Authors note: This is a re-post of a previous article with updates and updated resources.
“I have of late- but wherefore I know not- lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air- look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire- why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man!”
-William Shakespeare from “Hamlet” scene 2 act 2.
When I was a college student, laboring under the difficulty of my studies, a young family and a new city, I started having strange symptoms. Chest pain, tingling fingers, shortness of breath, headaches and panic. I went to the hospital twice and the EKG’s they gave me came back normal. Whew! Right? About the same time I started noticing that God was sending me subtle messages through my surroundings. An overheard snippet of conversation, a song on the radio, a glimpsed billboard and even the subjects of Sunday School lessons. The message: “You are going to die soon.” There was no peace for me. Even the good times were seen through a dark lens. I thought that God must be letting me have these fun times with my family as one last fling before he takes me out. I didn’t talk to anyone, I was afraid to tell my wife because I didn’t want to cause her undue stress, I was ashamed to tell anyone else since I was afraid I was wrong. I was afraid I was right. I was afraid. I continued with school and Church, I prayed with the earnestness of agony and if I occasionally got a feeling of comfort from a loving father, which I did, I immediately doubted it. I panicked at the Temple, where I expected to be safe and protected, and was afraid to return for years.
One of the classes I was taking was “The Physiology of Psychology.” I don’t know why I signed up for that particular class, I was a design student at an art school for cryin’ out loud, but it changed my outlook. I learned about symptoms of mental illness; I learned about treatments; I learned how to deal with stress. This knowledge was powerful! I started researching on my own; I talked to the teacher, who was a mental health professional, and others. I recognized the symptoms of panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder in myself, I learned some coping skills, I changed my diet a little, I changed my caffeine use a little and the pall lifted over time.
I didn’t think much about mental illness before then. If I met someone or heard about someone who was suffering, after a twinge of sympathy, I had the typical responses:
“just get over it”
“They must be doing something wrong (or) something to deserve it”
“God will fix it if you just pray more/ have faith”
I have since come to believe that these attitudes can be as dangerous as weapons in their ability to harm and even kill.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that 46.4% of American adults will suffer with some form of mental disorder throughout their lives. That’s “throughout” and not just “at some time.” 4.1% of those are serious mental illnesses or: “A mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders)…resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
That doesn’t include the occasional situational depression and other temporary mental maladies that most people experience from time to time. The statistics aren’t much different for Utah, where the highly concentrated Mormon population is generally seen as representing the larger Church. So if this is such a pervasive problem in this country AND in the Church, why aren’t we doing more? The NIMH also reports that 33.4% of those 46.4%, get “minimally adequate care” and only 12% are receiving effective treatment.
Recently, as a High Priest group leader I became acquainted with “Bob”. He suffers with delusional paranoia although it took me a while to find that out. Because of this disability, among others, (and I should say that most mental disorders come with a host of accompanying problems) his ability to work is extremely limited. Bob is a widower, twice divorced and lives alone in a crappy studio apartment in Utah Valley. He is a faithful member of the Church and although his paranoia makes activity difficult for him, he still attends as much as he can. As I got to know him I discovered a caring sensitive soul who is witty and occasionally quite charming. It was obvious to me that he needed help and I wanted to offer it although I had no clue how to proceed. I talked to the Bishop but he didn’t know. He offered LDS Family Services (LDSFS) but they weren’t equipped to deal with Bob’s serious mental issues. Paranoia is particularly difficult because the victim doesn’t think they are paranoid. There is a real danger that if you suggest that they need help, you will suddenly become part of the conspiracy. As our friendship grew and Bob came to trust me, I suggested that he get help for the “anxiety” that the conspiracy was causing him. He agreed. I followed a lead from LDSFS, but with little to no resources I hit many dead ends. I finally found a doctor who was willing to accept Bob’s Medicare, so I took a day off work and spent the whole day with him getting his appointments lined up and making sure he was able to get there. What a nightmarish, bureaucratic obstacle course! He never could have done it on his own even if he thought he needed to. He’s on medication now, doing generally better, still with the ups and downs but what would he have done without me? it’s a frightening thought for me.
