Before my time as guest blogger expires (thanks, Kaimi, for the opportunity!), there’s a serious issue that I’d like to raise, especially for you who are or who will be leaders in the Church. The issue is mental illness. Very few of us have had any training in recognizing and dealing with mental illness, but there is a great need. I would especially urge bishoprics, Relief Society presidents, and other leaders to learn about mental illness and look for its symptoms. Stake leaders, it may be helpful to provide more training abvout mental from competent sources for your leaders so they can better deal with the many forms of mental illness that afflict some of our members.
I think my biggest surprises when I was a bishop came from experiences with those who suffered from various forms of mental illness. Some had kept their suffering hidden for years without ever getting help, but how much help was needed all that time. The most serious problems involved those who had been abused as children. I could spend hours writing about what a hell sexual abuse creates for its victims, and how it can inflict such terrible and lasting harm on the human mind. For example, I am absolutely convinced of the reality of multiple personality disorder (an amazing way for the mind to protect itself in the worst of times). Dealing with it in depth as a frightened and inexperienced bishop was one of my most painful and rewarding experiences, a journey that showed me in profound ways just how loving and real and merciful our Savior is, and how great His love is for those who have suffered the most.
Brothers and sisters, it is possible that virtually every ward and branch has at least one victim of sexual abuse in dire need of your help. It is possible that every unit has or will have someone on the verge of suicide, in great need of your help. If the Lord puts you in a place where that person can reach out to you, it is vital that you listen. If someone tells you something that smacks of mental illness, that seems crazy, it may be vitally important for you to listen and to take them seriously. Only then will you be able to learn what they might really need and then help them get the help they need.
Leaders, know that for victims of abuse, authority figures can be terrifying people. Do not be offended if a member seems afraid of you or very easily becomes angry or upset at you. Relax, and accept that they may have a real problem. Do not try to use logic and persuasion to get them to “act normal” – give them space and acceptance, and perhaps in time they may trust you enough to share what they are going through. Do not corner them or do anything to make them feel trapped (that’s a good reason for being behind a desk in interviews, away from the door).
I think one of my biggest mistakes in the Church came from not recognizing signs of mental illness in a member and trying too hard to get them to see things “normally.” I only made things worse and created more distance and more pain. And some of my most important accomplishments – or rather, some of the Lord’s biggest miracles that I did not mess up – came when I accepted others’ “dysfunctional” behavior as a genuine problem that was not their fault (I’m not expressing this quite right – it’s difficult). That opened the door for a series of incredible experiences that made the Atonement more real and powerful than it had ever been before to me.
Whether it is caused by abuse, by physiology or other factors, mental illness is just as real and as debilitating as cancer or a broken leg or blindness, and needs to be approached with the same love and compassion as you would treat victims of physical injuries or disease. We must not judge victims of mental illness or look down on them any more than we would someone who had been hit by a car. It may be impossible for us to grasp the pain and the barriers that others suffer, but with the help of the Spirit and the charity that comes from Christ, I believe Church leaders can be guided to properly minister to the mentally ill, though in many cases it is critical that we help them get professional help and not think that we can do it all or that the Church has everything they need.
Leaders, please don’t go into denial when there is some hint that someone in your stewardship may be a past or current victim of abuse. When you see people living in high risk situations (e.g., an adult male from outside the family living with a family with young girls), don’t turn a blind eye. Seek the Spirit, consult with appropriate experts as needed, and do what is right. High risk situations often lead to tragedy, and sometimes you can help prevent it, or at least help the healing process.
I am so grateful to a few key members of my ward who helped me understand the terrible problems that victims of child abuse can suffer throughout their lives. I marvel at the courage and faith of those who have done all they can to move ahead with their lives after going through hell, and hope that their healing can continue. I am so grateful for the reality of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and His infinite love, and His ability to wipe away all tears.
On a final note, there are those who charge that the pressures of being a Mormon creates depression and other forms of mental illness in people. Certainly we need to recognize when someone is under too much pressure or has burdens too great and do all we can to help and lighten those burdens, rather than expecting more. But I wholeheartedly believe that active participation in the Church and living the Gospel generally promotes good mental health, though some will say I’m crazy for thinking that way. For some background information and a couple of interesting studies, please see the section on mental health and suicide on my Mormon Answers Page of Facetious Questions, a page that actually contains some pretty serious information.
I would appreciate your suggestions on what we as members of the Church can do better to help those who suffer from various forms of mental illness. I know that some of you know a lot about this topic – I would really like to know more and get your insights. And if I’ve given any poor advice or said anything wildly incorrect or spoken insensitively, please help me out with your comments. This is an area where most of us still have a lot to learn.