Latter-day Saint Life

Elder Cornish Talks Mental Illness, Suicide, and Finding Hope in Powerful Podcast


The following is part of a transcript for the Deseret News podcast "Therefor, what?" Listen to the podcast below or view the full transcript on

BM: Well, this is one of those topics, these diseases of despair. The challenges of anxiety and depression continue to plague the nation and plague individuals in our communities. We often refer to these as getting comfortable with some of the uncomfortable conversations. As you've ministered throughout the church, as you've traveled the world, what have you learned about mental health and dealing with some of these diseases of despair?

EC: It's an important question. First of all, I've learned that disease is no respecter of persons. People become depressed and have mental illness, whether they are rich or poor, whether they live in advanced cultures or in depressed and difficult cultures. People are susceptible to mental and emotional difficulties, whether they have a background of those things in their family or not. So the first message is this is no respecter of persons, people get these things.

BM: I think sometimes we do feel like, what's wrong with me? I think people often ask themselves that very question of is there something wrong with me. What else have you seen in terms of how do we come to grips with that? That, hey, it's OK, this is normal, it is no respecter of persons.

EC: It's an important question again. Let me see if I can frame it in a way that is useful to the general thinking. When was the last time you were concerned about the moral soundness, the character strength, the goodness of a person who had diabetes? Were you ever embarrassed to say, Oh, this person with diabetes is my friend? Do you know why you get diabetes, you get diabetes, because your pancreas stops making insulin. Well, other organs have biochemical deficiencies, they sometimes don't do what they're supposed to. One of the organs that can do that is your brain. The problem is that if your brain stops making a chemical that transmits feelings, your feeling system may not work right. But now you're depressed for no obvious reason, nothing sad happened. You just have a gloom and a sadness, and inertia around you. And people start to treat you differently. They think, what did this person do wrong? What sin did they commit? There must be some defect in that person's character. When in truth, there is no more moral meaning to having depression because your brain doesn't make the right chemicals than there is moral meaning having diabetes because your pancreas doesn't make the right chemicals. But in our culture, and in fact, across the world, depression, anxiety, emotional problems bear the moral overtone of deficient character. What a tragedy.

BM: Yeah, that feeling of being less than I think probably adds to that downward spiral as it relates to those feelings of depression that we do think there's something wrong with us. And for so long I think the solution has been that people just say, well, you just need to buck up. You just need to choose to be happy. You just need to, you know, have a positive mental attitude. But it's more than that, isn't it?

EC: Well, it's useful to understand that the depression is kind of a spectrum of diseases. Sometimes people are sad because they've been through a sad experience, your mother died, you lost your job, you became ill. It would be surprising not to be depressed when something depressing happens to you. Some people have this overwhelming depression, as I said, without any obvious cause. And then there are people in between. There are people who've, in fact, had a difficult experience but can't seem to pull out of it. The reason it's important to understand that this is a spectrum of illness is because it helps you understand how to respond. When a person is having difficulty adjusting to a sad experience, encouragement and in some cases even professional counseling can be very helpful. We've often thought in medicine that the people on the other end of the spectrum, who have what has been called major depression or depressive disorder, do often have a genetic biochemical defect in the way their brain makes and processes chemicals, and we think, well, they don't need counseling. It turns out that both people with this more minor situational depression, and people with major biochemical depression benefit from counseling and often from medications. Sometimes the people who have more situational entry into depression may need medications longer than was expected. That's a good thing to do. Sometimes people who have family history, major biochemical depression, get on good medications that work for them, get counseling and the counseling is so effective it seemed to literally change their brain chemistry and they don't have to stay on medications on a long-term basis. So understanding that depression is a spectrum of problems, and that both the emotional support in counseling, and in many cases, the biochemical readjustments can be helpful in either category.

BM: That's such an important insight for everybody listening today, that we do have this spectrum to work from, that there are a wide range of ways to address it and engage it from medicines to counseling, and everything in between. And looking at it, whether that's coming off a specific episode, as you mentioned, whether that's a death or a loss of a job or a loved one or a relationship, and how we really move that forward. I want to shift now in 2016, you delivered an address in the general conference of the church which has a title that to me is really the theme for our day today in this discussion around mental health and that is this question: "Am I good enough?" Am I good enough? I think we all ask that. Can I make it? Can I get through this? And so I want to talk for a minute about what drove you to writing and delivering that address, what inspired you? And then I want to really drill down into what was the process of learning for you, as you wrote and then delivered that address.

EC: Well, thank you for asking that. You know, it's a wonderful thing when you have an opportunity to interact with the members of the church. When you get into a question and answer kind of an open conversation setting and you invite questions, the questions that come are the softball questions. Because people don't want to be seen as raising their hands and asking something that might be embarrassing to them. Right? If you ask for written questions, anonymously submitted, this question is one of the ones that comes up most frequently. Can I make it, can I really have hope of happiness in this life and in the afterlife? It's a sad thing that we somehow have a misunderstanding of who God is, how he feels toward us, and what he wants for us. The God of heaven, who controls and governs all things everywhere happens to also be our Father in a very personal and intimate way. He wants real happiness, growth, joy, glory for all his children forever. And he knows how to help everybody grow in ways will allow them to have that. So a sense that I just I'm not going to make it, it's not going to work for me, is really a misunderstanding of who God is and what he wants for us. If he can create us, he can govern us and he can bless us. We should have a little more hope

BM: And a little more confidence in who's in charge.

EC: You know, what I've learned from practicing intensive care medicine for so many years is that one of the saddest delusions of this mortal experience is the belief that we're in charge of our lives. We are not in charge of our lives. We do not control our lives. We are responsible for our lives. But we don't control our lives. But God knows how to manage the experiences for our lives in ways that will change and bless us. And rather than worrying about whether I'm good enough, what we should be asking is, am I trying and I do I believe that God wants to help me. . . .

So this is my favorite portion of the program. It's our last segment of the program and this is the Therefore, What? moment. So as we think about those who have been listening for the last 25 minutes or so, Elder Cornish, what do you hope people take away from this conversation today? What do you hope they will think differently? What do you hope they will do differently as a result of our conversation today?

EC: No. 1, believe that God loves you and he has perfectly good reason to because you're wonderful each in his or her own way. Your goal is not to be like someone else, your goal is to be the best of you. To be what God knew you could be and to bless your life and others the way he designed you to do. There aren't any little people in this world. There aren't any contributions that don't matter. No. 1 is go be your best self and believe that God made you to do that and he can help you.

No. 2, understand that illness is not identity. The fact that I have something wrong with my body does not have mean I have something wrong with my person.

No. 3 is take ownership. If I have a problem that's affecting my body, my thinking, my feeling, get help. There is help and it works. It works for virtually everybody if you'll stay with it.

And the last, I think, is when things seem hopeless, when you don't know where to turn, find someone to help. And then ask someone to help you. Please remember that these resources, the text line home 741741, the Suicide Prevention 800-ARETALL (2738255), are available. That there are people who want to help you. Reach out and let someone help you.

Lead image from Getty Images

Stay in the loop!
Enter your email to receive updates on our LDS Living content