Monday, March 26, 2007

Mental Illness

This post is meant to be a positive response to articles written by one of my favorite bloggers, Steve M. from Within The Bubble. I consider the author of this blog one of my best "cyber-pals" and love his perspective on the LDS Church. While we disagree at times, I feel our conversations have been very productive and I have come away from our dialogue enlightened.

I disagree with his latest series titled "Mormonism and Mental Illness." I believe it is too negative and does not highlight the Church's current stance and efforts concerning mental illness, specifically depression. He has promised a third installment to his series that will detail the Church's efforts, but I can't resist the opportunity to post my own thoughts and quotes.

To learn about the LDS Church's current feelings about this issue all one has to do is go to the Church's official website ( and read through the "Ensign" and other official Church publications. Here are a few points and comments made in these magazines over the recent years:

In what I feel is a powerful and well-written article titled "Myths about Mental Illness" Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy tackles the myths that exists among others, even members of the LDS Church, about mental illness. Please allow me to highlight his points:

1. All mental illness is caused by sin...

The truth is that many faithful Latter-day Saints who live the commandments and honor their covenants experience struggles with mental illness or are required to deal with the intense pain and suffering of morally righteous but mentally ill family members. Their burdens—and they are many—can be lifted only by love, understanding, and acceptance.

2. Someone is to blame for mental illness...

Ascribing blame for mental illness causes unnecessary suffering for all concerned and takes time and energy which would better be used to increase understanding of what actually is happening—to get a complete assessment and proper diagnosis of the illness involved, to understand the causes, to get proper medication and learn behavioral and cognitive techniques that are part of the healing process. As victims, loved ones, and all the rest of us increase our understanding, then patience, forgiveness, and empathy will replace denial, anger, and rejection.

3. All that people with mental illness need is a priesthood blessing...

Without in any way denigrating the unique role of priesthood blessings, that ecclesiastical leaders are spiritual leaders and not mental health professionals. Most of them lack the professional skills and training to deal effectively with deep-seated mental illnesses and are well advised to seek competent professional assistance for those in their charge who are in need of it. Remember that God has given us wondrous knowledge and technology that can help us overcome grievous problems such as mental illness. 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 medical and other appropriate professional assistance in dealing with mental illness.

4. Mentally ill persons just lack willpower...

The fact is that seriously mentally ill persons simply cannot, through an exercise of will, get out of the predicament they are in. They need help, encouragement, understanding, and love. Anyone who has ever witnessed the well-nigh unbearable pain of a severe panic attack knows full well that nobody would suffer that way if all that was needed was to show a little willpower. No one who has witnessed the almost indescribable sadness of a severely depressed person who perhaps can’t even get out of bed, who cries all day or retreats into hopeless apathy, or who tries to kill himself would ever think for a moment that mental illness is just a problem of willpower. We don’t say to persons with heart disease or cancer, “Just grow up and get over it.” Neither should we treat the mentally ill in such an uncompassionate and unhelpful way. -Alexander B. Morrison, “Myths about Mental Illness,” Ensign, Oct 2005, 31–35

If this article does not tackle the misconceptions in the LDS Church that Steve covers in his series, I don't know what would.

In an Ensign article titled "Easing the Burdens of Mental Illness" Dawn and Jay Fox write:

Sometimes good parents of mentally ill children are told by the unknowing that perhaps the child’s illness could have been avoided if they had practiced better parenting skills. Yet scientific evidence shows that there is a strong biological component in many of these disorders. For example, research performed by Brigham Young University professor Erin D. Bigler shows actual differences in the brains of those with various mental disorders. Dr. Bigler believes that “major psychiatric disorders have physiological underpinnings.” 9 These illnesses may develop in even the best of environments...we can help people find the resources they need. LDS Family Services, which can be accessed through one’s bishop, offers support and professional counseling to individuals and families within the context of Latter-day Saint values and, if necessary, makes referrals to hospitals or other treatment centers. -Dawn and Jay Fox, “Easing the Burdens of Mental Illness,” Ensign, Oct 2001, 32

This article explains that mental illness is not the result of bad parenting, but that there is conclusive evidence that it is tied to biological factors. It also directs people the seek professional counseling and medical assistance.

