Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles that will address mental health challenges and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have always been fascinated by the task Mormon had to summarize and compile the text that would become the Book of Mormon. Several ancient contributors to the sacred text made similar comments regarding how they could not record “a hundredth part” of what had happened or been written (see Jacob 3:3, Words of Mormon 1:5, Helaman 3:14, Ether 15:33). In light of this limited space, I’m struck by one verse that Mormon chose to keep in Alma 46:40, “And there were some who died with fevers, which at some seasons of the year were very frequent in the land—but not so much so with fevers, because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remove the cause of diseases, to which men were subject by the nature of the climate.” Why is this verse so unique?
To the best of my knowledge, this is one of the only scriptures in the Book of Mormon that refers to physical remedies for health concerns. I find it interesting that Mormon specifically credits God as having prepared these healing plants for the benefit of His children. It makes perfect sense; in a time thousands of years before pharmaceuticals and modern medical science, Father in Heaven was looking out for His children and providing practical means for their relief from physical distress.
Not only do our bodies break at times, but our minds do as well. Depression, anxiety, perfectionism, stress, grief, emotional instability: these seem almost as common as physical ailments. I believe these conditions have been present as long as mankind has been alive. Can you imagine when Eve received word that one of her sons had murdered another? What emotions she must have experienced! Feelings of grief, guilt, and regret, including thoughts of “What could we have done better? Where did we go wrong?” likely plagued both her and Adam. Where was their salve for emotional distress? God had prepared plants and roots to help with their physical pain, but what was prepared for their mental anguish? Effective mental health treatment didn’t surface until the early 1900s; what of the billions of God’s children who lived on the earth prior to that? Where was their solution for emotional pain?
Physical Remedy + Spiritual Remedy = Greater Healing
As a Latter-day Saint psychologist having diagnosed and treated mental health issues for over 20 years, I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is replete with remedies, tools, and solutions to mental health challenges. Adam and Eve did not have psychiatrists and psychologists at their disposal, but they had revelation and the word of God. I am not suggesting that we should not use modern mental health services to assist with the alleviation of emotional problems. On the contrary; these services are gifts from Father in Heaven to ease our pain. I am suggesting that if we use such services without also using the healing principles of the gospel, we are limiting our potential resources. Many have told me, “I’ve tried using prayer, scripture study, and fasting to deal with my [insert mental health issue here]. It doesn’t work. I can’t simply pray my way out of it.” I have great compassion for those who struggle with chronic mental health issues. I understand their frustration and inclination to discount the potential effectiveness of gospel solutions. However, I also think there are certain principles which, if understood, will help all of us better appreciate the power of the gospel to heal our emotional challenges. Here are two suggestions:
1) Find the correct tool for the job.
Imagine someone comes to you in frustration. They have been trying to affix a screw into a piece of wood, but they are quite discouraged because their efforts have been futile. You investigate and find they have been trying to turn the screw with a hammer. Say the person tells you, “Tools don’t work. I’ve been trying to turn this screw for weeks and the hammer is not effective.” Immediately, you would hand them a screwdriver, solving the issue. You would also help them understand that tools do work, as long as we are using the right tool for the job.
Sometimes we view the scriptures like the hammer in this situation. We believe the scriptures are good for family home evening lessons, spiritual thoughts in seminary, and inspirational Instagram posts, yet we often doubt their effectiveness when it comes to issues of emotional healing. What we thought was just a hammer can become an entire toolbox as we learn and practice the ability to gain insight and obtain revelation. Even the “scriptural novice” can develop more ideas as the Spirit teaches “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30). For example, did you know that Zenos’s allegory of the tame and wild olive trees contains instructions for personal repentance and change? Or that the war chapters in Alma teach multiple principles regarding daily coping strategies? Or that the account of Nephi building a boat has lessons for self-reliance?
