Teaching Beyond One Specialization

It’s not an exaggeration for Dr. Craig Steven Titus to claim that it’s a small world or that God is really present to people in their everyday lives. While pursuing his Doctorate of Sacred Theology at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), he encountered the Dr. Gladys Sweeney, former dean of Divine Mercy University’s (DMU) Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS). She introduced him to the University and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. At DMU, Dr. Titus serves as professor and director for the Department of Integrative Studies. He has also written a book titled Resilience and the Virtue of Fortitude: Aquinas in Dialogue with the Psychosocial Sciences (CUA Press, 2006), edited 10 books, and published numerous articles. His commitment to research and teaching goes beyond one specialization; his expertise consists of an interdisciplinary understanding of theology, philosophy, and mental health practice. During a meeting with Dr. Titus, you will quickly learn that he’s prompt, action-oriented, and detailed, yet he’s still able to laugh. Interestingly enough, after nearly 16 years at DMU, he still considers his students as a prized asset and finds his multi-disciplinary work with colleagues to be “fascinating.” Here’s what he had to say about his work at Divine Mercy University. Q: How long have you been a faculty member at Divine Mercy University and how did you get involved? Dr. Titus: I’ve been involved in different ways since 2002, when I was first hired as assistant professor to teach the integration courses. It was the year prior to that that I came to know the university because of its first dean. Former IPS dean Gladys Sweeney came through Switzerland, in route to Rome for a conference, with some students. She had invited Fr. Servais Pinckaers to speak to the students on the theme of happiness. However, since he fell ill, he asked me to speak in his stead. At that time, I was finishing up my doctoral dissertation at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). After giving the lecture, Dean Sweeney suggested that I present my candidacy for the position at IPS that was free because Fr. Benedict Ashley was retiring. Fr. Ashley was the theologian-philosopher who first designed and taught the philosophy and theology courses that prepared for the integration of Catholic thought and the psychological sciences. My experience in dialogue between theology, philosophy, and psychosocial research on resilience and the virtue of fortitude prepared me for work at Divine Mercy University. Q: Which courses do you teach and how do they add value to the university’s overall mission? Dr. Titus: I teach classes on: philosophical and theological anthropology; practical reason and moral character; and marriage and family. The courses are formative of the clinicians’ Christian identity and understanding of the person. They engage the student’s mind and heart in wisdom from theological, philosophical, and mental health sources. These courses train the students to see the whole person, family, and society, to enrich their vocation to heal. Of course they need further integration training in the University’s clinical classes to become competent in mental health practice as a whole. The integration thread throughout all the courses promotes an understanding of the person in terms of the origins, development, and flourishing of the person—in everyday and ultimate perspectives, which include issues of human nature, relationality, and God. The students come to the university because of its commitment to the Catholic-Christian understanding of the person, family, and society. Students appreciate being taught to see more of the person, including the person’s callings to commitments and truth, to interpersonal relationships, and to a future that gives meaning to the present.   Image Caption: Dr. Craig Steven Titus, director of the Newman Lecture Series, speaks with the late Dr. Michael Novak before the 2015 lecture begins. Dr. Novak was a Roman Catholic social philosopher and a professor at Catholic University of America . The Newman Lectures feature speakers who are widely recognized for their contributions to the fields of psychology, moral and political philosophy, theology, and law. This lecture series is held under the sponsorship of Divine Mercy University and seeks to promote an international conversation among various disciplines that treat the human person. Q: Are there any particular resources used in your courses that you feel are unique from other counseling or psychology programs? Dr. Titus: One of the major differences between courses at DMU and those at a secular counseling and psychology program are the sources that underlie one’s vision of the person. A Catholic-Christian vision of the person is rooted in the sources of reason and faith that protect the psychological sciences from reductionism, that is, seeing too little of the person, family, and society. This vision of faith and theological reflection is rooted in the experience of the Word of God found in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture (the Bible)—teaching that is passed down through the succession of the apostles. This Catholic-Christian perspective is found in: the patristic reflections of the early Church writers (such as St. Augustine); the Magisterium (such as St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis), including the Councils (e.g the Second Vatican Council). It draws upon the writings of men and women, who throughout the Church and the ages have carried the message of Christ forward. Other sources of wisdom are Christian and non-Christian philosophy from Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, and so on. And of course, there are the sources wisdom from current psychological sciences, evidence-based techniques, and best practices in the mental health field. In drawing from the psychological, philosophical, and theological wisdom traditions, we are convinced that, since truth is one, there is something very important to be learned by the psychological sciences and the practice of counseling. These new sciences offer further understandings of how people can experience suffering, anxiety, and depression, and how they can find ways to come out of those difficulties using the means that are necessary and helpful – including psychotherapy, group therapy, psychopharmacology, and everyday contact with people, which also can be therapeutic. Q: What has been the most rewarding part of teaching at Divine Mercy University? Dr. Titus: Perhaps it’s the classic response, but the most rewarding part of teaching at DMU is the contact with the students. Together with the students, the instructors engage wisdom, understanding, and knowledge vital for mental health professionals. I support very strongly the unity of the human person and the importance of their experience. Even in our diversity of cultural experience, there is wisdom, there is truth. When one seeks to teach and share experience, while recognizing the dignity of each person and God’s presence in it all, it’s really an experience of learning as well as teaching. Our students are highly motivated and committed to the program. Their active participation allows me also to have feedback from them about their experiences, the reality of being a community, and their search for the truth of the person, family, and relationships. The classroom becomes a type of community of inquiry seeking together to understand more about experiences of difficulty and failure as well as of life, love, and flourishing. Q: Who has inspired you throughout your career? Dr. Titus: I have two primary mentors in my life: - Fr. Servais-Théodore Pinckaers: it’s because of him that I went to Europe to study. He was a leader in the renewal in the Catholic Church that sees morals as being rooted in the virtue of Charity-love—God’s love, a friendship love—and in the movement of the Holy Spirit. Fr. Pinckaers’ approach to moral action and spiritual life is both normative and virtue-based. He affirms the importance of acts, agents, purposes, vocations, and being open to transcendence (that is, God, including the gifts of the Holy Spirit). - And the other primary mentor is Fr. Benedict Ashley: it’s because of him that I was hired at DMU. He set up the integration program at DMU. His study of Catholic anthropology, morals, and bioethics prepared him for dialogue with the psychological sciences. In parallel, my study of resilience (psychological sciences) and the virtue of fortitude (based on the thought of Thomas Aquinas) prepared me for dialogue with the psychological sciences, drawing on the model used by Fr. Ashley. Image Caption: Book cover for Servais Pinckaers' piece on "Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology, published by Catholic University of America and edited by Dr. John Berkman and Dr. Craig Steven Titus. Q: Are you involved in any research teams or professional associations or organizations that have helped you stay current in the field? Dr. Titus: I belong to seven professional associations – including The Society of Christian Ethics and American Catholic Philosophical Association, and the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (as an academic member). I think that the best way to stay current in the fields that I am concerned with is through engagement in research and dialogue. The co-editing of and the contributions to the Catholic-Christian Meta-Model*Volume has involved extensive scholarship – the bibliography is 60 pages long. If I had taught philosophy or theology at a different university, I would have been centered within one discipline or one specialization. But, by the nature of Divine Mercy University we take a multidisciplinary approach – where philosophy and theology are required to dialogue with psychological sciences. This interdisciplinary commitment complements specialized research and prepares for integrated clinical work. To be engaged as a philosopher and theologian with psychologists, I have had to be attentive to the meanings of terms, the methods of research, and the way that truths about the person and relationships are communicated.  For example, understanding human experiences of attachment, caring, and charity-love, can be integrated by a Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the person, which includes psychological findings (e.g., through attachment theory on secure attachments), philosophical reflections (e.g., on virtues such as benevolence and friendship), and theological insights (e.g., on vocations and God’s love for every person). Such an interdisciplinary approach enriches our understanding of the person (e.g., because of the inclusion of vocations and virtues), thus benefiting the mental health field, in general, but also the client, in particular. There is great benefit when the three sources of wisdom work together for each person. *The Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the Person – presented by university faculty and other collaborators – is a forthcoming volume of research that elaborates a basic training approach for integrating a Catholic-Christian understanding of the human person, psychology and mental health practice. Download a copy of the foundational document “Psychological, Theological, and Philosophical Premises for a Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person.”

