Grieving Amish Turn to Mental Health Counselors

After a school shooting, psychiatrists and other mental health counselors rush to the scene to help the traumatized. In the Amish community, victimized on Monday, there is a changing relationship with mental health counselors. The Amish have come to rely more on mental health care — especially if it is tailored to their beliefs.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

While members of the Amish community reject modern things such as electricity and cars, they have embraced one part of contemporary life - mental health services.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports on that part of the response to yesterday's tragedy.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: After the shooting, a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania mental health team went to the fire house just down the road from the school. About 40 Amish neighbors - they don't use radios and television - gathered there to get information. John Tartibuno is a clinical psychologist. He was part of the mental health team.

Dr. JOHN TARTIBUNO (Psychologist): They were asking very practical questions: Should I send them to school tomorrow? If they want to sleep in my bed because they are frightened, what should we do? The exact same kind of questions any one of us would be asking.

SHAPIRO: The mental health team will return to the fire house tomorrow night to offer more long term mental health care.

Ms. MARY STEFFY (Mental Health Association of Lancaster County): I think there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about the Amish community, and I think in years past they did not access mental health services, as I have seen an openness changing in the last three to four or five years.

SHAPIRO: Mary Steffy is executive director of the Mental Health Association of Lancaster County. The Amish have no church rules against seeing doctors or getting operations - it's up to local communities and families. Steffy says the Amish in Lancaster County have for a long time run a support group for people with mental health problems. In recent years, they've wanted even more mental health services. Still, they didn't want to expose people to pressure to leave their ways of living and beliefs.

Ms. STEFFY: Because mental health services are all about how you think and what your values are and, you know, how your mind works, you would want to be very certain about the values of the people with whom you're going to interact.

SHAPIRO: That came last year, when local Amish helped build their own mental health facility. It's a simple house for 16 patients. It's called Green Pastures and it's on the grounds of Philhaven, a psychiatric facility founded by the Lancaster Conference of Mennonite Churches. Mennonites have similar religious beliefs, although most do not live apart from modern things the same way as the Amish. Dr. Francis Sparrow is medical director at Philhaven. He says his facility will offer services to families in this shooting.

Dr. FRANCIS SPARROW (Philhaven): So there is support there that is compatible with their spirituality and their religious beliefs, but yet there is that ability to comprehend and understand their social and emotional needs as well.

SHAPIRO: John Tartibuno, the psychologist who met with local Amish people the night of the shootings, was surprised to find them talking about more than simply supporting the families of the victims. They were talking about helping the family of the killer, a man who lived nearby but who wasn't Amish.

Dr. TARTIBUNO: They were talking about how they can support and help his family. They're planning to send a contingent over and perhaps bringing them some food, and they've already gotten to the point of forgiveness.

SHAPIRO: Still, for the Amish, just like any community, there will be hard work to deal with the tragic shooting that shattered the peace of their community.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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