The Enterprise, Deanna Troi, and the Importance of Mental Health
Hanging in my basement, right by the shelves displaying D&D miniatures, Pop figurines, and our Lego Hogwarts, are four framed posters. They are beautiful silhouettes of my four favorite sci-fi spaceships of all time: Serenity, the TARDIS, the Millennium Falcon, and, of course, the U.S.S. Enterprise-D.
Deanna Troi embodies care and empathy, and she shows us what this high view of personhood can look like.I love all four ships for various reasons, but I have to say, the Enterprise holds a special place in my heart. I started watching Star Trek when I was in college. My roommate, my boyfriend (who would soon become my husband), and I would gather every night on those grungy, hand-me-down couches to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation while drinking mugs of Earl Grey tea and discussing the merits of Picard as the best captain in the history of captains. It was my first taste of the world of the United Federation of Planets, and I loved it. That brightly lit ship with its holodeck, its swooshing automatic doors, its sometimes-working transporter, and its replicators will always be my Enterprise. That cast will always be my crew, and Picard will always be my captain. It was, in every way, an amazing show to me.
This January, CBS will be launching a new show in the Star Trek universe, Picard, which will be a continuation of Captain Picard’s life and career and will feature many of the original cast. To say I’m excited would be a vast understatement. Perhaps it’s that excitement, or perhaps it’s just simple nostalgia, but thinking about the new show has let me about the old and remembering why it drew me in as much as it did. Of all the things I liked there is one aspect—or rather, one character—that I always come back to: Deanna Troi. With her mass of dark curls and her bright turquoise dress (or pale purple jumpsuit, depending on the season), Deanna Troi (played by Marina Sirtis who will be reprising her role in Picard) was unique on the Enterprise, not just because her uniform was so very different from everyone else’s, but because her role aboard the ship was. You see, Troi was the ship’s counselor. She was a therapist! And while that may not seem too noteworthy on the surface, put back into the context of life on future Earth and life within the United Federation of Planets, it becomes quite stunning and altogether inspiring.
Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place roughly 350 years in the future. The earth that was once a war-torn, greed-ruled planet has now become a utopian haven. Through good leadership and advances in technology, most sicknesses have been eradicated, starvation is a thing of the distant past, even currency is no longer necessary as needs are abundantly met in the wake of human achievement. In fact, Troi herself even comments at one point, “Poverty was eliminated on Earth a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it; hopelessness, despair, cruelty…” It’s a humanistic show, to be sure, and it could easily be said that a major theme of TNG is the inherent goodness of humanity. But there, in the midst of all that progress, is Counselor Troi.
Life on earth is practically perfect, peace abounds, and even the very mission of the Enterprise is simply to go make friends with new species. Yet, despite all the perfection, the heads of the Federation still deem it necessary to send along a therapist. That should be shocking to us! What’s more, they give her a seat on the bridge at the left hand of the captain. Her role as a counselor is not shameful or hidden or diminished in any way; instead, in the world of Star Trek, the need for mental health providers is normal, good, and even valued. What’s more, the mental health needs of the crew are not looked down upon either. They seek her out in times of stress, grief, or pain. They turn to her when they need to process life aboard a ship, and she comes alongside them to walk through their struggles. She offers advice and a listening ear. She is a mental health professional, and she is so, so needed.
I know it’s entirely possible amidst Troi’s complex origins that the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation just intended her to assist with first contacts and tricky inter-species negotiations. Or perhaps they simply thought she would make a fun, different sort of character, that she brought something to the ensemble that was lacking. But I like to think that they also envisioned a world where mental health needs were not looked down upon but were rather seen as a vital part of living in a healthy society. Not that a counselor was stationed aboard the flagship of the Federation in spite of the utopia around them, but that she was a part of what made that world a utopia in the first place. This vision of the dignity and importance of mental health is encouraging to me, as it should be for all of us in the church. It should be inspiring because this is the high view of mental health that we see in the Bible.
