I have been a licensed psychologist for almost 20 years. I often get asked whether I think mental health challenges are on the rise, especially among today’s youth. The answer is complicated and involves a couple of factors: 1) The stigma of mental health concerns is slowly decreasing, creating greater willingness to talk about such issues, and 2) Society has more mental health resources than it has ever had before, particularly in the form of outreach.
Studies suggest an increase in diagnosed cases of mental illness over the past 15 years in adolescents and young adults, and while I do believe more people are coming forward with a greater willingness to admit they have mental health problems, I think that mental health challenges are a bigger problem now than they ever have been. However, I also believe this is in part by divine design. Let me explain.
I truly believe Heavenly Father is actively involved in our lives. He is not passive or disinterested. Further, I don’t think He is “hands-off” when it comes to teaching His children. Life’s challenges stem from a multitude of sources—they can come from the random effects of a fallen world, the conscious choices of abusive individuals, or we can bring challenges upon ourselves through irresponsible or sinful behavior. I also believe that certain difficulties come from our loving Father in Heaven, as part of our mortal training. Ether 12:27 speaks of the weakness associated with the human condition. “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” I give unto men weakness. Weakness, frailty, susceptibility to temptation; these come from God. Why? That they may be humble. The outcome is grand for those who follow the plan: humility plus faith in Jesus Christ equals ultimate strength.
The Need for Adversity
Sometimes when I discuss the idea that some (some, not all) of our trials might come from Heavenly Father, I hear the counterargument that God would never do something that would create grief or pain. That while He might allow such things to happen, He would never cause them to be. Which theory is correct? I don’t know if anyone really knows the answer, but as I see it, Heavenly Father knows the end from the beginning. He knows what will help us grow and what will keep us stuck. I believe, in part, that God would never do something that would cause grief or pain. But I also believe that all of God’s interventions have greater potential for happiness than sorrow, even if there may be a valley of shadow along the way. His designs are calculated for our ultimate joy. The problem is, we don’t have His perspective.
As a personal example, one of our sons came home early from a mission due to anxiety and depression symptoms. The event was as surprising as it was devastating to him and our family. We went through almost a year of emotional pain before getting significant relief. From the beginning of the trial, I knew it was the will of God. Yet, I lacked an understanding of how it could be for the best. What we didn’t know then but that God knew all along was that this trial would result in greater blessings than we could possibly consider. The Father’s masterful intervention, despite our initial doubts, caused a season of pain but resulted in a legacy of joy, gratitude, and growth. I believe Heavenly Father knows what He is doing. I believe He uses any and all tools at His disposal, in His infinite wisdom, to help us achieve the greatest happiness.
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We need to experience adversity to have growth. When Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden, the ground was cursed for their sakes (see Moses 4:23). Did you catch that? It was cursed for their sakes. Now that the ground would not spontaneously produce life-sustaining fruit and vegetables, Adam and Eve had to toil for their food. The ground actually worked against them, choking their healthy plants with vile weeds, but it was for their good. As Adam and Eve labored diligently, they got a harvest. But the days of easy living in the garden were over. While sitting in a horrible prison, Joseph Smith was taught that all manner of terrible events would “give him experience and be for his good” (see D&C 122:5–8). Our loving Father in Heaven does not want us to suffer, but He knows the value of adversity. There is opposition in all things (see 2 Nephi 2:11). We have to experience the bitter to appreciate the sweet (see D&C 29:39). The great test of life is to see if we will do all things commanded by our Father in Heaven (see Abraham 3:25). Such a test would be worthless if choices were always easy and roads were forever smooth. In addition, He sent His Son to buffer our pain and be a source of peace and healing. But even the Atonement of Jesus Christ does not always extinguish the refiner’s fire. Rather, it makes the flames bearable while we learn priceless lessons and develop essential characteristics that prepare us for life up above.
A Different Kind of Handcart
As a society, we’ve been blessed with more and more innovation that has turned formerly rough roads into smooth places. Medical technologies, advancements in travel, and communication improvements have made life much easier than our predecessors had it. Even now, I write this article on a remarkable computer while sitting in a comfortable chair. My ancestors used typewriters or quills or whatever they could find. As life gets easier and easier, where will adversity come from? What form will it take? The trials of former Latter-day Saints involved religious persecution, exile, facing an untamed prairie, and pulling a handcart a thousand miles. That was their primary struggle. What will be the primary struggle of Latter-day Saints in the 21st century and beyond?
Thinking about that in the context of mental health issues, could the apparent increase in such problems be due to the escalation of all sorts of political and social unrest? For certain. Could it be due to more people making irresponsible choices, causing difficulties to themselves and others? No doubt. Could it be due to a loving Father in Heaven, carefully intervening in our lives, giving us trials that are calculated for our growth? I wholeheartedly believe so.
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As I have thought about this over the years, I wonder if mental health issues will play a more significant role in the adversity faced by modern Latter-day Saints. With these kind of challenges, like our pioneer ancestors, we’ll have something that will test us every day. We’ll have a handcart to push and pull across difficult terrain—not one of wood and nails but a figurative one filled with life’s difficulties. For many of us, this may be mental health challenges. We’ll have handcarts of fear, uncertainty, despair, and sadness. We’ll labor with them day by day, just like our predecessors. In time, we’ll reach the promised land. Some will arrive earlier and some later. For some, the way will have been difficult but largely uneventful. For others, the way will be tragic and heartbreaking. As we push forward and keep our covenants, we will develop faith and trust in the Savior. We’ll feel His sustaining support with each step. We’ll sense His angels around us, pushing our carts when we have lost all strength. I have a feeling that, in the end, our journey will be remarkably similar to our faithful forebears. The main difference will be that they pulled actual handcarts while we pulled figurative ones.
We can view all trials as opportunities for growth, regardless of their source. In the same lesson where Lehi taught Jacob the importance of opposition in all things, he promised, “In thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren. Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (2 Nephi 2:1, 2; emphasis added). Our afflictions are simply a part of the growth process, and mental health challenges are part of those afflictions. I believe they can provide us with the adversity and struggle we need to transform into the celestial beings we were born to become. And having descended below all, the Savior is the perfect companion to help us navigate our challenges and successfully journey back to our Father. May we all reach out for His mighty help.