12 Grads On a Mission to Counsel the World

During this time of year--where young men and women across the nation donne their gowns and tassels with big smiles and walk before their friends and families to receive the degrees they worked so hard for over the last four years--many of those undergraduates will find themselves at a loss, unsure of what their next move is, doing things they never expected themselves to do, until they find the light that shines on the journey they’re meant to take. Abby Kowitz, from St. Paul, Minnesota, was one such undergrad. After graduation, Abby headed to Denver, Colorado, to serve as a missionary with Christ in the City, which seeks to encounter Christ in the poor and show Christ to them in return. “While the purpose was beautiful,” she said, “I couldn't help but think that something was missing. What I grew to realize was that, while the poor needed to encounter Christ as well as learn how to sustain their physical needs, mental health issues such as addictions, trauma, depression and anxiety often got in the way. I didn't know how to address those elements. My desire to serve the holistic person in mind, body and spirit is what led me to pursue a degree in counseling.” She searched for two years for graduate-level counseling programs that addressed the human person from a Catholic perspective, until her mother saw a promotion on EWTN announcing the new Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Divine Mercy University (DMU). The rest, as Kowitz put it, is history. This past weekend--Mother’s Day weekend--she made her mother proud again, donning her own gown and tassel as a one of twelve students in the very first graduating cohort from DMU’s School of Counseling. “We are grateful for being at this point of the journey with our first students graduating,” said Dr. Harvey Payne, Academic Dean for the School of Counseling, “that we completed every course, and how well the students have done in their practicum and internships, which is really the proof in the pudding. Without our founding faculty--Dr. Steve Sharp, Dr. Benjamin Keyes , Dr. Matthew McWhorter, and the program development team lead by Dr. Stephen Grundman--there would be no program. They all have gone above and beyond for our program to create and deliver a high quality program for our students.” For many of the students who enroll, including Marion Moreland of West Virginia, the M.S. in Counseling program is a means of adding and improving upon the gifts and services they provide in helping others. Moreland feels that providence helped in leading her to the counseling program at DMU. “Four years prior,” she said, “I was at a parish doing pastoral counseling and grief counseling. I think I had a misguided view of what counseling was versus pastoral counseling-type work, and how that involved integration of faith. When I learned about the Master’s in Counseling, I saw that it was more of what I was looking for.” Another student, Anthony Flores, was formally employed at an inpatient psych unit for about three years, working one on one with different patients. Though he found the experience rewarding, he always felt a sense that he could do more. The potential to be able to walk alongside other people in the darkness and brokenness that they’re experiencing drew him to his degree in counseling and, ultimately, Divine Mercy University. [caption id="attachment_716" align="aligncenter" width="633"] Anthony Flores of Michigan receives his M.S. Degree in Counseling while shaking the hand of DMU's School of Counseling Academic Dean, Dr. Harvey Payne.[/caption] “I’ve always been a devout Catholic,” he said. “It’s such a central core of who I am. So, in terms of moving forward in my life and my career, I wanted to be really intentional about incorporating my faith into my work. DMU made that easy by introducing the Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person (CCMMP), a faculty publication explaining the relationship of the Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the Person with the integrations of Psychology and Counseling. That really became our lense by which we view our clients through. I think that gives us a huge advantage over other institutions or universities that strictly take a secular view and don’t look at the spiritual aspect of people.” One of the requirements of the program that every student must do is be supervised at an approved practicum-internship site for a minimum of 750 hours. After completing their practicum-internships, each student from this year’s graduating cohort received something that many graduates may find hard to come by so close to graduation: job offers. “All of the offers have come through their internships,” said Dr. Payne. “What that means is that the individuals supervising them and the individuals directing the sites have recognized the high quality of their character and their work that they have done as practicum-internship students.” “In the human service world,” he continued, “and true across different occupations, how one fits into the culture of the workplace is a critical determining factor as to whether people want you to stay, and I can’t help but think that that is part of what has gone on. Our students have been able to fit in to a wide variety of settings from hospitals, to private practices, to Catholic Charities, to a wide range of different environments and most not having a specific Catholic-Christian worldview.” Moreland’s internship was with Highland-Clarksburg Hospital--a psychiatric hospital--in her home state. While gaining critical experience through her internship, Marion saw how DMU’s training differed from other graduate programs for mental health professions. “I think what stands out the most is the way we look at people,” she said. “In some ways, it’s employing [a] Catholic [Christian vision of respecting how people flourish], but in a practical sense. Even if you take the faith aspect out of it, our training is more person centered as opposed to technique and diagnosis centered. It’s about ‘who is this individual in front of me’ as opposed to ‘there’s a border line; there’s a schizophrenic.’ It’s more focused on the human side of who we are.” In addition to their internships, both Moreland and Flores attended and assisted with workshops offered through DMU’s Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies (CTRS), becoming certified facilitators. For Flores, that meant a long drive each month from his home in Saginaw, Michigan, to the Virginia campus. But it wasn’t until Flores joined Dr. Keyes and a group from CTRS to Beirut that he understood the true weight and significance of the work of CTRS. He understood why he was pursuing such a career while having breakfast with a Syrian woman he met during that deployment. Flores listened as a woman told him the story of her birthday. She was studying at the university in Aleppo when, all of a sudden, she heard a whistle outside, and then a huge explosion. The large window in front of her shattered and sent her flying back a few meters. As she laid there on the floor, stunned, another classmate came up to her and asked about a question on the upcoming exam, as if nothing had happened, almost completely oblivious and disassociated from the event. Afterwards, they went to a local cafe to call their families and made it home a few hours later, and learned on the television that night that over 100 students had been killed in a missle attack. “As she’s telling me all this,” Flores said, “she’s smiling and laughing about it, as a way for her to deal with what happened and to tell that story. That struck me in such a way that I felt compelled to learn more about that--about trauma--about how, maybe, I can do something for these people that are suffering.” For these students, the M.S. in Counseling at Divine Mercy University has been one of their greatest and most difficult challenges they have ever endured--a real journey full of great challenges, obstacles and setbacks. But, in the end--having overcome those challenges both individually and as a group--this journey towards the first School of Counseling graduation in DMU history has proven to be a rewarding experience that will remain with them for the rest of their days. “Receiving my Master's in Counseling from DMU has been one of the most influential experiences of my life,” Kowitz exclaimed. “DMU has challenged, strengthened, and fine-tuned beliefs I already held as a practicing Catholic while teaching me how to implement them in a very practical and necessary way. DMU has provided me with a tangible set of tools and path to walk in the pursuit of my call to holiness. Through deepening my understanding and knowledge of the human person I am equipped to respond in a truly helpful way to whoever it may be that I encounter through both my clients but also in my personal life and relationships.” “We are all created good and that goodness is indelible,” Dr. Payne said. “Our students are really people that are seeking to grow and be good for the service of others. A number [of people] having some real struggles and difficulties in life that we all have, and keeping their goal in mind and persevering, having grit to persevere to reach their goals. It has been great seeing how each one of the students in their own uniqueness have found their niches, if you will, for how God will be using them in the field of professional counseling.” If you’re passionate about helping those who have witnessed or suffered serious trauma, or help those with serious mental illness, consider the M.S. in Counseling at Divine Mercy University.

Remembering the Virginia Tech Shooting

The small town of Blacksburg in Southern Virginia was, at one point, only that: a small town, nestled along the New River Valley. The trip from the cities of the north will lead you witnessing the significant change of scenery as you cruise down I-81, from cityscapes to treelines, from city streets to nature trails, from Smithsonian Museums to the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the boisterous white noise of a congested population to the melodies of the rural countryside. And, of course, it will lead you to the spirited Hokie Nation. But this little Virginia gem was not brought under the eyes of the new millennium by its quaint charm. It wasn’t Blacksburg’s or Virginia Tech’s spirited community or the university’s technological innovations or successes in science and agriculture, nor was it Beamer Ball that brought it under the spotlight of the world. It was a 23-year-old English major from northern Virginia, and the 32 people he murdered on campus that brought the spotlight to Virginia Tech and an issue that continues to be debated to this day. The beautiful campus and its community was eternally scarred by the violence of that April day of darkness fourteen years ago. Today, there is still a certain, strange air carried on the winds throughout campus that leaves one keeping an eye open and scanning their surroundings, and there’s rarely a day where students do not pass or visit the memorial at the top of the drillfield in front of Burruss Hall: 32 stones for the 32 taken from us too soon. April 16th always brings back the pictures of that tragic day: students evacuated from campus, huddled together in a circle at a local church; sheriff officers carrying survivors from the scene by their arms and legs; tearful mothers holding tight the child who just left their nest for the first time; other mothers searching frantically among the large crowds of bloodied faces for