[This is the first in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The subsequent installments are available here: Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions, Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness]
Not many years ago, a younger sibling of mine sought to stop her unbearable emotional pain by ending her mortal life. While she succeeded in completing her suicide, she did not consciously chose this path, and she is not fully accountable for her desperate and tragic actions. In some ways, she is in a safer place, as she is now beyond reach of some of the individuals, circumstances, and influences that had power to destroy her soul. I also believe that many of her challenges continue, and some may even be greater. I do not know the ultimate destiny of her soul. But I know for sure that God’s love, watch care, influence, empathy, and grace go with her beyond the grave, that the Plan of Happiness, Salvation, and Exaltation is for her, as much as it is for me, and you, and all of God’s precious children. Christ endured the emotional pain that my sister endured specifically so that He can now succor her.
As I have mourned and been mourned with through this tragic loss, and as I observe and mourn with others bearing similar and other losses, I am more keenly aware of the limitations of our knowledge and understanding of others, and the importance of kindness and love in our interactions with even those we personally find abhorrent or topics with which we are personally uncomfortable. While we must seek knowledge and understanding, make “proximal” judgements (as Elder Oaks calls them) about appropriate behavior and attitudes, and declare truth as we can best discern it, we must recognize how little we can truly know and understand, and how completely unable we are to judge others, even when their actions are starkly at odds with our understanding of and commitment to those behaviors which bring us the greatest happiness and peace. It is within the balance of these dual responsibilities that I want to discuss, over several guest posts, current attitudes within the church towards mental health and its confluence (or not) with the “Good News” of Jesus Christ, as well as doctrinal concerns and practical applications.
Our Creator and Physician is well aware of our collective physical, spiritual, and mental imperfections. None of us is completely whole–even those of us, to use a traditional Christian term, “in grace.” But mental illnesses and limitations are particularly troubling due to their potential negative impact on understanding, spiritual discernment, free will, and experiencing happiness and peace–essential barometers to revelation and the assurance that we are on the right path.
What is an individual with anxiety, paranoia, or inaccurate perceptions of reality to conclude from 2 Timothy 1:7 “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”?
What does one struggling with addiction or unwanted desires hear in the reassurance in 1 Corinthians 10:13 “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
And how is a severely depressed individual supposed to respond to New Testament and Book of Mormon equations of being “past feeling” with iniquity, wickedness, and lasciviousness? (Ephesians 4:19; 1 Nephi 17:45, Moroni 9:20)
We accept mortality as a growth opportunity and proving ground without full understanding of the conditions, limitations, and challenges we face here. But we are reassured (and I believe) that where there are limitations, allowances and compensations are made through grace, and that correction, instruction, and requisite character development will eventually come. (See Romans 2:12 and 7:8-9, Doctrine & Covenants 76:72; Moroni 8:22)
I rejoice to see greater awareness of the reality and complexity of mental illness as a physiological as well as psychological condition within as well as outside the church. Mental illness and other conditions which affect understanding and behavior are increasingly addressed in new leadership training, church magazines, and on the church website (see here and here as just two examples). Note in particular the recognition of the need for reliance on professional help, and the emphasis that mental illness is not the fault of the individual so suffering. This is really important information for individuals who have assumed that depression or addiction, as just two examples, can and will be “fixed” if someone just tries hard enough to live the gospel, or prays with enough faith to be healed. Sometimes, miraculously, they are. It takes even greater faith (and grace) to endure when wanted relief is not supplied in the here and now despite ones best efforts, intentions, and pleas.
In the meantime, we can all seek refuge, help, and greater understanding through the Teacher and Physician who was sent to tutor and heal (in time, and eternity) each of us. Even in his sorely pressed hour of greatest need, our Savior understood the unintentional neglect of Peter, James, and John, recognizing “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) May we extend that same divine recognition and love to ourselves in our own times of weakness, and particularly to those around us who cannot, due to mental limitations, now feel, comprehend, or act in accordance with God’s love.
*Author’s name has been changed due the sensitive nature of this series of guest posts