Myths about Mental Illness


Increasing our understanding of mental illness helps us reach out with love and compassion to those who are suffering.

In the Book of Mormon we read that the Nephites, who had been obedient to God’s laws, “lived after the manner of happiness” (2 Ne. 5:27). What a wonderful and insightful thought: if we are obedient and follow God’s commandments, we will be happy.

It is important to understand, however, that happiness does not imply the absence of adversity. Every individual experiences temptation, opposition, and trials that test faith and endurance: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11).

Among the most painful trials an individual or family can face is that of mental illness. By mental illness I do not mean the temporary social and emotional concerns experienced as part of the normal wear and tear of living. Rather, I mean a disorder that causes mild to severe disturbances in thinking and behavior. If such disturbances are sufficiently severe and of sufficient duration, they may significantly impair a person’s ability to cope with life’s ordinary demands. These illnesses may even threaten life itself, as in severe depression, or be so debilitating that the sufferer is unable to function effectively.

Though medical science has made marvelous progress in the past century in solving some of the mysteries of the brain, the truth is that knowledge in this complex area is still in its infancy. We still do not know exactly how the brain works nor exactly how and why parts of it may malfunction. One thing is certain, however: no individual, family, or group is immune from the effects of mental illness. Furthermore, we are learning that many mental illnesses result from chemical disorders in the brain, just as diabetes results from a chemical disorder in the pancreas. Why, then, is there still such misunderstanding and fear surrounding mental illness?

Myths and Misconceptions

Myths and misconceptions about mental illness unfortunately are found among Latter-day Saints just as they are in the general public. These harmful attitudes include the following:

1. All mental illness is caused by sin. Make no mistake about it—sin, the deliberate breaking of God’s commandments, does indeed result in behavior that is hurtful to self and to others. And for every transgression there must be a consequence or punishment. The demands of justice are inexorable, unless the person concerned invokes the power of the mercy provided by Christ’s Atonement by repenting of the sin and recognizing Christ as his Savior.

The power of sin to harrow up the soul is vividly exemplified by the words of repentant Alma: “I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. … I was tormented with the pains of hell. … The very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body” (Alma 36:12–15).

Those who, like Alma, experience sorrow during the repentance process are not mentally ill. If their sins are serious, they do require confession and counseling at the hands of their bishop. As part of his calling, each bishop receives special powers of discernment and wisdom. No mental health professional, regardless of his or her skill, can ever replace the role of a faithful bishop as he is guided by the Holy Ghost in assisting Church members to work through the pain, remorse, and depression associated with sin. That being said, however, it must be emphasized that in many instances aberrant thoughts, actions, and feelings result from mental illness and not from sin. They come from disease, not transgression. They are not God’s way of punishing the sinner. To assume they are is not only overly simplistic but also contrary to the teachings of the Church.

The truth is that many faithful Latter-day Saints who live the commandments and honor their covenants experience struggles with mental illness or are required to deal with the intense pain and suffering of morally righteous but mentally ill family members. Their burdens—and they are many—can be lifted only by love, understanding, and acceptance.

2. Someone is to blame for mental illness. It is a common human tendency to blame others or oneself for whatever goes wrong in life. Many victims of mental illness wear themselves out emotionally by futile attempts to remember something they, their parents, or someone else might have done that resulted in their suffering. Some blame their problem on demonic possession. While there is no doubt that such has occurred, let us take care not to give the devil credit for everything that goes awry in the world! Generally speaking, the mentally ill do not need exorcism; they require treatment from skilled health-care providers and love, care, and support from everyone else.

Most often, victims blame themselves. Many seem unable to rid themselves of terrible though undefined feelings that somehow, some way, they are the cause of their own pain—even when they are not. Parents, spouses, or other family members also often harrow up their minds trying futilely to determine where they went wrong. They pray over and over again for forgiveness when there is no evidence that they have anything of note to be forgiven of. Of course, in the vast majority of instances none of this works, for the simple reason that the victim’s thoughts and behavior result from disease processes which are not caused by the actions of others, including God.

Ascribing blame for mental illness causes unnecessary suffering for all concerned and takes time and energy which would better be used to increase understanding of what actually is happening—to get a complete assessment and proper diagnosis of the illness involved, to understand the causes, to get proper medication and learn behavioral and cognitive techniques that are part of the healing process. As victims, loved ones, and all the rest of us increase our understanding, then patience, forgiveness, and empathy will replace denial, anger, and rejection.