In response to the question "“My friend seems really depressed, and I’m afraid she might even be thinking about taking her own life. What should I do?” the Church's youth Magazine "New Era" responded:

Depression is a symptom of mental or emotional illness. Just as she would go to a doctor to be treated for a physical illness, she can talk to a professional who can help her understand the nature of epression and teach her ways to cope with it. Whether she is a member of the Church or not, she can get spiritual help. She can pray, get a priesthood blessing, and find comfort by reading the scriptures. Testify to her that the Lord loves her and can bless her with peace. -“Q&A:Questions and Answers,” NewEra, Feb 2007, 14–16

I find the comparison of mental illness and physical illness to be very correct and accurate. I think that most medical professionals would agree with this.

In 2004 in an article titled "When Your Child Is Depressed" Sean E. Brotherson writes:

To understand and identify chronic depression when it
occurs is the first step toward making a difference. Parents should be attentive to depressive symptoms in children of any age, but particularly as they grow older, when the condition becomes more common and the consequences more serious. It is important to recognize that chronic depression is a specific illness that often requires intervention just like diabetes or pneumonia. Fortunately, it is highly treatable, and most individuals respond well to a combination of spiritual and social support, medication if necessary, and therapeutic guidance.-
Sean E. Brotherson, “When Your Child Is Depressed,” Ensign, Aug 2004, 52–57

He also says:

"Depressive symptoms may occur due to a lack of certain brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that affect an individual’s mood and perception. This is often referred to as a chemical imbalance in the brain. Parents should also understand that when a young person lives contrary to the way he or she has been taught, this can lead to inner conflict and despair (see Moro. 10:22). This can be resolved through repentance. However, it should not be assumed that most cases of clinical depression are caused by unrighteousness."

This article mentions many avenues of helping childen cope with depression, including medication and counseling. It also strikes at the myth that clinical depression is caused by unrighteousness. A child can be depressed because of living contrary to the Gospel, but this should not be assumed, and serious mental illness should always be considered.

In the article "Rising Above the Blues" the author writes:

Depression is real. There are many misconceptions about
depression. Here are a few of the falsehoods you might have heard, along with the truth about this serious mental condition:

False: All teenagers are moody. They don’t have real depression.
True: People of any age can suffer from depression. While it is true that the teen years bring many ups and downs, those who suffer from prolonged depression have a very real health problem.

False: Teens who say they’re depressed just need to snap out of it.
True: That’s like telling someone to perform surgery on himself. Depression is not a phase. It is a serious illness. Those who suffer from depression should see a doctor to find out how to begin treatment.

False: Telling someone that your friend is depressed is betraying a trust.
True: A real friend would do his best to make sure his friend gets help. Depression takes away motivation, and your friend might not recognize that he or she needs help or care about getting help. It’s up to you to be a good friend."-
Shanna Ghaznavi, “Rising Above the Blues,” New Era, Apr 2002, 30

I could continue and share more qoutes and comments in official Church publications about mental illness, but I believe this will suffice. From these articles we learn that chronic mental illness is not due to sin, but a true illness that must be treated by health professionals. This stance is in complete harmony with how many psychologists and doctors view mental illness.

To help battle mental illness the Church offers counseling services through its "Family Services." From the official website of this organization we learn that:

LDS Family Services has 57 offices throughout the United States and 12 international offices in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil available to provide counseling services to individuals, couples, and families. The professional counseling staff hold a master's degree in the behavioral sciences at a minimum.,12283,2129-1,00.html

Bishops and Stake Leaders are directed to refer members to professionals in LDS Family Services whenever a member of the Church comes to them with signs of mental illness.
There is a charge for these services however for many less fortunate members the Church absorbs the costs. I do not have a dollar amount on how much the Church covers, but I would not be surprised if they were spending millions and millions of dollars annually.

The Church is actively publishing articles that present a correct and well-informed view of mental illness. Ecclesiastical leaders are counseled to direct members that show signs of mental illness to health professionals immediately. The Church is also spending millions of dollars to pay for the counseling and assistance of many of its members through medical professionals. In my opinion, this puts the LDS Church at the forefront of other religious organizations in how they are handling mental illness and the Church deserves credit and praise.

Can the Church improve? Yes. Every organization connected with mental illness, religious and secular, should be striving to improve in how they deal with mental illness. The more important question is if the Church is improving. I think it is clear that it is.

