What’s going on and how do we deal with it?

I am a skeptic, I have a difficult time with faith, and there aren’t many things I believe wholeheartedly that I can’t judge based on my own experience, whether spiritual or temporal. There are some truths I hold to, nonetheless, and one of them is the mutability of human nature. I believe we have the ability, perhaps particularly so in this mortal life, to change who we are fundamentally, for better and for worse – and often both at the same time. I also believe that we can help each other change, in fact, those two things together sum up a good portion of what we are here on earth to do, and what we are most fulfilled by doing, as I see it: 1) work to grow ourselves and, 2) help each other grow.

Here is my problem:
What happens when we are dealing with people who are so mired in their circumstances that our experiences together don’t seem to help? I’ll give a few examples of what I am thinking about. I’ve worked with children and youth in high risk situations on and off for several years. One thing that is very difficult to break through is the depression in children and teenagers who know that their chances of making much of themselves in life are slim to none. Granted, some people can come through even exceptionally bad circumstances and make a life that is happy and fulfilling. Many, however, do not. Teenagers in low socioeconomic areas, particularly in high-gang activity areas, know this. I remember working with one kid who had been doing pretty well through his junior high school years. But in his second year of high school he just lost it. He stopped playing sports, his grades plummeted, he pretty much dropped out of life. After many attempts to get through to him, I once had an open, honest talk with him in which he told me that he just didn’t see the point in making much effort any more, because everyone else in his life had dropped out too. His brothers and cousins and friends were in gangs, some of them had been killed, many were in jail or clearly headed in that direction. He couldn’t see, despite some serious adult intervention on his behalf, how he could be different. This wasn’t laziness, it was an acknowledgement of reality.

Another example from yesterday, which is what got me thinking about this issue again: my husband and I know a family that has difficulties with their younger son, who has been in and out of high school for several years, and now he is nearly 21 and still has not finished. In the last 2 years, in particular, he has become severely depressed and nonresponsive to life. He wanders the streets and doesn’t go to the few classes he needs to get his GED. We have known this family a few years, we have seen the son go in and out of the hospital, talked with him, given him blessings, given his mother blessings. His mother is at a point where she doesn’t feel like she can take it any more – she can’t get her son to take care of his basic human needs, and she is tired of doing these things for him, but she doesn’t want to put him out on the street.

What do we do? My question is not, whom should we help? Nor is it, how can we judge who needs our time and energy? We are fallible, we can’t judge where someone is in life, and we probably all have experiences in which we know people who didn’t appear to be getting their lives in order who later on will change and testify to the love and support that sustained them in their difficult times. We all need help, we all deserve it, because life is struggle. My question is, what do we do for those who seem to have given up, especially young people? How do we get them engaged in life? Is it just a problem of brain chemistry – are some people depressed and therefore the best help is medicine? (full disclosure: I have siblings and other relatives with chronic depression, and in no way do I mean to diminish the force of it, and I acknowledge that brain chemistry matters a great deal in who we are and become).
What do we do when it seems we can’t help each other grow/change/deal with problems?


  1. Also to keep in mind, folks who have gotten into the habit of living a different kin dof lifestyle that their afflictions ave forced them into, are usually resistant when faced with the prospect of changing, even if they intellectually understand that making a change goin to be good for them in the long run. I think your situation calls for the intervention fo soemone who is trained and licensed to deal with people with problems that the young man you are helping. The combination of the support you and your husband can offer, plus the skill sof the social worker will, I think help this person to overcom the obstacles in his way, and resume living a normal life. Best of luck.

  2. Davis Bell says:


    Those are tough, tough questions, and ones that I asked myself too many times on my mission as I sought to help people who were mired in adversity and the depression that often accompanies it. Such assistance was both beyond my call as a missionary as well as my capabilities. As a permanent member of a ward and friend to a family, perhaps you and your husband — whom I think I met a few weeks ago at a dinner at Christy Somers’ house — are in a better position to help. Medical attention is one alternative that should be explored if possible (counseling and/or medicine). But I also think it’s hard to underestimate the positive impact you and your husband could have on the life of the boy in question. I say keep at it, even if you don’t think you’re making a difference.

