The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) held a novena for mental health, beginning on October 10, World Mental Health Day, and concluding on October 18. The purpose was to raise awareness and remove the stigma connected to mental health issues. The USCCB offered the novena in solidarity with those suffering from mental health challenges and their health care professionals and loved ones.
To highlight mental health and a connection to Saint John Baptist de La Salle and the Lasallian mission, we asked Michael Carey, M.B.A., Psy.D., former dean of students at Manhattan College who now serves as president of Cardinal Hayes High School in New York City, to share his research on the connection. Carey published an article in a 2018 AXIS: Journal of Lasallian Higher Education issue on this topic.
The Saint and Psychology
Revisiting ideas around the world of modern clinical psychology and the work of John Baptist de La Salle, it remains clear that there is great psychological insight in the Founder’s thought. This intuitive, psychological brilliance is augmented through the work of Brother Agathon and his circular of 1785.
De La Salle’s emphasis on process, structure and insight into one’s own motivations remain key components of any psychologically nuanced approach to teaching, mentoring or counseling. De La Salle understood the prerequisite of a consistent “frame” to induce teacher training and ultimately classroom instruction. This became clear to De La Salle in the nascent stage of the developing Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. It is well documented that he had a willing, yet very undisciplined cohort of would-be teachers. The teachers needed teaching. He set about developing a painstaking set of guidelines to work with the teachers and to implement detailed guidelines in administering the schools. More than 300 years later these ideas remain relevant.
In my work today as a clinical psychologist and inner-city, Catholic school administrator, the notions of structure, discipline, civility and decorum remain essential ingredients to the success of our young students. Introducing psychological and spiritual concepts through teaching, administration, counseling, coaching and mentoring is an effective and powerful form of nonviolent social change.
In the increasingly secular world of education in America, the tendency is to overlook and even actively disregard concepts such as the 12 virtues of a good teacher as espoused by De La Salle and the Christian Brothers. Like the great Archbishop John Hughes in mid-19th century New York, De La Salle had his own political battles in late 17th century and early 18th century France establishing schools based on these ideals. Yet even today, when applied from a modern, clinical psychological approach these virtues can serve as a foundation for improved mental health experiences for teachers and students. All current data suggests mental health is an increasingly important concern for teachers and students. There are numerous points of integration between Lasallian thought and modern psychological theory. These concepts can be mined further and applied in the modern educational setting. These spiritual tools are additive.
There is a natural synergy for application of psychological principles in faith-based schools. Politics and public funding aside, the reality is that Lasallian virtues exist within the world of psychology and in all the great wisdom traditions. It is useful to be reminded that psyche means soul and psychology is the study of the soul. A perusal of the scientific literature on double blind studies will also demonstrate the efficacy of tools such as prayer in dealing with issues such as health concerns. Authentic psychotherapy is an inherently spiritual practice. So is psychologically conscious teaching. John Baptist de La Salle understood this intuitively.
Finally, in a nod to the managerial and psychological wisdom of De La Salle, he never started out to establish the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. He was a priest discerning his ministry. Yet, he displayed a faith that his God presented him with challenges, and he accepted the challenges and responsibilities put before him. Through the virtue of humility, De La Salle exhibited a psychological and spiritual maturity of living in the present moment that he named years later. As De La Salle is noted as saying, God led him “in an imperceptible way and over a long period of time so that one commitment led to another in a way that I did not foresee in the beginning.” Experienced educators worldwide will see enlightenment in this reflection.