their children, praying that they are not one of the many carried away in body bags; President Bush, a father himself, addressing the university, seeking to comfort a confused, sorrowful student body of 25,000; Resident Poet Nikki Giovanni absorbing all that sorrow into her pen and converting it into prose of flourishing inspiration as she cries out, “We Are Virginia Tech!” The date also brings back to remember the student and shooter Seung Hui Cho, who was described as an isolated individual preferring to be by himself. He hardly spoke in class and, when he was called to do so, he spoke barely above a whisper. The content of his written assignments and projects at Virginia Tech caught the concerning attention of his professors, and the videos and manifesto he sent to NBC left people anxiously asking questions about his mental stability. What could have led him to commit such a seemingly random act of carnage? What could have been done to stop it? School shootings have been well covered and documented over the last several years. As a result, studies have shown that there are a number of common risk factors that can indicate if someone is at risk of harming themselves and/or others. Risk factors commonly associated with school shooters include creating or engaging in content--writings, drawings, etc.--depicting violence or violent fantasies, difficulty controlling anger, suicidal and homicidal ideations, social isolation and social deficits, victim/martyr self-concept, paranoia and interest in other shooting situations. “I think those are very good starting points,” said Dr. Suzanne Hollman, Academic Dean and Director of Divine Mercy University’s Psy.D. Program, in an interview on EWTN after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “The research right now is all over the place. But what we do know is that all of these things are risk factors. All of these things can predispose someone to making a decision or planning something that dramatic. A lot of it stems from social isolation--not being seen in the world--and then trying to find these mechanisms to ensure that they are noticed.” After the attack, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine assigned an independent panel to review the events leading up to the tragedy and how they were handled. The panel was also charged with developing a profile and investigating the life of Cho leading up to April 16th, including his mental health records, which showed that Cho displayed all these red flags during his last two years at the university. But the panel didn’t just shed light on the indicators that developed during his final two years. The panel discovered other details in Cho’s life that could also have been contributing factors.    According to their review, Cho was a shy boy who rarely spoke and, when he moved with his family from South Korea to the United States, he became more withdrawn. He allegedly resented the pressure of speaking in public, and would avoid speaking both at home and at school. When called to speak--particularly if his family had a visitor--Cho would freeze on the spot and grow incredibly anxious. He would become pale, develop sweaty palms, and in some cases, begin to cry and resort to nodding yes or shaking his head no.     Cho’s parents tried to urge him to become more involved in different activities and local sports because they worried he was becoming more isolated and lonely. On the other hand, transportation to any event in general was a challenge in itself, as Cho’s parents worked long hours during the week and were not able to take him or his sister to any extracurricular activities. His father was stern on matters of respect, which is something the two would argue about. According to one of the records reviewed by the independent panel, Cho’s father would not praise his son, and one of his writings later included a father-son relationship where the father was always negative. Eventually, Cho’s parents decided to “let him be the way he is” and not force him to interact and talk with others. Doing so may not have been in their son’s best interest. Extreme social deficits is not just a key indicator of a serious mental health issue. According to 2018 Divine Mercy University Psy.D. graduate Amanda Aulbaugh Faria’s dissertation entitled “Mass School Shooters: Psychosocial Characteristics in the Lives of the Perpetrators,” it’s also a common characteristic among school shooters. Nine out of the nineteen school shooters that Faria studied had significant social deficits. One shooter was quiet, was disliked by her peers, walked around by herself and did not participate in class at school. Another shooter suffered significant social anxiety and was seen as “odd, goofy or weird.” Twelve of the nineteen studied also displayed antisocial characteristics. “The negatives have already been identified,” said Dr. Paul Vitz, Divine Mercy University Senior Scholar and Professor, who has recently begun researching school shootings and their perpetrators, from elementary school to high school. “They were depressed, or they came from dysfunctional families, or they were all obsessed with violence. They had a variety of negative characteristics.” In his own research of school shooters, Dr. Vitz found that one thing common among the shooters is not merely a variety of negative risk factors, but also a lack of positive things in their lives. “None of them seemed to have a goal in life,” he said. “None of them wanted to be a star musician, no one wanted to be an athlete, none of them talked about being businessmen or have success at college. Second, none were involved in any pro-social organizations. None were in scouts or 4-H. None were in a civic society or were helping the poor, none were involved with any of the virtues or active