By KEITH WOMMACK — Last Thursday, children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, began attending classes at a repurposed school in the neighboring town of Monroe.

Heart-wrenching tragedies stir our desire to aid in the healing process and to prevent further harmful acts from taking place.

As the gun control debate continues, another factor is being discussed as a possible connection between this latest and other recent violent acts. This link is mental illness.

After a disturbing event, the warning signs of a troubled gunman are often recognized. But even though a certain number of the mentally ill do commit crimes, studies suggest that the mentally ill are not generally predisposed to perpetrating violent acts. More often than not, they are victims of violence, not the ones usually responsible for criminal acts.

Although the number of crimes committed by the mentally ill may be lower than the rest of the population, every violent episode should be stopped, if at all possible. And high on the list of steps to be taken to improve the mental health that can keep our families safer should be the education of everyone about elementary principles, standards as simple as caring for others.

This is why, one theme at the September 2011 Wave III Baylor Religion Survey news briefing I attended in Durham, North Carolina, grabbed my attention. And why the loss of life in Newtown, Connecticut, motivated me to reexamine it: Mental health can be improved through greater spiritual awareness.

Before the briefing, I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Paul Froese, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University. Froese was part of the research team that studied the connection between mental health and spirituality. He was also one of the participants who shared the survey’s findings.

Froese explained that respondents in the study on mental health, who have strong beliefs about their relationship with God, “have significantly better mental health.”  He said the survey discovered, as well, that those who attend religious services regularly have the lowest reported number of mental health issues.

This study mirrored what I have been witnessing in my healing practice for the past 29 years, and why I strongly feel it is imperative that spiritual reasoning, prayer, and religious attendance be recognized for the healing impacts they have on our and our children’s wellbeing.

Spiritual awareness and practices cultivate a concern for others and the greater good. They encourage outward thinking and selfless acts. Because of this, they facilitate improvement in mental health. They are the reverse of the disturbing and destructive inward, materialistic, self-centered state of thought that lends itself to acting in ways that are foreign to mankind’s natural inclinations.

Many individuals suffer needlessly from obsessive-compulsive disorders, social anxiety, stress, and panic attacks. According to a study, more American adults are reporting being disabled by the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or emotional difficulties.

The report, published September 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health, found that people who said they could not accomplish daily tasks or engage in social and leisure activities because of a mental illness jumped from 2 percent in 1999 to 2.7 percent in 2009. The increase amounts to almost 2 million more people disabled by mental challenges in the past decade.

It has long been believed that the brain is the cause of consciousness, and as such is what rules mental health. Yet, physicians and researchers are beginning to join those in the spiritual healing practices in accepting that things are not always what they appear to be.

During a meeting about spirituality’s role in mental health, Dr. Thomas Curry, a licensed psychotherapist in Texas, told me that research is now showing that the brain changes according to one’s thought.

Curry explained, “This phenomena is called neuroplasticity. What makes this interesting is that if the brain directs consciousness, one would think that as the brain changes, consciousness changes. Yet, we know for a fact that consciousness can change first, and then the brain follows suit by re-connecting, or circumventing certain neural pathways. This implies that the brain is an object of thought, and not the thinker.”

This certainly coincides with what I am learning.

I find that prayer impacts wellbeing because, as radical as it sounds, thought is the engine that essentially forms and drives the brain, as well as the entire body. This is why a significant change of thought leads to adjustments and changes in mental and physical health. And prayer, with the power of God behind it, changes thought as nothing else can.

The suffering of so many is disheartening. Yet, there are those who have found that a divine awareness has replaced fear and panic with a deep-rooted peace. It causes increased caring for others and a healthier outward look on life. Isn’t this what we want expressed by our children and those who are near them?

Alertness to signs that may indicate the planning of an unthinkable act is wise. However, an intelligent answer to violent acts will not include the pigeonholing of another as the next maniacal assassin just because they appear aloof or different. If paranoia drives us to accuse the innocent and commit unjust violations of personal freedom, perhaps we are expressing a little mental imbalance ourselves.

Most importantly, the mentally ill need our help, not our suspicions. They need attention, treatment, and guidance. They need something that will effectively help and heal them.

To improve our families’ safety, we must improve mental health by learning to control and stop self-destructive materialistic thinking. Apparently, spiritual awareness and practices can help.

– Keith Wommack is a Syndicated Columnist, Christian Science practitioner and teacher, husband, and step-dad. He has been described as a spiritual spur (since every horse needs a little nudge now and then). Keith’s columns originate at: KeithWommack.com

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