Latter-day Saint Life

Dr. David T. Morgan: Why Latter-day Saints who seek needed mental health help shouldn’t be ashamed


While serving as a proselyting missionary in Mexico, I was in a game of basketball with several other missionaries. My companion took an elbow to the face, lacerating his lip. He began to bleed enough that we knew he needed help. I took him to a local urgent care where he got a few stitches and an icepack for the swelling. I imagine that any reading this account will not think it strange. We did exactly what we should have done in that situation. I’m confident that almost anyone would do the same thing.

When it comes to physical health emergencies, society seems to be in universal agreement on how to handle them. If it’s going to take more than a band-aid to fix, then get professional medical attention. Yet when it comes to mental health issues, and even sometimes mental health urgencies or emergencies, we are not all so agreed. Treating a case of major depressive disorder is infinitely more complex than setting a broken bone. Even then, some feel like they should be able to manage serious depression symptoms on their own, while the same group would never consider keeping some plaster or fiberglass handy just in case they need to repair a broken femur.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught principles of self-reliance. It is important to understand what self-reliance is, and what it is not. Among other things, self-reliance means taking the initiative to find solutions to life’s issues. It does not mean doing everything yourself. For example, we recently purchased a new home in Provo, Utah. We followed the needed steps to make the purchase, which involved the skills of many professionals. We relied on builders, realtors, and mortgage companies to help achieve our goal. We did not become general contractors, go to real estate school, or create our own bank. When observing our situation, I think many would agree that we were “self-reliant” as we solved the problem of buying a new house. But we didn’t do it on our own. We couldn’t have even if we tried our best.

Resources Inside the Church

Many times, self-reliance involves getting help from others. Some are familiar with the concept of the “Lord’s storehouse.” This is different than the “bishop’s storehouse,” which is a physical location where food and supplies are stored and distributed for the benefit of the less fortunate. The Lord’s storehouse is defined in the General Handbook: “All the resources available to the Church to help those with temporal needs are called the Lord’s storehouse (see Doctrine and Covenants 82:18-19). These include members’ offerings of time, talents, compassion, materials, and financial resources to help those in need. The Lord’s storehouse exists in each ward and stake. Leaders can often help individuals and families find solutions to their needs by drawing on the knowledge, skills, and service offered by ward and stake members.” Latter-day Saints have a wonderful wealth of resources they can access within the church to solve problems and find ways to move forward.

Resources Outside of the Church

Seeking resources outside of the church system is just as appropriate, and often necessary. In fact, I don’t believe there is a moral imperative for church members to seek help exclusively within the bounds of the church. If you need a plumber, go find one. When you find the best one for your needs, it doesn’t matter whether she’s a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or not. She doesn’t have to be in your ward and doesn’t have to be your ministering sister. In the same vein, your bishop doesn’t need to be your plumber. He also doesn’t need to be your accountant or your landscaper. He certainly doesn’t need to be your mental health counselor.

Bishops and other church leaders have a narrow role they are called to fill. While they can help you with some issues and provide appropriate direction, some concerns are best left to professionals. Mental health issues typically fall into this category. The church offers support to bishops and other leaders through its Family Services organization, which has trained mental health professionals available for consultation and intervention. The church handbook states, “Bishops can refer members who need counseling to a Family Services professional, where available…. Alternatively, members may seek help from reputable professional counselors in the community.” With mental health issues on the rise, and mental health resources often less than adequate to meet demand, we’ve reached an “all hands on deck” situation. Members of the church who need mental health treatment should seek any possible avenue that is “professional and reputable” to get assistance. Let’s review three reasons why seeking appropriate mental health treatment is 1) the smart thing to do and 2) consistent with self-reliance principles.

Complex Problems Need Complex Solutions

Emotions are extremely common in the human experience. Newborns experience their first feelings just seconds after birth. Throughout our lives, we feel the entire gamut of emotions, from elation to agony. Perhaps because we are so familiar with them, we believe that emotional problems should always be within our ability to fix. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. To better understand, it can be helpful to view mental health like we view physical health. Some days we feel healthy and well. On other days we are a little under the weather. Sometimes we have serious physical health problems, including acute accidents or chronic challenges. Depending on the nature of the problem, we seek appropriate medical treatment. Some issues can be resolved through rest and good self-care. Other issues, regardless of how hard we try on our own, cannot be fixed until medical professionals get involved.