The key to this process is to be intentional as you seek for answers. We are unlikely to find information if we are not actively looking. Oliver Cowdery was chastised for seeking truth without significant effort. He thought simply asking would be enough, but the Lord told him to “study it out in your mind” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7). When the brother of Jared had no idea how to provide light for the barges that would take his people to the promised land, he asked the Lord. The Lord put the question right back to him, essentially telling him, “What is your plan? What would you like me to do?” (see Ether 2:25). This led to additional research and work for the brother of Jared and ultimately resulted in a personal visit from the premortal Christ. If we question whether the gospel holds answers for our emotional problems, we cannot simply ask and then sit around waiting for a response. We have to engage in behaviors that will increase the Spirit in our lives and open channels of revelation. Use spiritual interventions to augment professional advice. For example:
- Depression can be decreased by looking for the good instead of focusing on the bad. Make an effort to recount all of your blessings on a daily basis with the intention of giving thanks for each of these in prayer.
- Anxiety is increased by escalating fears of the unknown. Do a targeted search in the scriptures on the topic of “peace” and record what the Lord has said regarding how peace can conquer fear.
The scriptures are full of examples of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary problems. We will find personal insights for our own issues as we become more familiar with their lives and struggles. Ask for help to understand how the scriptures can provide insight into your current difficulties. As we prayerfully read and meditate upon the scriptures, we will find powerful tools to aid in the fight against our emotional challenges.
2) Use the tool until the job is finished.
Let’s return to the example of our friend who was trying to use a hammer to turn a screw. He was thrilled when you showed him how to use a screwdriver. Yet the next day he finds you again, complaining that the screwdriver doesn’t work either. You both head to the project and he shows you the problem. You see a three-inch screw still sticking mostly out of the wood. Your friend explains that he turned the screw for almost a whole 30 seconds, but the job remains incomplete. You patiently explain how, depending on the length of the screw and the hardness of the wood, it might take a long time and persistent effort to complete the job. He has the right tool but needs to continue to apply effort.
Nephi knew the power of prayer, taught to him from a young age. When Nephi and his family were traveling on the ocean to the promised land, Nephi’s brethren were acting rudely, and he confronted them. In typical style, Laman and Lemuel tied him up. Nephi did as he had before; he prayed. In fact, the scriptures record that he constantly praised and trusted in God “all the day long” (1 Nephi 17:16) and did not complain. Yet, the ropes remained firmly in place. Laman and Lemuel seemed to triumph. A serious storm arose that afflicted all on the ship—both the obedient and disobedient. The compass ceased working, causing all aboard to lose their way for a time. For four days this storm continued, threatening the lives of the entire company. Nephi prayed the entire time, yet he was still bound and helpless. Only on the fourth day, when Laman and Lemuel were sufficiently scared for their lives, did they choose to untie Nephi (see 1 Nephi 18:9–21). Nephi’s prayers were ultimately answered but only after he traveled down a painful and frightening path. Interestingly, it was not only Nephi who was afflicted in this process. His wife and children shed tears of sorrow as they watched Nephi’s sufferings. I’m sure their support brought physical and emotional comfort to Nephi, but still, he was not delivered from his trial until after considerable affliction.
At times we find ourselves in similar situations. Some trials are temporary and short lived. Other trials are extended and life changing. Was prayer helpful in delivering Nephi from his trials on the boat? Absolutely. Did it bring immediate deliverance? No, it did not. Mental health issues can be acute or chronic. Some last only weeks while others can last for decades. Do not abandon heaven-sent tools because your situation does not seem to change. Some screws need to be turned for hours, some for days, and some for decades. Our Father in Heaven is always listening and will always do the best for you. I know that “all things [are] done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24).
In the coming months, I will be writing multiple articles addressing mental health issues and gospel approaches that can be helpful. I do not advocate an “all or nothing” approach and do not expect any to abandon helpful and legitimate secular assistance. My goal is to help people add powerful spiritual tools to their existing resources. I truly believe our Father in Heaven has provided means to manage our emotional difficulties. These come in many forms: professional counseling, psychiatric medication, and principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Using all of the resources made available by our loving Father will help us manage issues with greater success.