in any faith.” In Faria’s study, many of the shooters were involved with different activities as younger children, but as they grew older into middle school and high school, they began to withdraw from social activities. Others, including Sandy Hook shooter Bill Lanza, had no social interests or did not engage in any social activities from the beginning. “It isn’t just the overwhelming presence of many negatives,” continued Vitz. “It’s the absence of the positives too.” A second factor discovered was that Cho, who had been receiving psychiatric treatment prior to attending Virginia Tech, stopped his treatment before moving to Blacksburg, and the university had no knowledge of his mental health history. According to the panel report, Cho’s middle school teachers noticed suicidal and homicidal ideations in his writings after the 1999 Columbine shootings. On their recommendation, Cho received psychiatric counseling and medication for a short time, and special accommodations were made to help Cho achieve top scores and honors in his coursework all through high school. “Cho exhibited signs of mental health problems during his childhood,” the report reads. “His middle and high schools responded well to these signs and, with his parents' involvement, provided services to address his issues. He also received private psychiatric treatment and counseling for selective mutism and depression.” By the time Cho was preparing to leave home for college for the first time--entering as a business major before making the switch to English--neither he nor his high school revealed that he had been receiving special education services as an emotionally disabled student. As a result, no one at Virginia Tech ever became aware of his pre-existing conditions until it was too late, leaving him to carry on without the critical helped that assisted him to cope and flourish. Since that tragic day in 2007, colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to both help those individuals with anxiety and mental issues. Many have added mental health professionals and university police officers to their campuses; faculty and staff members are being trained on how to spot worrisome behavior and reach out to those students in a preventative manner. Virginia Tech even became the first campus in the nation to be certified by an independent non-profit organization that established rigorous national standards for emergency planning.   A question still lingers: is it enough? That question may never have an answer. But it’s the reverberation of gunshots that still faintly linger in the winds of Blacksburg, and in the tears that stain the 32 stones in front of Burruss Hall that pushes us to keep trying and keep innovating ways to help our mentally ill and, in doing so, trying our hardest to prevent another April 16th. If you’re passionate about helping those who have witnessed or suffered serious trauma, or if you want to help those with serious mental illness, consider the M.S. in Psychology, M.S. in Counseling or Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology at Divine Mercy University.   Work Cited: “Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007, Report of the Review Panel”. Presented to Governor Tim Kaine, Commonwealth of Virginia, August 2007. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/prevail/docs/VTReviewPanelReport.pdf Faria, A. A. Mass school shootings: Psychosocial characteristics in the lives of perpetrators (Doctoral Dissertation). Divine Mercy University, 2018. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2100701144). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2100701144?accountid=27532 Friedman, Emily.  “Va. Tech Shooter Seung-Hui Cho's Mental Health Records Released.” ABC News, 19 Aug. 2009, https://abcnews.go.com/US/seung-hui-chos-mental-health-records-released/story?id=8278195 Hausman, Sandy.  “Lessons Learned at Virginia Tech: What Went Wrong?.” WVTF, 13 Apr. 2015, https://www.wvtf.org/post/lessons-learned-virginia-tech-what-went-wrong#stream/0 Langman, Peter. School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015. O'Meara, Eamon. “Virginia Tech shooting may have changed how mental health was treated.” ABC WDBJ7, 14 Apr. 2017, https://www.wdbj7.com/content/news/Virginia-Tech-shooting-may-have-changed-how-mental-health-was-treated-419513643.html Potter, Ned and David Schoetz, Richard Esposito, Pierre Thomas. “Killer's Note: 'You Caused Me to Do This'.” ABC News, 7 Apr. 2007, https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3048108&page=1

Honoring St. Patrick With Moderation

When we look at the calendar and see that St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, many of us may salivate knowing that our local pubs and bars will be decorated and playing Celtic music, with Guiness and green beer flowing endlessly like the great falls of some romantic Irish waterfall, and when the day comes, we celebrate even more the week before and the week after the holiday. And then the following morning you find yourself staying in bed sick. Most of the adrenaline in your body has vacated the premises, leaving only a small amount to get you to roll around under the covers in desperate search of a position that will calm the heavy throbbing in your head, or to get up and rush to the bathroom or the nearest trash can to vomit. It’s highly doubtful that St. Patrick--one of the most popular and highly recognized Catholic saints in the world--would’ve expected that kind of celebration of his feast day. Born in Roman England, he first entered Ireland as a captive of pirates as a fourteen-year-old, and wasn’t able to escape and return to England until he was twenty. [caption id="attachment_645" align="alignleft" width="240"] St. Patrick often used a clover when teaching about the Holy Trinity.