March 22, 2021

Serving Those Society Deems ‘Wrong Notes’

Enlightening Minds Research Review 2021

After earning a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton, serving 10 years as a pastor, and becoming CEO of a mental health organization, Jeremy Morse entered PBA’s Ph.D. in Practical Theology program “to bring all those things together,” addressing the needs of people with mental health conditions. His synthesis has drawn $50,000 in research grants and even involves his love for jazz.

Jeremy Morse“Practical theology is very much like jazz in a way,” said Morse, shown in the photo above with his sax, sitting in with the Susan Merritt Trio. His first research paper toward the Ph.D. shared a story about trumpeter Miles Davis, one of the great innovators of jazz. The young Davis would leave his classes at Julliard to sit in with working musicians at New York City jazz clubs. There he found it hard to improvise, constantly worried about playing the wrong notes.

“Finally, a seasoned professional explained to Miles that when jazz players improvise, they interpret music’s structures, reshape them and build new structures together,” said Morse. “In jazz, so-called ‘wrong notes’ transform what is given and lead the musicians and audiences to new experiences.”

For his “day job,” Morse is CEO of Mental Health America of the Palm Beaches, which focuses on providing supportive communities for people living with sometimes severe mental health conditions. “These are people who our culture excludes, ignores, and pushes off into the margins as if they were ‘wrong notes,’” he said.

In his Ph.D. research, Morse interviewed some of these people “in the margins,” including a woman referred to as “Sophie.” She told of the stress of trying to hold down a job when you hear voices and your seemingly bizarre external behavior causes people to avoid you. And after she was given a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia, her only experience was exclusion.

“Once people find out you have a mental illness, they treat you like you have the plague or something like they’re going to catch it,” Sophie told Morse. “Nobody wants to be your friend.”

At Mental Health America, Morse has seen the harmful effects of this exclusion for people with schizophrenia or another disorder. “Those diagnoses become a very basis for identity,” he said. Responding to that, in his research he asks, “How do we create a supportive community for these people, an alternative community?”

The question leads him to theology. “In our practical theology courses, we believe that theology is transformative,” said Morse. “So how can we create faith communities that are truly transformative?” Such communities could serve to hurt populations of all kinds, but how to create them? And how to measure their effectiveness?

Enter SenseMaker®, “a really innovative qualitative research tool” as described by Morse. “This web-based platform allows people like Sophie to provide qualitative information about their life experiences, and about any types of interventions that you’re doing and whether they perceive those interventions as being helpful,” he explained. “The tool will transform those stories into quantitative data that you can really work with.”

For his research and work at Mental Health America, Morse has won $50,000 in grants from Palm Health Foundation to implement the SenseMaker® tool for two years. “Palm Health Foundation is a great partner,” he said. “They’re the ones who discovered the effectiveness of  SenseMaker®.”

For the next two years Mental Health America will use this tool “to understand the stories of our members here,” said Morse, “to discover what we need to do to create a supportive community where they can flourish.”

Simultaneously, with the help of his own community within the Practical Theology program, Morse will wrestle with a challenge he sees facing the Christian Church: “Why aren’t we creating alternative communities where people who are really living on the margins of our culture feel welcomed, feel accepted? And why aren’t we listening to their voices?”

Such voices, such “wrong notes,” said Morse, deserve to be heard. “And like it is with jazz, if we listen, those voices may lead us to something new.”

“Jeremy Morse is truly a Renaissance kind of person,” said Dr. Bryan Froehle, director of the Ph.D. in Practical Theology. “He’s a musician, community leader, and nationally known figure in mental health advocacy, not to mention a born educator and outstanding researcher and grant writer.

“And Jeremy’s engagement of newly emerging approaches to narrative theology and cutting edge computer software reflects our doctoral program’s deep commitment to engaging empirical approaches in theological method and methodology,” Froehle said. “Just as we see in the Bible, God speaks to us through stories and people in everyday life. This is a central insight of the discipline of practical theology. That’s what Jeremy is doing and that’s what makes our Ph.D. program in Practical Theology here at PBA so special.”

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