Update: I’m no longer HPGL, but I have been assigned as a Home Teacher to Bob who has been on and off medication sporadically since the initial publication of this article. It’s hard to ensure consistency without someone to guide him every day. I simply don’t have the time and welfare services don’t have the means. I have learned that they usually won’t intervene until a situation has become a crisis. Notwithstanding, he has managed to work quite a bit, he is a long-haul truck driver which he really enjoys, and he seems to do much better managing his mental health when he is productively occupied. Very recently, Bob was hospitalized for emergency surgery on three life threatening blood clots. He is there at this writing, recovering well. When he is personally monitored and attended to, his true personality shines through. His nurses adore him.
Bishops all over The Church are faced with this same dilemma. In a culture that emphasizes self-reliance, when we are faced with something beyond our ability, the Bishop is often our only other option. They become our counselor, whether they are qualified or not. Most are not. I would say 99.99999% are not, only because I know a couple that actually are psychologists. But although they have been given the stewardship to be the spiritual counselors to the ward, that certainly doesn’t qualify them to be therapists, so when someone shows up in their office with a mental health related problem, what are they to do? That is a critical problem that needs a definite answer besides LDS Family Services. Bishops need education about other options.
“spiritual leaders should not be expected to take on the roles of mental-health professionals. Just as we would not hesitate to consult a physician about medical problems such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes, so too we should not hesitate to obtain appropriate professional assistance in dealing with mental illness.”
-Alexander B. Morrison
As part of my efforts to help Bob and others in my high Priests Group, (there are about a dozen men that live in the apartment building with Bob with a wide variety of issues) I was invited to and attended a “Mental Health Services Awareness Night” hosted by BYU. Mental health professionals and service providers from all over Utah Valley presented options for care and support. It was set up like a job or education fair with booths for each provider. Participants could visit booths of particular interest for them and learn about options. I learned more there than any other single place I had been. It is an annual event, organized by Intermountain Health Care that has been happening since 2010. Merrill J. Bateman and former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff gave addresses that encouraged community involvement and education. This is a big step in the right direction. Still not enough. Until we can dramatically change the above mentioned statistics, it won’t be enough.
The Prophet George Albert Smith suffered with debilitating depression for many years as written about by Mary Jane Woodger in her essay “Cheat the Asylum of a Victim” (Journal of Mormon History vol. 34 no. 4, pp 113- 152.) I have read about President Smith many times (he’s one of my faves) and I taught from the manual that detailed his life, but I never knew about his struggle with mental health. The most it got was a mention that he suffered from poor health. Why was this information suppressed? Are we so afraid of the unknown? Are we assumed too fragile in our faith to be able to deal with the reality of mental illness? We have been suffering too long under a culture of shame, embarrassment and fear. It prevents us from helping, it prevents us from seeking help and it prevents us from true compassion. Like the lepers of biblical times, the mentally ill are shunned, ignored and ostracized by the culture that surrounds them. Christ reached out to them against ‘cultural sensibilities’, cared for them and healed them. He made a real difference in individual lives and he encourages us to do the same. (do I even need to cite the scriptural references?) It’s time to change and WE can be the agents.
Elder Alexander B. Morrison of The Seventy (emeritus) has long been an advocate for Mental Health awareness in The Church. He has spoken, written for the Ensign and his book “Valley of Sorrow: a Layman’s Guide to Understanding Mental Health For Latter-Day Saints” (2003 Deseret Book) is a valuable resource for those trying to learn about and find solutions for mental illness.
The Church provides a wealth of information about mental heath. LDS.org has links to a variety of resources from within and without the organization, depending on the need. But it’s not likely that someone who suffers with mental illness will be have the wherewithal to seek it on their own. They need advocates.
Understanding Mental Illness
“There are many kinds of mental illnesses that affect the way the brain functions. They can affect thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and the ability to understand information. Mental illnesses are different from everyday experiences of sadness, feeling upset, or daily problems. Mental illness makes normal living difficult.
