There are several ways one could describe modern American culture. Some have referred to it as a celebrity culture, given the value we place on fame and stardom. Others have described it as a competitive culture, given the emphasis many put on individualism and free market capitalism. One increasingly common way of defining our national way of life is to see ourselves as inhabiting a shame and honor culture. Borrowing from the work of Andy Crouch, David Brooks of the New York Times describes a shame and honor culture as one in which “you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you”. Labeling America this way is a recent phenomenon influenced by social media trends such as comparing our number of “likes” and making “virtue signaling” posts. For example, many look to their social media “friends” to validate their identity and tell them who they are. Though every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, living in a shame and honor culture can have a particularly troubling effect on those with mental illness. In addition to the anxiety-producing pressure of always performing for an audience, these cultures leave no release valve for sharing our struggles. To do so may damage our reputation beyond repair and leave us embarrassed and excluded.
How does living in such a culture shape how mental health professionals provide care? While many resources could be offered, one important and underutilized tool for living in today’s culture is faith. Whereas a shame and honor lens measures one’s value on the vacillating voices of your surrounding community, a faith-based lens measures your value on the steady and stable voice of God. As the Hebrew Scriptures affirm, “The one who believes in Him will not be put to shame (Isa. 28:16). Similarly, the Christian scriptures emphasize that God himself was willing to experience the shame of a public death, so that we could experience the honor of living as a child of God. Therefore, a faith-based identity cannot be taken away by the shaming voice of others because it’s an identity grounded in an entirely different voice. To be sure, offering mental health resources within a pluralistic society means serving people across a spectrum of religious belief and unbelief. Do all people in such a society desire these resources? No. Should mental health professionals impose such resources on people? Never. Could such resources be valuable tools for those living with mental illness in a shame and honor culture? Always.