Social Angst, Public Health, and the Catholic Church: Contextualizing the Church’s Social Doctrine: Part 1

Social angst, it feels like it’s everywhere. I can’t help but imagine that life in the 60’s felt the same as it does today. We may not have a cold war with the Soviet Union or a whole demographic of people marching for civil rights, but the constant terrorism and current tensions and violence between police and African Americans gives me the same feeling of angst that I have when I read or think about the past.

Conflict has shaped my worldview. The third week of my freshman year of high school, I was standing in a classroom watching the second tower of the World Trade Center buckle and collapse to the ground. I was in my sophomore year watching the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down. I was a junior when my girlfriend’s cousin went off to fight the war in Iraq. I was a father of 2 young children when the Great Recession struck. I went back to college as the Occupy movement started. I am turning thirty and there is a bombing almost weekly, or a new suspicious shooting involving police and an African American. And depending on who you talk to, America is coming apart at the seams because it is overrun with job-stealing immigrants, greedy mega corporations, and terrorist sleeper cells.

By no means an exhaustive list of conflicts, but just thinking about the issues mentioned has me a little stressed. For 15 years I have experienced or been told by the media, by friends and family, by politicians and religious leaders, and by people who have opposing viewpoints from me that crisis is coming, or is here already. I am not the only person with this experience. It is apparent everywhere, and it is stressful. So what happens to a person who is constantly worried and stressed?

Using a model of Chronic Social Defeat Stress (CSDS), a number of recent studies have indicated that numerous psychiatric disorders were caused by regular social defeat. Using mice, one study even identified that, after being exposed to CSDS in childhood, they exhibit more aggression and anxiety when they are adults.1

Populations subjected to strategies of politicians, religious leaders, advertising, etc. aimed at capitalizing on anxiety and anger are primed for depression. This is not only a private matter—depression is a serious social problem and has been identified as a significant characteristic of people who are vulnerable to radicalization.2

But rather than drumming up fears of riots and terrorism, as the culture is wont to do, a paradigm shift is needed. This change has to begin with every ordinary person, a grassroots movement. Political leaders aren’t generally leaders, they’re more like mad men, taking stock of public opinion and framing their actions and words accordingly, like a Nike commercial or a beer advertisement.

As it relates to the social angst, they frame their rhetoric to play on the fears, biases, and suspicions of the public, which in turn bolsters the population’s anxieties, which amplifies the negative rhetoric even further.3 It is a continuum, and we are all making ourselves sicker because the majority of people do not know that they have a health problem, so the cycle continues. It’s like a person who is trying to lose weight buying Twinkies. And, like Hostess, most in power today pump out what’s in demand.

It is a marketing strategy, and it is a public health problem mostly because the public health is already compromised. Our leadership problems are a reflection of our own collective problems. In other words, because many in leadership use marketing strategies, their bad leadership is actually a response to public demand.

So, the two problems: social angst and leadership mad men. What’s the fix? A health care model for social change. That is the paradigm shift. It provides a new way of thinking about the people we live with. Consider these four nursing perspectives of health care: autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice. These are four ethical principles for a health care model for social change.

A person’s autonomy, as a principle, requires advocacy for their personal freedom. This is the first principle and the foundation for all others. Each person has inherent dignity; it is not subjectively defined, it cannot be relatively redefined, and it cannot be taken away. There must be “compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person.”4

Defined, “non-maleficence” is the ethic of doing no harm to people. Because of each person’s inherent dignity, no harm should be done (unless for reasons of legitimate defense, e.g., see the Catholic church’s teaching on the death penalty). Therefore, it is our personal and social responsibility to protect people from harm. Our relationship with each other should be one of guardianship of each sphere of life, whether an individual, family, group, community, or population. None should be violated by intrusion or disruption.

The principle of beneficence is the ethic of promoting the good of the person. Whereas non-maleficence provides the basis for protecting what is good, beneficence actively supports what is good. It provides the basis for seeking out and advocating for a person’s well being. The person’s well being is inviolable and as such it must be protected as well; it maintains the integrity of the individual and society.

Justice is the principle whereby we treat people fairly and equally so that their wellness is promoted and maintained without bias. Resources are limited, professionals are specialized and varied, but all people require access to necessities of life such as safety, housing, food, education, healthcare, and family. Justice promotes fair and equal distribution of the necessities, it also provides the basis for retribution if such necessities are denied or infringed upon.

In a healthcare model, these principles take on the meaning of respectful service to all. We have the responsibility of ensuring that no person is disenfranchised. It means we have the responsibility to care for each other, no matter how different, or offensive, or dangerous that person may be. It changes our perspective about human behavior. Instead of the mentality of us-against-them, we become concerned with the well being of each person and treat behavior as healthy or unhealthy, rather than demonizing the “them.”

This model provides a framework to discover solutions to social angst. It gives the population a systematic perspective that can lead to self-understanding and change that will inevitably change the marketing strategies of leadership, thereby introducing health into the continuum.

And lest we fall into a trap and think that we can sacrifice one principle without sacrificing the whole model, realize that this is a systematic approach. These principles are to be taken together and synthesized into a paradigm, that is, a perspective affecting every decision and the behavior. Each principle affects and explains the other.


  1. Kovalenko, I. L., Galyamina, A. G., Smagin, D. A., Michurina, T. V., Kudryavtseva, N. N., & Enikolopov, G. (2014). Extended Effect of Chronic Social Defeat Stress in Childhood on Behaviors in Adulthood. Plos ONE, 9(3), 1-12.
  2. Bhui, K., Everitt, B., & Jones, E. (2014). Might Depression, Psychosocial Adversity, and Limited Social Assets Explain Vulnerability to and Resistance against Violent Radicalisation?. Plos ONE, 9(9), 1-10. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0105918
  3. Wilson, M. J. W. (2015, Annual). The Rhetoric of Fear and Partisan Entrenchment. Law and Psychology Review, 39, 117+. Retrieved here.
  4. Code-of-Ethics-2015-Part-1.pdf
Mike Henderson