By Common Consent, a Mormon Blog

Mental Illness and George Albert Smith [UPDATED]

This post received much more attention than I anticipated. Due to some reader feedback, I have added some information about LDS Family Services to the end of the post. I also recommend Matt W.’s lesson outline, which incorporates some of this information.

I think that the Curriculum Committee of the church missed a tremendous opportunity with the production of the manual for study this year. Most of us know someone who has struggled with mental illness. We know someone who has or have ourselves taken anti-depressants, stimulants, lithium or AAPs. It is no secret that in the past, church leaders and church members have often misunderstood mental illness. However, we live at a time when we can all safely view mental illness as a biological problem, like cancer, that needs to be treated. I think however, that many people who suffer with these issues still feel stigmatized, and some yet think that it is simply an emotional or spiritual failing.

George Albert Smith, 1939.

It is therefore tragic that the new manual does not mention George Albert Smith’s lifelong struggle with what appears to be some sort of chronic depression and anxiety disorder. Instead it describes his health issues and years of convalescence as strictly physical maladies (which though technically correct, obfuscates the real mental illness component of his suffering).

Unfortunately, though the primary documents are fairly explicit on the matter, there has been fairly little written on the topic. One exception to this is a Journal of Mormon History article authored by BYU Rel. Ed. Professor Mary Jane Woodger entitled, “‘Cheat the Asylum of a Victim’: George Albert Smith’s 1909–12 Breakdown” (the article begins on p. 120 of the linked PDF). Woodger’s article is not a complete study of George Albert Smith’s mental illness, and she is very conservative in her analysis, but it is a good look at the major crisis in then Elder Smith’s life.

What should be clear to all Latter-day Saints, however, is that you can suffer from mental illness and still become the President of the Church, sustained as a prophet, seer and revelator. Church leaders, including the highest offices in the church, can and do suffer from these illnesses. In casual conversations over the last few weeks, this understanding of the example of George Albert Smith has been tremendously comforting to many people I know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all those who suffered could hear the good news?

[Update] LDS Family Services (LDSFS) is an important resource for those interested in seeking help in many areas, including mental illness. LDSFS no longer requires a referral from a Bishop or Branch President, and unless you specifically authorize them to discuss your case with your ecclesiastical leader, they will maintain all the confidentiality required by law. A list of LDSFS offices is available here. You can call them directly to make an appointment.