible enemies of democracy could have here! I am almost afraid to quote these statistics for fear some one will conclude that there is a greater prevalence of mental illness among presidents, vice-presidents, supreme court judges, senators, representatives, etc., than among the people of Alabama and North Dakota and New Mexico.
This writer was born and reared in Alabama, which fact might account for his rejection of the conclusion that the people of the District of Columbia are better educated and thus recognize their need of treatment more readily than the people of his state. The preferred explanation is that those in the District of Columbia derive their means from the taxpayers, and thus are better "heeled" than those in Alabama, who have to work for their money, thus are able to pay for the services of psychiatrists. (Let me hasten to say that this last paragraph is intended as a joke. Incidentally, the inability to identify humor and to see humorous aspects in our experiences may be a contributing factor in the mental illness "epidemic." We might be more poised if we could laugh at ourselves occasionally.)
Confidence in the gospel of Christ prevents panicky and improper reaction to scary statistical data which some interpret in such a way as to discount the authoritative pronouncements of the gospel.
— 417 E. Groesbeck, Lufkin, Texas