  3. Christina, that’s an awfully serious topic to generate much discussion from the cheerful and lighthearted Bcc crew. Once a behavioral problem gets beyond the scope of simple advice like “clean your room” or “do your homework” or “of course you have to go to church unless you’re sick or faking it really well,” most Mormons (at least most Bcc Mormons) know better than to offer free advice.

    There are professionals who do this kind of thing (then write a book about it or, if they are particularly good in front of a camera, start their own TV show). Perhaps the best assistance people like us can give to those facing “serious” problems of the sort you describe is pointing them towards good practitioners or resources.

  4. Tom Manney says:

    Has this young man seen a doctor? Do we know if he has any diagnosed condition?

    The thing about clinical depression that is so hard to understand if you don’t have it is that no amount of “cheering up” from concerned family, therapists, or friends is going to make it go away. It sucks your will to do anything right out of you. It is a thorn in the side that people are born with, and I can only assume that they will not be held as accountable as the rest of us for the decisions they make in this life.

    But it’s hard to know who is clinically depressed and who is just a moody youth.

  5. I agree, BCCers are notoriously worthless in real-world situations. Can’t we make this whole thing a little more hypothetical and also involve, say, SSM?

  6. I don’t think there is an easy answer to helping people. If there were, we’d all use it and everyone would be happy.

    OR Life is pain and anyone who tells you different is selling something.

  7. Okay, re-reading my post, I see the need for clarification. First, it’s not a matter of whether I get involved, these are situations where I have been approached by families. Second, I’m concerned not just with the particular situations, but also with the effect on society as a whole. We have welfare systems that assume people should earn their keep, but clearly, some people just aren’t emotionally or physically capable of that. Finally, Steve, my concern is for everyone. It’s not my place to push anyone into a particular course of action. I just don’t always know what to do when confronted with situations like the ones I cited, nor do I understand sociologically what is going on in a wider direction.

  8. Same sex marriage.

    Or senior sister missionaries.

    or someone’s sultry mate.

  9. SSM?

  10. Thanks, Davis. I guess this post was too heavy for our happy blog, but it’s these issues that keep me awake at night long after our philosophical meanderings have come full course. I agree that we can always continue to love and work with people, but it is often difficult to know how to deal with the most challenging situations. A friend of mine likened it to this: when we work with/serve people, we expect to see some measure of growth over time. Their well being is like a brick wall that over time is built up and solidified, experience by experience, brick by brick. Eventually, the person in question is strong enough to stand on her own. But other people are like plants. We visit, we teach, we love, we water the plant and bring it sun. But when we return again, the plant is dying. No matter how much progress we think has occurred in a visit or experience, the next time we come around, everything has returned to status quo, or often, grown worse. The plant can never stand on its own, it just needs perpetual and consistent watering. I recognize the problems with the analogy, chief among them the assumption that we, the waterer/sun giver are the only source of good in the person’s life, but in any case, this comes to mind when I am dealing with situations like the ones I have outlined. It makes me sad.
    You probably did meet my husband (man with a funny name- aka Manahi) – he tends to hang out with Ethan and Tagg when I’m out of town on business – maybe Ethan is his surrogate wife?!

  11. well, I didn’t mean to sound quite that cynical. I think we can make the world a better place both in small ways and large ones.

    But I don’t think any one formula will work, there are just too many ways that things go wrong in peoples lives.

  12. well, I have some experience in t his, thoug, as being in the shoes of someone who was and probably still is in some need of help. I got really sick with brain cancer and had my entire life plans go to hell. My advice, if it was worth anything, is for you totalk to the kid in question, try to get a feeling for wherehe is at, and then see if he seems willing to accept help, and then offer to take him to professionals who can help. If he is resistant, maybe since you guys are attorneys, look intohelping the parents to have the kid declared incompetent, and have him taken to an institution where he will be given the treatment, that he obviously doesnot know he needs. just my 2 cents

  13. What is it that compels you to want to get involved? What is your motivation? I would think that the responses would vary greatly depending upon your point of departure.

    For example, if your concern is for the parents of the child, you might be more willing to push the child towards a course of action they aren’t interested in. If your concern is primarily for the child, I could see a more tolerant reaction.

    Of course, what business is it of yours? It’s not your kid!

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