“When my daughter first showed signs of mental illness, I kept denying that there was anything wrong,” says Cheryl, * a Latter-day Saint mother. “I wanted her to just get over the outbursts, the disorganized thinking, and the bizarre behaviors. Through the persistent encouragement of some very close friends, I finally sought help for my daughter and found some solutions.”
According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, one in five families in the United States has a member who suffers from a serious mental illness. 1 These illnesses include, among others, major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or phobias (see sidebar, p. 35). Mental illness can result in much heartache and suffering, not only on the part of those afflicted but by their loved ones as well. Church members with these disorders, together with their families, are in particular need of the blessings of the gospel and tender support of their ward members.
The New Testament contains numerous examples of the Savior’s ministry among the sick and afflicted, including those suffering from what we now term as mental illness. 2 The Lord also extended His healing touch to those with other diseases accompanied by considerable stigma, such as leprosy. 3 In biblical times most lepers were shunned by their communities and forced to live in isolation. Today, many of the mentally ill are treated similarly: all too often they are ignored and stigmatized.
The Savior has commanded, “The works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do.” 4 How can we follow His example in regard to those with mental illness and their families?
First, we can be a friend. Many people are frightened by mental illness and do not know what to say or how to respond to an individual with such a disorder. It may seem easy to turn away from those who are afflicted and their families, but this only increases their suffering and isolation. Taking time to listen, including them in our activities, being there for them in times of crisis, and treating them as we would want to be treated helps lift their burden and shows our love for them.
The parent of a daughter with schizophrenia said: “When I realized the true impact of my daughter’s illness on her life, I lost all hope. That was a very dark and helpless place. But as I allowed others to reach out to me, teach me, and offer me their strength, my hope was restored.”
Second, we can encourage those afflicted and their families to draw upon the power of the priesthood and personal revelation in dealing with their challenges. While all health problems will not be healed during mortality, individuals can often find hope, improvement in some areas, increased spiritual strength, and the assurance of Heavenly Father’s love through priesthood blessings and personal prayers. Through these channels individuals and family members may also be guided to people or organizations that can offer them needed assistance.
Heavenly Father stands by, ready to help. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive. … He will be inquired of by His children. He says, ‘Ask and ye shall receive.’” 5
Third, we can help the mentally ill and their families understand the role of trials in our lives and the power of the Atonement to help us endure and grow through trials. We know that suffering can refine us and bring us to Christ. 6 And we know that through the Atonement the Savior took upon Himself not only the sins but also “the pains and the sicknesses of his people” so that He might “succor his people according to their infirmities.” 7 The Lord comprehends perfectly the anguish of those who have been affected by mental illness, and He can help them find peace (see John 14:27)—even the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” 8
Fourth, we can offer compassion and support without judgment. Sometimes good parents of mentally ill children are told by the unknowing that perhaps the child’s illness could have been avoided if they had practiced better parenting skills. Yet scientific evidence shows that there is a strong biological component in many of these disorders. For example, research performed by Brigham Young University professor Erin D. Bigler shows actual differences in the brains of those with various mental disorders. Dr. Bigler believes that “major psychiatric disorders have physiological underpinnings.” 9 These illnesses may develop in even the best of environments.
As we become better informed, we can help family members avoid the guilt that so often accompanies these challenges.
Fifth, we can refuse to support the discrimination and stigma often associated with mental illness. We can object to television programs, cartoons, advertisements, and movies that inappropriately portray those suffering from mental illness.
The media have contributed greatly to stigma against the mentally ill, giving wide press coverage to violent acts committed by a small percentage of people with serious disorders, and producing movies and television shows that sensationalize these acts. Consequently it could appear that all people with mental illness are violent—but this is far from the truth. According to the National Mental Health Association, “The vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent. In the cases when violence does occur, the incidence typically results from the same reasons as with the general public such as feeling threatened or excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs.” 10
Sixth, we can help people find the resources they need. LDS Family Services, which can be accessed through one’s bishop, offers support and professional counseling to individuals and families within the context of Latter-day Saint values and, if necessary, makes referrals to hospitals or other treatment centers. Community mental health centers help people find treatment in environments that are less restrictive than hospital settings. Local and national mental health organizations provide education and support and can be located on the Internet or in a local telephone book. Many books and articles also contain useful information and can be found in local libraries or on the Internet, but use discernment to select the best resources.
A seventh suggestion is to understand the emotions people may experience when confronting mental illness, and then to help them deal with their feelings. Experts say that when individuals become ill, they and their family members commonly experience shock and fear at first, then denial, followed by anger, guilt, and grief before they move into understanding. 11 A knowledge of these stages can provide a framework for discussing and empathizing with the feelings involved.
Eighth, we can understand that many forms of treatment can and do help. New medications have been developed in the past 10 years that treat a variety of symptoms, with fewer side effects than older medications. Behavior modification programs can help individuals suffering from depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder change their thoughts and reactions and thus decrease the symptoms of their illness.
Ninth, we can recognize and help others understand that mental illnesses are not rare, that “mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.” 12 Based on statistics from a 1999 U.S. Surgeon General report, a group of 500 people ages 18–54 may include 7 individuals with schizophrenia, 8 with panic disorder, 12 with obsessive-compulsive disorder, 9 with bipolar disorder, 25 with agoraphobia (fear of open, public places), and 33 who will suffer from at least one episode of major depression. 13 If some of these figures seem high, remember that much mental illness is kept hidden because of the stigma against it, and many of the most seriously ill are homeless or clustered in hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, or low-income areas.
We know that everyone will one day be resurrected with perfect bodies, including brains that are free of structural or functional problems. Our challenge, then, is to help those with afflictions that are not healed during mortality. When we as Church members reach out to them with love, we help keep our covenant to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” 14 Our efforts to understand and support the mentally ill and their families can do much to help ease their burdens.
“We All Need Each Other”
“How sorrowful must a brother or sister feel when they think they are abandoned, when they think no one cares! Perhaps it was this feeling that caused the psalmist to write, ‘I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul’ (Ps. 142:4).
“The church of our loving Lord cannot function that way! We all need each other.” Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “‘Love Thy Neighbor,’” Ensign, Jan. 1987, 72.
Serious Mental Illnesses
The following are basic descriptions of some of the more common serious mental illnesses.
Phobias: Irrational fears of a particular object, situation, or activity.
Panic Disorder: A disorder in which an individual experiences unexpected episodes of intense dread, often accompanied by chest pain, choking or smothering sensations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A disorder in which a person has recurrent, unwanted thoughts and may feel compelled to engage in repetitive, ritualistic behavior that interferes with daily life.
Bipolar Disorder: A disorder, also known as manic depression, in which the individual has extreme mood swings, alternating between mania (a hyperactive, elated state) and depression. Moods may last for days, weeks, or months.
Depression: A disorder in which an individual experiences feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lethargy for an extended period of time.
A disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and acts. An affected person may experience hallucinations and/or delusions, may withdraw from society, and may have impaired reasoning and incoherent speech.
Name has been changed
NAMI [National Alliance for the Mentally Ill] Family-to-Family Education Program Teaching Manual, 2nd ed. (1998), 11.14.
See Matt. 4:24.
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 257.
Quoted in Mary Lynn Johnson, “Erin D. Bigler, Brain Child,” Brigham Young Magazine, spring 2000, 21.
“Stigma: Building Awareness and Understanding about Mental Illness,” www.nmha.org.
NAMI Teaching Manual, 1.19–1.20.
“Facts about Mental Illness” (1996–2000), www.nami.org.
Department of Health and Human Services, “Epidemiology of Mental Illness,” Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (1999), www.nimh.nih.gov.