Mental illness, in its various causes, forms, and manifestations, ranks high on any list of the ailments that try and torment mankind. In its publication The Global Burden of Disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated, for example, that one form of mental illness, depression, was the fourth most important reported health problem in the developing world in 1990. The WHO predicts that by 2020, depression may rank as the number one health problem in that portion of the globe.
If we add to the enormous burdens resulting from depression those that flow from all other types and manifestations of mental illness in both the developed and developing worlds, it is clear that these disorders have an enormous effect on victims, their families, friends, and associates and on society in general. . . .
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Many myths and misconceptions about the cause, course, and treatment of mental illness unfortunately are found among Latter-day Saints as they are in the general public. These harmful and destructive attitudes include the following:
1. All mental illness is caused by sin.
In many instances aberrant thoughts, actions, and feelings result from mental illness and not from sin. They come from mental illness, not transgression. They are not God’s way of punishing the sinner. To assume they are is not only simplistic but also contrary to the teachings of Christ’s Church. . . .
The truth is that many faithful Latter-day Saints, who live the commandments and honor their covenants, experience personal struggles with mental illness, or are required to deal, perhaps over long periods of time, with the intense pain and suffering of morally righteous mentally ill family members. Those involved often carry the resultant pain, anxiety, and burdens without loving acceptance or understanding from others. I assure you that Church leaders are in no way exempt from the burden of mental illness, whether as victim, caregiver, family member, or friend. . . .
Closely related to the idea that all mental illness is caused by sin is the equally false notion that if you’re living as you should, you won’t have problems. Life, for you, will be the proverbial “bowl of cherries”: after all, “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25), and if you’re keeping the commandments you can reasonably expect to be joyful all the time. In fact, God owes it to you, or so you might think. But you would be wrong.
Life doesn’t work that way. Were there no opposition, spiritual advancement would not be possible. . . . Without misery there can be no joy. Tragedy, sorrow, afflictions, all are part of living. And it is a blessing they are, though often we have difficulty in understanding why it is so. Through the grace of a loving Father in Heaven, whose very purpose is to bring His children back to Him, none of us is exempt from tears and sorrow. All of God’s children can expect to experience them.
2. Someone is to blame for mental illness.
Closely related to the myth that mental illness is caused by sin is the equally dangerous misconception that someone is to blame for mental illness. It is, I suppose, a common human tendency to blame others, or oneself, for whatever goes wrong in life. Many victims of mental illness wear themselves out emotionally by repetitive futile attempts to remember something they, their parents, or someone else might have done, sometime, somewhere, that resulted in the terrible suffering they are forced to endure. . . .
Most often, lacking an understanding about the causes of mental illness, victims blame themselves, and many seem unable to rid themselves of terrible though undefined feelings that somehow, some way they are the cause of their own pain—even when they’re not. Parents, spouses, or other family members of mentally ill persons too often needlessly harrow up their own minds, trying futilely to determine where they went wrong. They pray over and over again for forgiveness, when there is no objective evidence they have anything of note for which to be forgiven. They may try to bargain with God, offering Him anything, even their own lives, if only He will “cure” their beloved child or family member. Of course, in the vast majority of instances none of this works, for the simple reason that the victim’s thoughts and behavior result from disease processes, which are not caused by the actions of others, including God.
Those who play the “blame game” with themselves, believing their mental illness is somehow their fault, almost inevitably end up harboring intense though unjustified feelings of guilt and shame. . . . “What if my bishop finds out?” cried a woman taking Prozac for her depression. She was frightened and full of guilt for what she considered, falsely, to be shameful or weak behavior. Somehow, she thought in her confusion, she must be lacking in faith. She had prayed often to be rid of her depression, and when her prayers weren’t answered as she longed for, she became convinced that was evidence of divine disapproval of her and tangible proof she was without faith and merely receiving her just deserts. . . .
Ascribing blame for mental illness causes unnecessary suffering for all concerned and takes time and energy that would better be used in other ways: seeking to obtain a complete assessment and proper diagnosis of the illness involved, understanding its causes, learning behavioral and cognitive techniques that are part of the healing process, and obtaining proper medication that will help control the disorder by reversing the resultant chemical changes. As victims, loved ones, and all the rest of us come to understand mental illness more clearly, patience, forgiveness, and empathy will replace denial, anger, and rejection.
3. All that people with mental illness need is a priesthood blessing.
I am a great advocate and supporter of priesthood blessings. I know, from many personal experiences, that they do inestimable good. I know too that final and complete healing in mental illness or any other disease comes from faith in Jesus Christ. In any and all circumstances, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, our lives will improve and become richer and more peaceful as we turn to Him. . . .
