Baynard Woods tells the story of a Baltimore police officer struggling with mental illness very well here:
In a city like Baltimore, where a large number of citizens are suffering from severe and repeated trauma, often at levels higher than people returning from combat, the difficulties of dealing with an officer’s mental health issues creates a deadly combination. Traumatized officers are sent out to deal with traumatized citizens and often both sides are armed. In his book “The End of Policing,” sociology professor Alex Vitale shows that 25% of the people shot by police are suffering from mental illness.
There is a somewhat-hopeful description of the “Officer Safety and Wellness Unit” at the end that is trying to “change the culture” — but it makes me wonder about how the church serves people in particular professions like policing, medicine, and counseling that encounter humanity at its most depraved and sorrowful. On a Weyward podcast about a year ago (I can’t find the specific episode now), they had a guest who mentioned that in the early medieval church, soldiers who killed others in war were not allowed to take communion for a set period of time and then had some sort of process of restoration. I am unsure of the details (and would love more information if anyone has it), but the overall question of how to best serve those whose work requires them to deal with the darkest aspects of human behavior is one I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially in our processes of formation.
I think our knee-jerk response is often to focus on counseling — which absolutely can be helpful, don’t get me wrong — but counseling is a very particularized and individualistic response with a particular set of tools for those who acknowledge that they have a problem and need help. What I think we professional need is a more generalized, communal means — a liturgy, even! — for grieving the everyday sorrows that we encounter in our work. This sort of communal response would also, I hope, help induct trainees and students into a culture where they know they can ask for help if they need it but also to process what they are starting to experience in their day-to-day work. I’d love to hear more if anyone out there has written about this.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org