Mental health is no different. Some days we feel happy and content. On other days we feel emotionally out of sorts. Sometimes we have serious mental health problems, ones that not only affect us internally, but also start to impact our relationships, employment, and other important areas of life. Depending on the nature of the problem, we can seek appropriate mental health treatment. Some issues can be resolved through self-help books, a good talk with a friend, or taking a short break from stressful tasks. But other mental health issues require professional help. The more social scientists learn about the etiology of mental health problems, the clearer it becomes that these issues are very complex and usually have multiple causes.

Simple solutions are not usually effective for complex challenges. Regarding mental health issues, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught, “If things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. Be honest with them about your history and your struggles. Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.”

Asking For Help Increases Humility

Most are familiar with the story of Nephi, his brothers, and their efforts to retrieve the brass plates. We are regularly inspired by Nephi’s proclamation, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7). Sometimes we mistakenly assume that because the Lord provides a way to accomplish difficult tasks, that His way does not involve asking for help. We think, “I’m strong, I’m capable, I should be able to handle this on my own.” Sometimes that is correct, and sometimes that is incorrect. A more detailed reading of Nephi’s experiences shows how he and his brothers did not accomplish the task on their own. In fact, their own plans failed miserably. It wasn’t until Nephi followed the Lord’s plan that his team found success (see 1 Nephi 4:6-28). I believe the Lord wants us to ask for help. He still wants us to do our part, but He wants us to realize that relying on others for needed support not only gives us strength but provides opportunities for others to grow and serve.

Seeking appropriate mental health intervention is not a sign of weakness. It’s the opposite. It’s a sign of humility and strength. Jesus Christ, the perfect example of self-reliance and personal strength, is also the perfect example of humility. As we reach the boundaries of our abilities, we are perpetually limited in progress if we only do those things we can accomplish on our own. When we humbly understand the value of combining our strength with the strength of others, we can achieve so much more. This principle was beautifully taught in a simple anecdote by Elder Terence M. Vinson: “A young boy was trying to smooth out the dirt area behind his house so he could play there with his cars. There was a large rock obstructing his work. The boy pushed and pulled with all his might, but no matter how hard he tried, the rock wouldn’t budge. His father watched for a while, then came to his son and said, ‘You need to use all your strength to move a rock this large.’ The boy responded, ‘I have used all my strength!’ His father corrected him: ‘No you haven’t. You haven’t had my help yet!’ They then bent down together and moved the rock easily.”

Using Agency Righteously Builds Personal Power

In recent Come, Follow Me studies we reviewed the account of the Savior turning water into wine. This miraculous transformation was one of the first evidences of His remarkable power. There is an interesting aspect of this story that teaches an important lesson regarding agency. John records, “And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim” (John 2:6-7). The Savior was about to turn water into wine. Why didn’t He also use his power to fill the waterpots Himself? A firkin is about nine gallons. If the pots were empty, that meant the helpers would have had to transfer more than one hundred gallons of water to fill the pots. Even if they weren’t empty, they clearly were not full, so there was work involved to meet the Savior’s request. Instead of having these workers go through the tedious process of filling the pots, why not just instantly and miraculously fill them Himself? Because doing our part is critical in developing a healthy sense of personal power.

Could the Savior miraculously cure all diseases and maladies, including mental health issues? Yes, He could, in an instant. Does He want us to be healed? Yes, He does, with all His heart. But He also knows our potential. He knows that one of the main purposes of life is not just to eradicate suffering, but to do so in a way that helps us gain the skills and abilities to become like Him. That involves choice and action on our part. It involves doing what we can (like filling pots with water) and then Him doing what only He can. Accomplishing our portion helps us realize that we are capable. It gives us the confidence to do more things in the future. Instead of relegating us to the status of observer, it casts us in the role of actor. Righteous action is the primary function of agency. Agency is an essential element of eternal progression. When we ask God for help with our mental health issues, almost always He provides a plan that includes action on our part. That action could include seeking counseling, taking medication, discontinuing certain behaviors, or changing the way we think about certain things. Taking action on our own does not make us overly accountable nor does it push God out of the process. We simply do our part, while allowing Him to do his. Joseph Smith taught this principle to the early saints as they endured great persecution: “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (Doctrine & Covenants 123:17; emphasis added). May we all find the needed strength and use available help to improve our mental and emotional health.

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