Do members of the Church, even leaders have misconceptions about mental illness? Yes. There are members of the Church (and I would speculate some leaders) that are not as well-informed about mental illness and have misconceptions. This may be caused by early writings of others, including Church leaders that do not recognize mental illness as an actual medical condition. But members and leaders of the Church should not be relying on old material that is not in harmony with the Church's current stance and efforts. They are in error. We cannot blame a member's misconceptions on the Church itself, when it is doing all it can to provide correct and accurate information about mental illness to its leaders and members.

Steve shares personal and poignant experiences in which his leaders attributed his mental illness to sin. This is tragic, and I can understand someone having dissatisfaction for the Church's views on mental illness after having these experiences.

However, I have heard many stories of bishops directing members to health professionals, sometimes paying for this assistance. I personally struggle with mental illness and have had several bishops and a mission president refer me to health professionals immediately, at times paying for it. I feel that my story and others who have had their leaders direct them to professionals is the norm.

The Church should and will continue to educate its leaders on proper procedures regarding mental illness. Mistakes will occur, but I firmly believe the Church is doing all it can and will continue to.


Jeremy said...

A very interesting and informative read. Thanks for the post!

Steve M. said...

Well, Drew, you've gone ahead and written the next installment in my little series of posts on mental illness.

We cannot blame a member's misconceptions on the Church itself, when it is doing all it can to provide correct and accurate information about mental illness to its leaders and members.

I totally agree with this. I hope my posts didn't come off as being critical of the institutional Church. I think the Church is headed in the right direction and is doing a lot to get accurate information out there and to help members deal with mental and emotional problems in appropriate ways. I'd like to see better, more formal training of the lay ministry regarding mental illness, but I think we're already headed in this direction.

My concerns are more with the stigmas attached to mental illness within Mormon culture. In my posts, I quoted from some articles written by GAs to illustrate both manifestations and possible sources of some of our cultural misunderstandings. Even if some of these are outdated (although, most of my sources are recent), myths don't die overnight, despite the admirable efforts of Elder Morrison, Elder Ballard, and other Church authorities to clear up misunderstandings and create a more supportive culture.

I really think the Church is doing a good job addressing mental illness these days, as your post illustrates so well. Culturally, I feel that there's still plenty of room for improvement, but we're moving in the right direction.

Thanks for the post.

Drew said...


Regarding formal training for priesthood leaders, I was wondering if there were any laws or regulations that the Church has to adhere to.

Bishops aren't considered medical professionals so I wonder how much training the Church is allowed to give in preparing its leadership to deal with mental illness. I wonder if there are any restrictions on the type of training the Church is allowed to offer. You would assume that the more someone knows about mental illness the better, but I would not be surprised if there were laws and regulations concerning institutional programs meant to train someone in a certain medical field, such as psychology or psychiatry.

I wonder how I could find out more about this. If you know anything about this, Steve, please share.

Steve M. said...

I wish I knew about the legal stuff.

I don't think leaders should be trained to treat mental illness, but I think that, as counselors, they should be familiar enough with its nature and signs to be able to at least recognize it.

The clergy in other churches are trained in counseling methods, I believe. But nothing of a medical nature probably.

Aaron said...

I like this conversation as I have worked in the mental health field for over ten years. I also have experience as an ecclesiastical leader. I agree with Steve M. that leaders should not have formal training in how to treat mental illness, other than recieving training as to resources available (and they do this). There are many viewpoints on how to approach mental illness, and there are many proper approaches (providing the solution always points to gospel principles). Bishops need to be bishops, not therapists. Sometime, as candid "old-school" approach(unfettered by the language and perspective of the mental health profession) is just what the member needs. Granted, if the bishop happens to have experience in the field, that's fine, too.

The neat thing about the gospel is that we know that people can find happiness through correct choices, regardless of the minutae of details that make up their environment. What I mean to say is that a person's salvation will not depend on what a bishop says to him/her, or what counselling he does or doesn't recieve. To believe that we must control the details of our (or our children's) environment in order for them to have happiness shows a lack of faith and a lack of understanding of the gospel.
Of course, I don' suggest a course of apathy. We all do our best, press forward with faith, and trust in the Lord.