We in the church today have a pretty bad habit of separating our physical, mental, and spiritual selves. We value each differently and put a different emphasis on how we care for the parts of our being, oftentimes prioritizing our spiritual selves, tolerating our physical selves, and belittling or even shunning our mental selves. The problem with this hierarchy is that it creates a dichotomy wherein some aspects of caring for ourselves (or others) are heralded as good, while others are condemned or even shunned. This separation has created a system in many Christian circles where mental healthcare is seen not only as unnecessary but sometimes even as bad. But this is not how God talks about us in his word.
In the first pages of Genesis, God declared that he was going to make humans in his image according to his likeness (Gen. 1:26). The Hebrew word used there for image is a physical term referring to something cut off and then fashioned to resemble, or look like, the original. The word for likeness is an adverb that carries the idea of comparing two things and finding them to be similar and when combined with the phrase “according to” it becomes an explanatory preposition (you didn’t know you were going to get grammar, did you!) which means it is connected to image in such a way as to open it up to include the whole person. So where image alone would have just been a physical thing, according to his likeness means that the whole person (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) was created in the image of God. What this means for us is that we believe all people are multi-faceted whole beings and every part of us was created by God with dignity and value. It means that every part of us matter. Our bodies matter, our minds matter, our hearts matter. It means we matter.
We see this complete picture of human dignity (physical and mental) throughout the Bible. Where we often try to separate our physical, mental, and spiritual health, the Bible shows them as divinely intertwined. The Psalms in particular paint a stunning image of the value of lament, grief, joy, sorrow, even anger. Emotions and issues of the mind and heart are not looked down upon In fact, these issues of heart and mind are often pictured as combined with physical ailments. Grieving isn’t seen as weak, and struggling with depression is not something to hide. Even anxiety is not condemned in the Bible as something shameful, but rather something common to us all and something we can face and support each other in. Over and over again the people of God are called to walk with each other, bear each other’s burdens, lament, weep, rejoice together. We of all people should understand the need to care for our whole selves.
Yet so often, we don’t live like that. We are masters at compartmentalizing and evaluating and separating. To be sure, this isn’t just a church thing, but as those called to love like Christ loved and to see people as God sees them, we should be at the forefront of any movements towards a higher view of mental health. When thinking about mental health, the truth is that Star Trek: The Next Generation got right what so many of us get wrong: caring for people’s mental health is important, worthy, and good.
To be honest, Deanna Troi was not my favorite character in the show, but the more I think about her importance aboard the Enterprise and what she represented, the more I am blown away. What would it look like if we viewed mental health in the same way today? What would it be like if seeing a counselor or talking to a therapist was not something to be ashamed of, but something we did to take care of ourselves in the same way that seeing our family doctor was? What would it be like if we saw ourselves the way God sees us; complicated, beautiful, valuable people with hearts, minds, and bodies worthy of care?
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew on the Enterprise is on a mission “to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Theirs is a mission of peaceful exploration, and because it is a long-term mission of peace, the Federation allows the Enterprise to become home to both the crew and their families. For the first time, the flagship becomes more than simply a vessel; it becomes a traveling town. It becomes a community. Its inhabitants live their lives together, facing the unknown both outside and within. Throughout the series the members of the crew are faced with sickness, family struggles, births, and deaths. They experience love and loss and loneliness, and they experience those things as a community. And at the heart of that community is one woman, one counselor, who demonstrates what it looks like to care for each other well. Deanna Troi embodies care and empathy, and she shows us what this high view of personhood can look like.
As Christians, we should see the importance of elevating mental health care because God himself does. We should be the ones leading the charge to make it socially acceptable to see a therapist, advocating for a more balanced spiritual, physical, and mental life. In the same way, we come alongside our friends and neighbors who are battling cancer, we should bear the burdens of depression. We can treat chemical imbalances as we would treat any other physical ailment: with care, compassion, and when needed, medication. We can, and should, be a people who embody love, empathy, and hope, not pushing mental health into the shadows but facing it boldly in the light. We can be inspired by the Federation’s view of mental healthcare not as something to be ashamed of but as an important aspect of a well-balanced society. And we can learn from Deanna Troi’s striking example of the importance of normalizing and encouraging mental health, embodying what it looks like to love people—whole people—well.