[/caption] In his memoir, The Confession of St. Patrick, he describes experiencing a vision that prompted him to study for the priesthood. He was eventually ordained a bishop and, in the year 433, was sent to preach the Gospel in Ireland. Throughout his 40-year stay in Ireland, he converted thousands of people, built churches throughout the country, and performed many miracles up to his death on March 17th, 461. Approximately 33 million people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day each year, and with his feast day falling within the season of Lent, Catholics and Christians are able to set aside their Lenten restrictions and are able to indulge in whatever they gave up, e.g. if they gave up snacks and stout. The day also became a celebration of not only the holy man, but also Irish heritage, culture, history and traditions around the world. According to Wallethub, over 55% of Americans plan to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and are expected to spend a collective estimate of $5.6 billion. “For some, any reason to drink more is a good enough reason,” said Divine Mercy University Associate Professor Dr. Stephen Sharp, a specialized instructor for the Addictions Counseling course (COUN 650). “But for others, it may simply be part of the ‘spirit’ of the holiday, in this case St. Patrick's Day. It could as well be Christmas, New Year (even Chinese New Year), or the 4th of July.” Today, St. Patrick’s Day is ranked the third most popular drinking day of the year. According to WalletHub, 152.5% more beer is sold and 13 million pints of Guinness consumed (an 819% increase from the rest of the year), and 32% of men admit to binge drinking on St. Patrick’s Day.    “I'm not sure we can say that binge drinkers ‘go out of their way’ to drink more when there is a social opportunity to do so,” Dr. Sharp said. “They may just simply take advantage of the socialized opportunity to celebrate using alcohol. In ways, a culture of drinking on holidays has contributed to problems created by over-imbibing.” But with greater consumption comes a greater need for greater responsibility. Seventy-five percent of fatal car crashes over St. Patrick’s Day involved a drunk driver, and 59 people were killed in St. Patrick’s Day drunk driving crashes in 2017. Between 2013-2017, 44% of people killed in drunk driving crashes during the St. Patrick’s Day holiday were between 21 and 34 years old.   “Law enforcement recognizes the patterns,“ Dr. Sharp continued, “and often has a bigger presence, and has also helped to sponsor the idea of ‘designated drinkers’ and the use of services for transportation to keep drinkers from behind the wheel of an automobile. With or without the cultural influences of alcohol consumption, those choosing to use alcohol have the ultimate challenge of drinking responsibility on these celebrated occasions.” Unfortunately, it seems to be a difficult challenge for many. Alcohol abuse is currently one of the largest public health crises in the United States, and it kills more people each year than overdoses. According to the Center for Disease Control, six people die from alcohol poisoning every day, and further research shows that alcohol consumption will only grow in 2019, even as population growth is expected to slow.     “Too much of almost anything can be harmful,” said Sharp. “Extended over-use is probably the most hazardous to your health. Our bodies are remarkably able to recover from the occasional over-drinking simply by remaining abstinent from it for a period of time.” When we don’t allow our bodies the chance to recover, our drinking may contribute to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other organ damage, especially the liver, which is the organ charged with keeping our bodily system clean by removing toxins. When we regularly overload our liver, we may pay the price over time. But as mentioned before, our body is a remarkable system capable of near miraculous recovery, but only when given the opportunity to do so. But the risks are not just bodily. Poor drinking habits can be destructive enough to damage our relationships that often do not recover, including those within our family. “Behavior problems resulting from alcohol use and abuse can stretch the limits of those who love us, and that we love,” said Dr. Sharp. “Moments and phases of intoxication may result in engaging in other risky and damaging behaviors and in having a lifelong impact on the quality of our life and those precious relationships. This also often takes a toll on children of alcoholic parents as binge drinking may be part of a bigger cycle, and is often an unpleasant experience for the child.”    According to Dr. Sharp, it is also widely observed that concurrent mental disorders will accompany a substance use disorder. It is not uncommon to see depression, anxiety and substance use co-occurring in an individual. “Did the anxiety appear before the depression,” he said, “and were they present prior to the onset of substance use? Or, did the substance use begin and the other mental disorders begin subsequently? The answer is that this is highly individualized in differences, distinctions, and similarities to others. It depends on the person, their history, and the narrative of their life story. “A short and simple answer is often right beneath the nose, though,” he continued, “and that is if using alcohol is creating problems in your life at any level such as work, relationships or legally, then you may have a drinking problem and should seek the help of a professional.” As we celebrate the life of St. Patrick and everything Irish in communion with each other--whether it be in person or in spirit--let us do so in safe, moderate and healthy fashion for ourselves and each other.    