3. All that people with mental illness need is a priesthood blessing. I am a great advocate of priesthood blessings. I know, from much personal experience, that they do inestimable good. I know too that final and complete healing of mental illness or any other disease comes through faith in Jesus Christ. In any and all circumstances, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, our lives will improve and become richer and more peaceful as we turn to Him. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,” He said. “… Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). He and only He has the healing balm of Gilead needed by all of God’s children.

We must understand, however, without in any way denigrating the unique role of priesthood blessings, that ecclesiastical leaders are spiritual leaders and not mental health professionals. Most of them lack the professional skills and training to deal effectively with deep-seated mental illnesses and are well advised to seek competent professional assistance for those in their charge who are in need of it. Remember that God has given us wondrous knowledge and technology that can help us overcome grievous problems such as mental illness. Just as we would not hesitate to consult a physician about medical problems such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, so too we should not hesitate to obtain medical and other appropriate professional assistance in dealing with mental illness. When such assistance is sought, be careful to ensure, insofar as possible, that the health professional concerned follows practices and procedures which are compatible with gospel principles.

4. Mentally ill persons just lack willpower. There are some who mistakenly believe that the mentally ill just need to “snap out of it, show a little backbone, and get on with life.” Those who believe that way display a grievous lack of knowledge and compassion. The fact is that seriously mentally ill persons simply cannot, through an exercise of will, get out of the predicament they are in. They need help, encouragement, understanding, and love. Anyone who has ever witnessed the well-nigh unbearable pain of a severe panic attack knows full well that nobody would suffer that way if all that was needed was to show a little willpower. No one who has witnessed the almost indescribable sadness of a severely depressed person who perhaps can’t even get out of bed, who cries all day or retreats into hopeless apathy, or who tries to kill himself would ever think for a moment that mental illness is just a problem of willpower. We don’t say to persons with heart disease or cancer, “Just grow up and get over it.” Neither should we treat the mentally ill in such an uncompassionate and unhelpful way.

5. All mentally ill persons are dangerous and should be locked up. Sensational and incomplete media reports have conjured up stereotypical portrayals of the mentally ill as crazed and violent lunatics, dangerous to others as well as themselves. The truth is that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and the great majority of crimes of violence are not committed by persons who are mentally ill. 1

Furthermore, over the past 40 years, as effective medications for mental illness have become available and effective support programs have been developed, it has been shown that most mentally ill people—like those with physical illnesses—can live productive lives in their communities. They do not need to be locked up. Like everyone else, most mentally ill persons receiving proper treatment have the potential to work at any level in any profession, depending solely on their abilities, talents, experience, and motivation.

6. Mental illness doesn’t strike children and young people. As noted by the National Institute of Mental Health, the truth is that an estimated 10 percent of children in the United States suffer from a mental health disorder that disrupts their functioning at home, in school, or in the community. 2 The majority of children who kill themselves are profoundly depressed, and most parents did not recognize that depression until it was too late. I reiterate: no one is immune to mental illness.

7. Whatever the cause, mental illness is untreatable. As mentioned, during the past 40 years numerous medications have been developed by the multinational pharmaceutical industry. These products have proven of inestimable worth to millions. They are not perfect, nor do they work effectively in every instance—far from it, unfortunately. But we are getting closer to the day when physicians will have available effective drugs which are specific in correcting the biochemical lesions concerned, without the side effects which too often limit the effectiveness of medications today. I have no doubt that such developments, which we are already beginning to see, will result in striking advances in the treatment of mental illness over the next decade.

Let Us Help Those in Pain

I hope these few thoughts about some of the myths surrounding mental illness can help us build understanding and rid ourselves of stigma and bias about this important problem. With knowledge and understanding come love, acceptance, empathy, and enfoldment. May God bless us to love all His children, to abandon none, and to lift up and strengthen those suffering and in pain.

Helps for Home Evening

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions, personal reflection, or teaching the gospel in a variety of settings.

  1. 1.

    Use Elder Morrison’s myths as a true/false quiz for your family. After each myth is read, talk about why it is false using Elder Morrison’s explanations.

  2. 2.

    Ask family members to imagine themselves in a deep, dark, narrow hole with no ladder or tools to help them climb out. What are the most important things they would request from a rescuer? Liken the hole to mental illness and invite family members to glean from the article the most important tools a sufferer would need to be “rescued.”

[photos] Photography by Robert Casey, posed by models

Elder Alexander B. Morrison served as a member of the Seventy from 1987 to 2000.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    See Aaron Levin, “Violence and Mental Illness: Media Keep Myths Alive,” Psychiatric News, May 4, 2001, 10.

  2.   2.

    See www.nimh.nih.gov/healthinformation/childmenu.cfm.