We here at BCC have decided to offer a series on Mormons and mental health. We will post our own perspectives and wish to solicit the experiences and insight of our readers. Please consider submitting a guest post on this topic to ronan at jhu dot edu (anonymity will, of course, be respected). At the end of the series, an LDS mental health professional will be invited to respond.
Mental illness is an awful monster, certainly one of the worst challenges of mortality, and Mormons are not immune. I suspect that the image of the Mormon Prozac Mom has been over-hyped, but Mormons (and probably all people with a strict religious faith) do indeed have a special set of issues to deal with. It is our hope that we can discuss, in a supportive way, the challenges of mental illness from a Latter-day Saint perspective. Perhaps we can aid in the healing of some who suffer. In any case, please note the sensitivity of this topic and respond accordingly.
What are the LDS-specific challenges of mental health?
The Deseret News published an article in 2003 that described recent changes in LDS approaches to mental illness. In particular it highlighted Elder Alexander Morrison’s book, “Valley of Sorrow: A Layman’s Guide to Mental Illness,” which was the first book by a member of the LDS hierarchy to deal with mental illness. Elder Morrison said he wanted to try to “lay to rest a portion of the prejudice, ignorance, misunderstanding and social stigma which continue to dog sufferers and their families.”
Stigma and ignorance are serious problems. In this, Latter-day Saints are certainly not unique, but in a “can-do” church, the notion that with enough faith all things can be overcome may make it difficult for people to seek help. Certainly faith can bring healing, but at the same time we would not expect the sufferer of a physical illness to rely on prayer and fasting alone. “Just as we would not hesitate to consult a physician about medical problems such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes,” said Morrison, “so too we should not hesitate to obtain appropriate professional assistance in dealing with mental illness.”
One of the particular difficulties of depression, for example, is that it seems to cut a person off from exactly the kind of feelings of joy that we associate with the workings of the Holy Ghost and the manifestation of the love of God.
Finding an appropriate professional can be a challenge. LDS Family Services can provide help, but I am under the impression that one has to be referred by the Bishop. This may be wholly appropriate in most circumstances, but I hesitate to recommend an “LDS-is-always-best” attitude. The website of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists provides a listing of private LDS practitioners. Most of them are, of course, in the US, but there are a few listings for professionals in Canada, Europe, and Australasia. This leaves many international Latter-day Saints without LDS mental health support, which is why I think it is important that members realise that mental healing can be found outside the parameters of the Church (although a counselor who shares your world view is undoubtedly a useful option).
Another resource is the Hidden Treasures Foundation which has assembled a number of LDS-themed mental health resources at www.mentalhealthlibrary.info. A new book is also available that includes details of the struggle Harold B. Lee had with depression, how Donny Osmond was treated for panic attacks, and other Mormon experiences with mental illness.
One thing about the new (and much welcomed) openness of the Church to mental illness that I find unfortunate is the lumping-together of all manner of conditions, compulsions and behaviours under one umbrella. The Deseret News article ends by describing a “Cyber Secrets” conference held at BYU that dealt with sexual addiction and pornography. Topics at the “Families Under Fire” conference included eating disorders, marital conflict, depression, grief, at-risk children, internet filtering, homosexuality, adoptive parent challenges, pornography addiction and debt elimination.
These are all issues worthy of discussion, but we have to realise the role that irrational guilt and anxiety play in mental illness. Someone who suffers from depression may find added misery in seeing his or her condition associated at the same time with “pornography addiction” or “homosexuality” (which, by the way, I do not consider to be a mental illness, but please, let’s not focus on this). Excessive “Mormon guilt” can have perilous consequences, and we must be very careful that we don’t make people more miserable than they already are.
These are my preliminary thoughts on Mormons and mental illness. We invite you to participate in a kind and thoughtful discussion both on this post and on posts to come. And if you have an experience that you wish to share, please consider submitting a guest post.