[This is the fourth in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The other installments are available here: Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34), Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions, Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness]
During graduate school (in a different field of study), I worked in the university’s office for staff and students with disabilities. I learned a great deal about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and about how individuals with a variety of disabilities qualify for and obtain accommodations in their work and schooling to enable them to do the work they otherwise (disability aside) are able to do. As a neophyte, I was most surprised by accommodations given for “invisible” disabilities. For example, did you know that an individual with certain types of anxiety can qualify for a handicapped parking permit, giving them accessibility to classrooms and other needed campus resources they would not have without this accommodation? And that students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities can have “readers” and “note takers” (or technology that does the same)? Extended test time, special accommodations like calculators for testing, someone to type for a student or help edit spelling errors on papers, someone to fill in test bubbles, extra notes or outlines of lectures from professors… these were all new to me, and frankly, some seemed a little like cheating initially. But I was even more surprised by the backlash some staff and students received from similarly ignorant professors, administrators, and other students who felt the same!
I was also impressed with the amount of work individuals with disabilities must do to obtain the help they need, not to mention how many students do not get help because they don’t know they qualify, or how to obtain it, or because while they recognize their need for help and know how to obtain it, they aren’t willing to endure the backlash.
I’ve been out of school for a couple decades now. I think there is greater awareness about disabilities and reasonable accommodations in our larger society as well as within the church, but we are just beginning to understand the potential impact of mental illnesses on our collective spirituality and church participation. The realities of a lay clergy can increase some attendant difficulties, but can also help in some ways.
Many articles in the Ensign over this time period have focused on mental health issues from the perspective of professionals treating and individuals struggling with mental health challenges. At the same time, church leadership materials have increasingly addressed a variety of special circumstances including disabilities that impact church participation and instruction, This training occurs in special conferences and meetings, handbooks, multimedia and print materials for teachers and leaders, online resources, even materials in the teacher development course. These resources, like the church web pages about serving those with disabilities within the church, have increasingly addressed awareness of the differing personalities and backgrounds of investigators, church members, and students, the importance of age-appropriate and audience sensitive instruction and counsel, and inclusion and accommodation of disabilities where appropriate.
In my experience, most gospel teachers do not take the time to read or access these materials, even when faced with a challenging situation within their class, and it’s unfortunately often up to affected individuals themselves to point to these resources and instructions when they are needed. I think bishops and Relief Society presidents are more likely to refer to the handbook when out of their depth, but if a leader or teacher assumes they already know what they are doing, or already have a handle on the situation, that’s where problems arise, and where lay leadership can be a cursing rather than a blessing. When we recognize our limitations, and utilize the resources provided for us, we all benefit.
The church website instructs leaders to counsel with individuals with disabilities and/or those who know them well to seek understanding and in decision making on their behalf. There are leaders who are really good at this, and others who cannot accept that an individual with a mental health issue could possibly be the best person to decide what type of calling she should have, or what accommodation(s) could help him, or which activities and programs will (or will not) be most beneficial for a family dealing with mental health issues.
There are also privacy concerns presented here. Should a church leader ever talk to anyone else about an individual’s sensitive health information without their specific permission? I believe there may be rare times and circumstances where this may be necessary, but I think we do it too often without a second thought, and call it leadership instead of gossip.
I look forward to the day that individuals with mental health difficulties and their leaders and peers can recognize that these struggles are not the fault of weak spirituality or unworthiness. I look forward to the day that mental illness is recognize by church members and leaders as a legitimate medical issue. (Can you imagine a bishop offering that the sacrament be brought to individuals with severe depression, anxiety, or agoraphobia that prevents them from attending church? Wouldn’t that be the right thing?) I look forward to the day when all church teachers carefully consider the impact of their words, and all church leaders ask (as ours have of late) what they can do to help us and if their are any issues or concerns they should consider in making decisions and callings, course placement, even ward boundary changes that could adversely affect them or their family. And I look forward to a time when members and leaders recognize that serious mental health issues require professional assistance, rather than relying solely on the prayers, blessings, and “counsel” of well-meaning but untrained lay leaders and teachers.
*Author’s name has been changed due the sensitive nature of this series of guest posts