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A friend of mine read an article in Macleans Magazine recently, titled:  “Why so many of our best and brightest students report feeling hopeless, depressed, even suicidal.”  You can read it here

It made her wonder how we tend to present the Faith to others.  She suggested there seems to be a disconnect between what people think and feel that they need and what we think they need, and she asked:  what tools/methods/approaches (in addition to our core activities) do we need to develop to help bridge the two?

I wondered if she was asking the right question.

I’m not sure that we can teach something we don’t know ourselves.  I believe that many people inside our Bahá’í communities are broken and hurting, and we don’t know how to help them, perhaps because many of us are broken and hurting ourselves!

The Bahá’í Association of Mental Health Professionals in their Position Paper on Mental Health  suggests that human mental health is at risk when love and justice are absent.  With the prevalence of abuse, violence and marital breakdown affecting one-third of the population, you can be sure that love and justice are absent.

It’s been my observation that we’re not very good at showing love in our Bahá’í communities, and as a result, many Bahá’ís have become inactive.

It is very discouraging to find inactive and unresponsive believers; on the other hand we must always realize that some souls . . . need encouragement, the love of their fellow Bahá’ís and assistance. To blame them for not doing more for the Cause is useless, and they may actually have a very firm belief in Bahá’u’lláh which with care could be fanned into flame.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 84)

I think we have a tendency to leave them alone instead of taking the time and care to shower them with love and fan their belief into the flame of action.

Barbara McLellan, in her excellent article on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder asks these poignant and pointed questions:

  • Is there a place in the Bahá’í community for people who have experienced great trauma?
  • If a person’s view of the world is one of extreme pessimism, does that person have a real place in community, or must they hide what they know to be true?
  • How do we as a community respond to the sufferings of others?
  • How do we help people make sense of their suffering?

She suggests:

We have all had the experience of being with someone who sounds like a broken record. All they can talk about is this terrible thing that happened and we can’t seem to get them off the subject. We can’t seem to get them to look at the bright side of life. These people are so negative we say. We should start to avoid them and let them get on with their own lives.

This is a very predictable pattern for human beings. At first we will reassure and offer cheering homilies. But the person keeps on talking; in fact feels driven to a howling, self-centered outrage that exactly corresponds in ferocity to the pain and terror of the trauma itself.  So we, the community begin to give subtle warnings, but the person who experienced the trauma cannot take heed. The ultimate trump card is shame. Only shame is powerful enough to squelch the victim’s desperate need to be heard. The shamed person feels both exposed and condemned, uncovered and seen through – in a sense, flayed by the community’s disgust and contempt.  Shame causes the private self to retreat into numbness, to repress feelings and dampen personal engagement with others.

Turning to the issue of justice, anyone dealing with the court system for anything from divorce to insurance settlements to victims of crimes and everything in between will tell you there is no justice, and this sense of anger and powerlessness shuts people down and makes them not want to participate, particularly when other Bahá’ís do not want to hear them talk about their frustration with corrupt and unjust systems.

Now you might be saying to yourself, how very cruel of community to silence these people who have suffered so much. But the other side of the coin is this reality: To discuss in public the lasting effects of trauma would defy the assumption of acceptable, safe relations between consenting citizens of a decent society. Basically, the victim who will not remain silent is challenging society’s vision of itself, bearing witness to uncomfortable moral truths and demanding from everyone … a kind of moral accounting: ‘And where do you stand’, the victim asks ‘not on abstract issues of truth and justice, but on this war and this violence and this brutality, this terrible thing that happens every day in our world, yours as well as mine?’”  (Barbara McLellan)

The Guardian told us that when we learn to be more loving inside our communities, we’ll attract more people.