However, without in any way denigrating the unique role of priesthood blessings, may I suggest that ecclesiastical leaders are spiritual leaders and should not be expected to take on the roles of mental health professionals. Almost all 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. 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. When such assistance is sought, we must be careful to ensure, insofar as possible, that the health professional concerned follows practices and procedures that are compatible with gospel principles.
4. Mentally ill persons just lack willpower.
Some there are who, in their lack of understanding and empathy, mistakenly believe that the mentally ill just need to “snap out of it,” “show a little backbone,” and “straighten up!” . . . Unfortunately, such bravado just doesn’t work. . . . The facts are 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 incredible, 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, retreats into hopeless apathy, or tries to kill himself, would ever think for a moment that mental illness is just a problem of willpower. No one who has witnessed the bizarre delusions and frightening hallucinations of a schizophrenic would ever think that a little willpower is all that is needed to restore that person to health. We don’t say to persons with heart disease or cancer, “Oh, just grow up and get over it.” Neither should we treat the mentally ill in such uncompassionate and unhelpful ways.
None of this should be taken to suggest in any way that all persons with mental illness are helpless victims, unable to do anything to help themselves. In many, many instances, sufferers can do something to help themselves and must be encouraged to do so.
5. Mentally ill persons are dangerous and should be locked up.
Sensational and grossly inaccurate and incomplete media reports have conjured up stereotypical portrayals of the mentally ill as crazed and violent lunatics, dangerous to others as well as themselves. The truth is that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. The great majority of crimes of violence are not committed by persons who are mentally ill, in any generally acceptable sense of the term. In the relatively few instances where mentally ill people do become violent, the incident typically results from the same causes as with the general public, such as feelings of being threatened or the effects of drugs or alcohol or both. . . .
Like everyone else, mentally ill persons who are receiving proper treatment have the potential to work at any level in any trade or profession, depending solely on their abilities, talents, experience, and motivation. I need hardly mention, for example, Mike Wallace of the CBS television program “60 Minutes,” who has had several bouts of severe depression but with appropriate treatment has gone on to live an accomplished life as a distinguished journalist. Similarly, Tipper Gore, the wife of former Vice President Al Gore, has successfully struggled with depression and has courageously chosen to discuss her problems publicly.
6. Mental illness doesn’t strike children and young people.
As noted by the National Mental Health Association (“Stigma: Building Awareness and Understanding”), the truth is that an estimated six million young people in America suffer from a mental health disorder that severely disrupts their functioning at home, in school, or in the community. The majority of children who kill themselves are profoundly depressed, and most parents did not recognize that depression until it was too late. I reiterate: no one is immune from mental illness.
7. Whatever the cause, mental illness is untreatable.
As mentioned, during the past 40 years numerous medications, effective against one or more forms of mental illness, have been developed by the multinational pharmaceutical industry. These potent products have proven to be of inestimable worth to millions. Not that they are perfect, or work effectively and specifically in every instance. . . . [But] Advancements in research on brain chemistry and physiology and on the function of chemical neurotransmitters in the brain are speeding the day when physicians will have available effective drugs that are specific in correcting the biochemical lesion or lesions concerned, for the patient concerned, without the deleterious side effects which too often limit the effectiveness of therapy today. . . .
Fortunately, there are a number of nonmedication tools that can be used in the treatment of brief or even chronic forms of mental illness [such as therapy, meditation, reducing stress, exercising regularly, eating healthy foods, keeping a gratitude journal, etc.]
Tragically, the myths surrounding mental illness impede understanding and foster bias, prejudice, and social stigmatization against those who suffer from this grievous problem. At times, individuals burdened with mental illness may victimize themselves by believing these myths, further intensifying their despair. Dispelling the myths requires their replacement with truth and proper perspective. With knowledge and understanding come love, acceptance, and empathy. These things enhance the ability to endure and foster hope. May God bless us to love all His children; to abandon none; to bear each other’s burdens; and to lift up, strengthen, and dry the tears of those in pain and suffering.
For more insights into mental illness, read Valley of Sorrows by Alexander B. Morrison.
Writing from the perspective of a father with a close family member who has for many years been afflicted with a chronic mental illness, Alexander B. Morrison writes: “I assure you that Latter-day Saints are in no way exempt from the burden of mental illness, either as victim, caregiver, family member, or friend.”
Despite such problems, there is hope. In this helpful book, Elder Morrison uses laymen's terms to explain the causes, course, effects, and treatment of such debilitating diseases as anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. In doing so, he lifts the stigma and dispels the myths and misconceptions so often associated with mental illness.