Lent: The Season for Habit Formation

There are two things that many of us seem to get wrong: the days leading up to Christmas, and the days leading up to Easter. In the days leading up to Christmas--which can begin as early as May--we find ourselves in a consistent rush: fixing budgets, planning trips, scheduling reunions, flying to pageants and concerts, collecting items for feasts and bakefests, and purchasing lots and lots and lots of presents. We leave very little time and room for reflection, charity, prayer, and preparation for Christ’s arrival. With Christmas now past and the liturgical season of ordinary time coming to a close, our attention turns toward Easter, and the season of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, where we follow Jesus on his adult journey of teaching, ministry, prayer, healing and suffering right up to his crucifixion and death on Good Friday. Tradition held by Catholics and Christians around the world maintains the element of sacrifice, of “giving up” something for the whole 40-day season of Lent. So how do we get the original meaning of Lent wrong? We engage in the tradition for all the wrong reasons. Like Christmas, we take Christ out of Lent. We may not do so consciously, but we often find ourselves using Lent to achieve internal or worldly goals. We give up junk food or monitor what we eat when starting a new diet, or abstain from beer to lower the cholesterol and clear the mind. We give up some TV so we can manage time better or focus on other interests. “We all have these interior movements,” said Divine Mercy University Adjunct Professor Dr. Ian Murphy during last month’s webinar titled The Power of Habit: Therapeutic Techniques From St. Thomas Aquinas. “What St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us is that these interior movements--these appetites, these passions, these emotions--are not the bad guy, but we can’t do whatever they say. If we do whatever they tell us to do, then we’re not truly free of them. We become slaves to them. But we can’t ignore them either. They’re an integral part of us, and they were originally created to support our happiness.” We may see the season of Lent as a second chance with the New Year’s resolution we missed, except with a partially structured strategy and timeline. Even in the Church, many of us confuse worldly growth or preparation with spiritual growth or preparation. But in doing so, we might become more worried about staying on track with a certain practice, instead of considering if that particular practice is helping to actually convert our hearts, allow us to analyze the depth of Christ’s sacrifice and teachings on earth, and bring us closer to God in the first place, because Lent is about re-centering our will to His and living that out in the world. “We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue,” said Blessed Fr. Fulton Sheen, “a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative. A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.” A good Lenten practice would actually be for us to take spiritual inventory of our lives and determine where we need growth. One means of doing this, especially during the season of Lent, is what’s called Virtuous Habit Formation. St. Thomas Aquinas defines virtue as an operative disposition toward the good. In other words, virtues are repeated performative actions that internalize into perfective habits that form our character according to our ultimate purpose.   “We don’t do whatever our feelings, passions, and appetites tell us to do,” said Dr. Murphy. “In other words, we don’t do whatever our ‘inner selves’ say. But we don’t ignore our feelings either. Rather, we appreciate our emotions as an integral part of us. We consult our emotions for illumination as we discern; and with a conscious receptivity to the Holy Spirit, we allow prudence to order our emotions. And we also allow emotion to wake up the powers of the soul whenever rationality and will grow cold and lose sight of their higher calling.” Those interior movements mentioned earlier can become disordered within us, and in their disorder, they can wreak havoc. Consider that person who does offer that up moderate drinking upon returning home. After a hard day’s work or a day full of stress and anxiety, that person may be looking forward to that nearly instant gratification of relaxation and stress reduction. Despite any health or anxiety benefits, the frequent repetition of this practice wires the mind to expect; that person becomes disposed to pursuing those glasses of wine or pints of lager after each hard day, and may begin to see it as a regular remedy to a lingering stress.    “All this is the key to our therapeutic technique: repeat actions,” said Dr. Murphy. “If the acts be multiplied--if you keep doing things over and over again, even a small thing, an allegedly tiny baby step--if you repeat it, a switch is thrown inside of you, and the synaptic pathways in our brains are rewired. We become inclined to behave that way. We become disposed to behave that way.”   Our “giving something up” for Lent is not merely an offering in the Lenten tradition of sacrifice, or an offering in reverence to Christ’s sacrifice, or just us utilizing the season as an annual detox, fat burner or dietary starting point. When we remove the worldly value of the things we offer up--when we apply virtue to our commitment to change our habits--we understand that we’re not just giving something up. We’re giving something over, and the less we take, the more we open ourselves to the richnesses of God’s love, filling the voids left by our bottles of our worldly desires.    “This is the key to our wellbeing,” said Dr. Murphy, “to our flourishing, to our happiness. We are created, we are fallen, and we’re also redeemed. In our fallenness, things that were created for good get disordered. But in our redemption, they can be re-ordered again.” Lent is not our mulligan when we miss our New Year’s resolution. It is not our self-improvement project, our annual detox or our new diet plan. Lent is a renewal of our promise to walk with Jesus into the desert, into the city streets, even to the foot of the cross, with our hands in His the whole way. Lent is about our relationship with God and with Christ; and that relationship, like any other, has trials, distress and joy. Sign up to learn more about Divine Mercy University's graduate programs in counseling and/or psychology.
About DMU
Divine Mercy University (DMU) is a Catholic graduate university of psychology and counseling programs. It was founded in 1999 as the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The university offers a Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology, Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling, Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology, and Certificate Programs.