The Bahá’ís will never succeed in attracting large numbers to the Faith until they see in our individual and community life acts, and the atmosphere, that bespeak the love of God.  (Shoghi Effendi, Promoting Entry by Troops, p. 3)

He longs to see a greater degree of unity and love among the believers, for these are the spirit which must animate their Community life.  Until the people of the world see a shining example set by us they will not embrace the Cause in masses, because they require to see the teachings demonstrated in a pattern of action.  (Shoghi Effendi, Promoting Entry by Troops, p. 3)

But we didn’t listen, so the House of Justice had to remind us again:

As the beloved Guardian’s secretary wrote on his behalf to an individual believer on 25 October 1949: “Without the spirit of real love for Bahá’u’lláh, for His Faith and its Institutions, and the believers for each other, the Cause can never really bring in large numbers of people. For it is not preaching and rules the world wants, but love and action.”  (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)

Regarding the matter … and the inharmony that seems to exist among certain of the friends … When Bahá’ís permit the dark forces of the world to enter into their own relationships within the Faith they gravely jeopardize its progress; it is the paramount duty of the believers, the Local Assemblies, and particularly the N.S.A. to foster harmony, understanding and love amongst the friends. All should be ready and willing to set aside every personal sense of grievance — justified or unjustified — for the good of the Cause, because the people will never embrace it until they see in its Community life mirrored what is so conspicuously lacking in the world; love and unity.”  (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 165)

The Bahá’í Association of Mental Health Professionals  have said that while some mental illnesses have a genetic and biological basis, it is well-known that the following situations compromise mental health:

  • prolonged and severe stress
  • violence, trauma, and abuse
  • addictions and substance abuse
  • poverty
  • family dissolution
  • inequality between women and men
  • racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice
  • internalized oppression
  • inadequate education
  • materialism and its preoccupation with the acquisition of power, wealth, and celebrity
  • inter-group conflict
  • absence of moral leadership

Whose lives haven’t been affected by one or more of these?

They go on to say:

The absence of moral leadership has left an entire generation without direction, and the children of today are increasingly abandoned to the seduction of those whose economic enrichment depends upon the continuous creation of dissatisfaction and insatiable desire.  As a consequence of global market forces, children are at greater risk for depression, social anxiety, suicide, substance abuse and sexually transmitted disease than at any time in history.

The House of Justice recently said something similar:

What needs to be appreciated in this respect is the extent to which young minds are affected by the choices parents make for their own lives, when, no matter how unintentionally, no matter how innocently, such choices condone the passions of the world—its admiration for power, its adoration of status, its love of luxuries, its attachment to frivolous pursuits, its glorification of violence, and its obsession with self-gratification.  (Universal House of Justice, to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, 28 Dec. 2010)

As Bahá’ís, we’re not immune to any of this.  Many of us either participate or are victims of any number of these factors.  It’s been suggested that there may be greater numbers of people with mental health issues inside the Faith, because they are attracted by the teachings and are hopeful that the solutions lie therein.

In the absence of clergy, or a supportive, loving, caring Bahá’í community, many Bahá’ís turn to therapy to find solutions, not knowing how to apply the Writings to their lives.

The Bahá’í Association of Mental Health Professionals shows how injustice is built into the therapeutic system:

It is increasingly clear that there will never be enough clinicians to treat the growing numbers of anxious and depressed people.  The cost of treatment is escalating, leading to the creation of a two-tier health system in which only the prosperous receive treatment, and efforts to reduce health care costs lead to the rationing of treatment and an increasing reliance upon medication. Clinicians are increasingly pressured to see clients not as unique individuals, but as walking diagnostic entities. Providers of care face an increasing risk of burnout.

I’d like to conclude with a quote from Barbara McLellan:

If we have people in the Baha’i community who have terrible stories to tell and they have no one who will listen to them, how then will we become true community?

How will we be enriched by their courage and their will to live in the face of denial, if we do not hear their stories?

And a quote from the Bahá’í Association of Mental Health Professionals:

Two of the most fundamental human needs are the need for love and justice.  Love draws forth from each of us those qualities of character – compassion, trustworthiness, fair-mindedness, generosity, courage – which make for a meaningful life and empower us to contribute to the emergence of peaceful societies.  Justice involves the wisdom to apply this force of love strategically – using the tools of reward and punishment in harmony with that kind of moral education which refines the heart’s attraction to excellence of character and service.

That so many human beings are deprived of these essential prerequisites for healthy development and thus fail to manifest noble human capacities is one of the great tragedies of our age.


For more stories on this topic, please see:

Mental Illness – a Bahá’í Perspective

Does Becoming a Bahá’í Make People Crazy?

What are your thoughts about love and justice as a per-requisite to mental health?  Post your comments here!