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Mass Murder & Mental Illness

As the roar of reaction begins to quiet following the horror in Newtown, many media comments I have read express a demand for better "access to mental health services."

I'm not sure what that means in this case.

The biggest gap in mental health care in our country, as I have come to know it, is in in-patient hospital care. After Congress passed laws in the 1980's that down-sized state hospitals, hundreds of people were released from care. States and communities were expected to provide needed services, but in many places, such care never materialized. The numbers of homeless, mentally ill and/or addicted persons swelled, and state and federal dollars for the seriously and/or persistently mentally ill dwindled and has stayed low.

We have now have a chronic shortage of psychiatric hospital beds, and an even more critical shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists. The cost of in-patient care is close to $1000 a day in some cities like Minneapolis. We have a shorta…

ProBiotics Could Help Your Brain

I know that eating helpful gut bacteria (acidophilus, for example, found in active yogurt cultures) helps our digestion work at its best, and can improve our immune function, but little did I know that scientists are studying the effect of healthy gut bacteria on emotional resilience and mood. It turns out that good gut bacteria seem to work with the function of the Vagas Nerve, the nerve that links the brain to the digestive tract, to stimulate positive emotional function. (Check out a brief intro to this amazing nervous system giant here: Vagas Nerve.) 

In mice, this connection made mice more resilient in the face of stress and able to persist in difficult circumstances far beyond their "normal" peers. There is more than some suggestion that human emotions and mental health could be lifted by additions of pro-biotics into the daily diet. Jamie Lee Curtis (Activia!) may be absolutely right: adding yogurt or other pro-biotic supplements can make you a happier, healthier pers…

I Need Help NOW

Several of my clients are suffering with destructive moods, relationships, jobs or unemployment at the moment.


I understand what that vortex feels like: overwhelming physical tension, unclear thinking, rushed or confused decision making, hair-trigger temper, uneasy sleep. During times like this in life, it's very hard to trust that you can find a way to hang on. The present is so unpleasant it seems endless.

When times like this come to us (and believe me, they will come to us all, at one time or another), I like to focus on two aspects of help: making the NOW better each day, and focusing on the small decisions we make so that we can create a more hopeful FUTURE.

The Now: There is a great deal we all can do every day to soothe our bodies and minds for optimum wellness even when in an emotional storm. They are aspects of daily self care, but few of us practice them with enough patience that they make a difference. Here are the basics I talk to all my clients about. What a…

We Can't Choose our Parents

It's true; we can't choose our parents.

Whatever skills or deficits they possess as people: their readiness or disinterest at caring for us, their physical and mental health, and their ability to meet basic needs for food, shelter and safety have an immediate and lasting effect on our own development. The human brain is shaped every day by the way we are cared for by those closest to us, and grows fastest during the first two years of life.

If a child is born to a parent who neglects their needs, is addicted, or who is violent, abusive or mentally ill, the effects are devastating. A human mind can be ruined if not helped and supported to develop in a healthier, more stable and flexible way.

It's also true that in America the first time a failing family may come into contact with an institution that could help it recover is with the justice system or the public schools.

In this wonderful episode of This American Life radio show, stories are told of educational and therapeu…

Willing to Risk Again

Several times this week I have found myself talking to new couple clients about their relationships, and how hurt has caused them to feel withdrawn from their partners. Sometimes this distance has lasted for years, the human need for support, connection and understanding no longer expected from their spouse. 

One of the most important aspects of relationship repair is the willingness to risk being open to a partner who has been months or years at odds with our needs and hopes. Couple therapy at its best keeps both people focused on their individual efforts, while being confident, through actions and words in the therapy room and out, that the partner is doing the same hard work. 

It can feel like being open to injury. Like you are just asking for your partner to hurt you again. Many people resist, and for every right reason! But repairing such pain means turning toward your partner and feeling what you feel, expressing your hurt and disappointment, asking for what you ne…

Should I or Shouldn't I ?

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In a couple of weeks I will be voted off the active clergy roster of the ELCA.

This means that the Church that ordained me no longer will consider me a pastor. All this comes about not because of any Church mean-spirited-ness or personal failure on my part. I left the parish in 2004 to become a family therapist, and because I'm not involved in ministry as a pastor any more, I'm no longer "official" in the way Lutherans understand the ordained ministry. For these 8 years, I've gotten a pass as someone "On Leave from Call." That grace has run out. So be it.

I've worked hard since 2004 to let this adult identity of mine go.
I planned to be a pastor since I was 16 ( I KNOW, right?!) and was one, full time, through unemployment and interviews, singleness and marriage, pregnancies and parenting, healthy churches and not, solo jobs and staff positions, parsonages and mortgages for 20+ years. That's one deeply held self understanding. And I'm proud o…

You'd Be Proud

We put our one and only (in every sense of this phrase) 16 year old daughter on a plane to Germany two weeks ago. She has been traveling with a group of German language students and their teacher to the motherland, a trip that has been all year in the making.