Some mental illnesses are severe and disabling. They may be lifelong illnesses that can be improved but not cured. Some are less severe and are more easily treated or cured. Only a trained professional should make a diagnosis of mental illness. It is often difficult for others to tell the difference between human struggles or behavior problems and mental illnesses.
Mental illness is often poorly understood. This keeps many people from seeking help and receiving treatment. It may be difficult for people with mental illness to talk about it and get support and understanding from others.
The causes of these illnesses are complex. They are usually the result of problems in brain functioning, genetic vulnerability, trauma, chronic thinking patterns, or other emotionally difficult experiences. People with mental illnesses cannot just will themselves to get better. Blaming the person or others for the illness is harmful. When others respond with compassion, it can help the person feel more comfortable.
Most people with mental illnesses are neither violent nor dangerous. Recent advances in treatment have made it possible to manage or treat most mental illnesses. Most people are helped by treatment from a trained mental health professional. Other people can help by providing loving concern, support, and spiritual strength.”
This site is great and very worthwhile. The links and information on the page will direct you to valuable resources.
The BYU Comprehensive clinic offers personal and family counseling as well as valuable information on their website. They are advertizing another Mental Health Services Awareness Night on October 29th. They include a phone number for more information at the site, which is linked here.
The Mormon Mental Health Association was founded in June of 2014, with the goal of
“increasing training, research, strategy, collaboration and education in the mental health treatment of Mormons, helping ensure that this population’s needs are being met by trained professionals who adhere to professional ethics codes. This would include the ability to respectfully and adequately treat and educate Mormons self-identifying in any manner of religious belief or non-belief, sexual orientation or preference, gender identity, or any other area they may find themselves in, through an evidence-based, best-practice approach consistent with professional ethics first and foremost.”
They offer many excellent resources including a series of podcasts, dealing with specific issues from transgendered people to suicide to Missionaries specific concerns, and many others.
With as big a problem as mental health has become, and with the dire consequences of ignoring it, it seems that we, as a Church, with wealth and resources, could be doing more. We can do more. Here’s a few suggestions:
*If you don’t suffer from mental issues and don’t know anyone who does, chances are you aren’t reading this. There’s nothing better for raising awareness than personal experience. But if you are still reading, open your eyes and see those around you that are suffering, get educated and reach out.
*If you are suffering with a mental disorder, open your mouth. You can’t “just get over it” Get someone to help you find professional help. Prayer and Scriptures aren’t going to heal you but they may help you find peace and direction and a connection to God. Remember: He want’s you to succeed. Believe that. Embrace every element of the gospel of Christ that can aid in healing. In order to thrive as a whole person, we need to attend to physical, emotional, spiritual, cultural and mental health. Activity in the Church can help maintain health in some of these areas, but professional help is essential. So as you seek the help of physicians, and therapists, don’t discount the benefit that activity in the Church can offer. Many people that I talked to in preparation for this post told stories of caring Home Teachers, Enlightened Bishops and Relief Society Presidents, even friends who reached out and offered the critical link to the help that was desperately needed.
*If you know someone who is suffering, reach out. Don’t just say, “if there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” That doesn’t really help. It’s really hard for someone suffering from depression or anxiety, for instance, to ask for help. They need you.
“Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.”
*As a supporter, get help for yourself if you need it. Establish personal connections with others who understand the situation and are willing to check on you and provide the help you will need. Even if we can academically understand that someone has a mental problem, dealing with it on a day-to-day basis is still difficult. I often get frustrated with Bob and have to check myself with a fresh perspective. Having others that know Bob and what he is going through, has been welcome relief, even if it’s just talking.
The bigger problem is overcoming the prejudices and and stigma that still come with mental illness. We have come a long way towards understanding and treating certain conditions like depression and anxiety, but eating disorders, dementia, and even PTSD are still quite misunderstood. Talk about it without stigma, without shame, with love unfeigned. Ask “How are you doing?”. Listen. Ask Family, friends, Church leaders. Raise awareness, encourage your Bishop- Elders Quorum President- Stake President- Area Authority- President Monson (why not?) to learn more, and make more resources available. If you cared enough to read this YOU are the greatest hope for the change that we need.
Featured image: “She Will Find What is Lost” by Brian Kershiznik