It was a rather anxious start. Worst was the torrent of rain that she and I drove in from home to the Minneapolis airport. It was probably the worst rain I have ever driven in. If we hadn't had to meet an international flight, I would have pulled over and waited it out. It was as bad as night-time blizzards here in the Midwest, for those who have had that very unpleasant, life-threatening experience. It was all I could do to follow the tail lights of the car ahead of me. Poor daughter. She was already nervous, and she wisely put her head down, closed her eyes, and (I hope) prayed her way through about 15 miles of serious crazy. By the time we arrived at the airport, my head was buzzing with adrenaline, cortisol and every othe…

Take Your Vacation!

My most recent newspaper column is about taking all of your vacation time.

Spiritual Reflections: Take your vacation time - Savage Pacer: News

The High Family Costs of Traveling for Work

My most recent post on GoodTherapy.org :

The High Family Costs of Traveling for Work

Attachment Parenting : You're Mom Enough Without It

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The latest cover of TIME magazine (5/21/12) with the beautiful 20something mom breastfeeding her 3 year old son had me shaking my head.

What WAS she thinking taking that picture, and having her full name on the magazine cover? Ten years from now her son is going to have to face his friends when they ask him what it was like to suck his mother's breasts. Because they have proof. A million covers of TIME magazine, internet pages and downloads later. Really. The social insensitivity of that photo takes my breath away.

As for the topic, the so-called Attachment Parenting style advocated by Dr. Bill Sears, well. That, too, has it's serious problems. Let me be brief:

Attachment Theory describes the emotional or relational attachment between a developing infant and mother. It was first studied in depth by John Bowlby (and later by Ainsworth, Main, Cassidy, Hazan, Shaver, and others) in the 1950's. It posits that the emotional attachment between mother and child is the main determin…

Monogamy: It's Not for Everybody

Back in the day when I performed weddings, starry-eyed couples would come to my church office to do premarital counseling and plan their (elaborate) wedding ceremony. I guess I never stopped to consider it much, but I assumed, as did they, that the promise to be "faithful until death parts us" was seriously considered and solemnly promised before and during the wedding service. They only had eyes for one another.

Yet, I knew that about half of all the weddings I would perform over the years would end in divorce. That statistic didn't stop anybody, it seemed, from being certain about themselves. We can do it, the couple assumed. We can be each others' partner for life.

I now have been in the marriage counseling field for 8 years, and practicing full-time for 6. It's not a lot of experience, but believe me: it's enough. Enough to feel like I have a new sense of the difficulties of pledging a life-long partnership, and the challenge of not only growing and agin…

Help! I Don’t Love My In-Laws

My latest contribution to the GoodTherapy.org website.

Help! I Don’t Love My In-Laws

The Power of Suggestion

I really want a new Etch A Sketch.
And so, it seems, do a million other baby boomers.

Amazing, the power of a familiar image, in this case, a toy, being used in political speech. Ohio Art's stock value rose 100% today.

Oh, my familiars. We children of the 1960's. Would that we could harness all our collective nostalgia, work ethic and imagination for good! We could make this economy sing!

Instead, we are paying off our mortgages, paying our children's college loans, welcoming them back home after graduation, and helping our parents stay in their fabulous retirement communities as long as humanly possible. We are this nation's backbone. And I'm proud to be one of Us.

So What

For all the talk in America now and forever about how spiritually diverse we are as a nation, it seems that many people have been lying to the researchers. Or just maybe have been trying to spare their mother's feelings and no longer feel they should.

Here are the surprising statistics I found as I was thumbing through my latest The Lutheran magazine (3/2012, p. 8):

  44% told the Baylor University (Waco, TX) Religion Survey that they spend no time seeking out eternal wisdom.
   19% said it was 'useless to search for meaning.'
   28% told LifeWay that it's not a 'major priority' in my life to find my deeper purpose.
One of the most striking trends in religion statistics in recent decades is the rise of the Nones, people who checked "no religious identity" on the American Religious Identification Survey. The Nones went from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008. 

So, while America grows increasingly vocal on the edges of the religious landscape, there appear to …

Meryl Streep: The Fresh Air Interview : NPR

If you are a fan, which I am, I think you'll enjoy listening in on this fabulous interview.

Meryl Streep: The Fresh Air Interview : NPR

Why I'm a Moderate

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When it comes to politics, each side of the American major two-party system holds certain beliefs about everything. Including, but not very explicitly, human beings.

Conservatives (Republicans, Libertarians, etc.) seem convinced of the power of the individual. In this worldview, people have unlimited possibilities if they/we just try hard, sacrifice, invest, produce, invent and risk. The human person is strongest as the independent "I" who may contribute to the general welfare, but only because of personal choice and acting out of personal moral or spiritual values. The conservative man or woman buckles down, works hard, and enjoys the fruits of their labor, contributing to the general welfare in limited (roads, bridges, national defense) ways. Success? Well, you deserve it because of hard work, luck, or some other feature of your life. At'a boy! Think Warren Buffet, Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Liberals (Democrats, Green Party, etc.) are focused on th…

Spiritual Reflections: Warm weather could be sign of a larger problem

My newspaper column from Saturday. All the mild weather has had me thinking...and worried.

Spiritual Reflections: Warm weather could be sign of a larger problem: After the winter we had last year, snow as high as our shoulders at the end of the driveway, cold that froze lakes hard and early, this winter’s non-start is a strange reversal. A dry Thanks...