[This is the third 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 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness]
I appreciate the input and insights from those who have experienced depression and other mental health challenges firsthand. Many of the comments have focused on physiological causes and medical helps. I’d like to briefly explore some emotional and psychological factors and their effects and treatments before we discuss implications and applications for church service and church leaders. My own background will provide useful context here.
I was raised in the church by parents who had and have continued to regularly serve in prominent callings (including bishoprics, RS presidencies, & full-time missions). They also had unrecognized and untreated mental health issues that made it impossible for them to provide the type of love, stability, nurturing, or teaching needed for children to feel safe, secure, autonomous, happy, or functional–to the degree that they lost custody of children in 3 different U.S. states. Each of my siblings has spent tremendous energy and personal resources to get to places of safety, obtain treatment (medical and psychological), learn healthy patterns of thinking and behavior (including more accurate images of God), and find constructive social support that enhances rather than diminishes their ability to act and not be acted upon by the errant messages were inculcated in our growing years. Clearly (as indicated in my OP) our efforts have not been entirely successful to date, but eternity is on our side.
The scriptures and current church teachings recognize and acknowledge how essential parental care and example are to children, and how long-range the effects (“to the fourth and fifth generation”). We like reassurances that our efforts to raise a child well generally pay off, but often fail to observe the corollary that things we have been mistaught in our formative years are VERY difficult to root out. Three areas seriously impacted by my upbringing were misunderstandings about the nature of God, personal autonomy and view of myself, and my perceptions of others (including neighbors, church members, and the world as a whole).
Growing up in my particular LDS home, I learned that God is capricious, punitive, partial, and unfair. I was taught that I was innately bad and deserved any mistreatment I received. Because they were not able to meet our basic needs, we were taught that our basic needs and wants as children were not worthy of consideration or fulfillment, and anyone voicing even basic needs was punished for being spoiled and “selfish.” Independent views were not tolerated by my parents. Even the development and sharing of talents was discouraged as “showing off” unless is was for a church event or meeting. Judging, attacking, restraining, or controlling us was excused as a sign that they were trying to help us. We were also taught that most people in the world are bad (contrary to our personal experience of being treated better by just about everyone outside of our own family), and that the world is an unsafe place. As you can imagine, these false teachings had a huge impact on my spirituality into my adult years. In compensation, I developed an overly emotional, self-righteous, judgmental and condescending “spirituality” that took years to deconstruct and redevelop in a more positive, accurate, and (yes) godward direction.
I share these few examples of misunderstandings resulting from the child neglect and abuse that are a natural bi-product of inadequate care and abusive treatment by one set of parents with untreated mental health issues not to blame or rescind personal responsibility for my life and choices, nor to disrespect, judge, or condemn my parents, who did the best they could under the circumstances, experiences, and physiological challenges of their own. Nor do I blame God (though at times I have) or the church–though my parents often erroneously claimed that they represented Christ’s attitudes, teachings, and judgments. Clearly, they do not. Nor do I blame misinformed and unhelpful church leaders who sought, even against professional opinion, to keep our “eternal family” together.
The scriptures teach us to respect and learn from our earthly parents (in righteousness), but also contain multiple examples of righteous individuals counseled by the Lord to get as far as possible from evil, abusive, and/or otherwise dangerous parents and other family members and people–those with power to destroy the soul. The scriptures also counsel us to vigilantly REMEMBER our own captivity, and the captivity of our parents. The truth is what makes us free.
I share these examples to demonstrate one way in which trauma and misrepresentation of God, ourselves, and the world can cause or perpetuate mental health struggles. When errant thinking is to blame for or results from emotional distress, cognitive and/or other therapies are essential components of treatment, and can be as effective as medication for some individuals.
Through personal study of the gospel and behavior, professional treatment, counseling, and support groups, recognition of some of the causes of initial misunderstandings or trauma, making incremental behavioral changes including better caring for temporal needs (like sleep, good nutrition, and exercise), and avoiding situations or relationships that again start to confuse and depress me, I’ve come to learn about and repeatedly experienced God’s constant, perfect, and merciful love. God does not delight in punishing us or seeing us suffer, but provides every means possible (though we aren’t always aware of it, and seldom, but sometimes, on our own time frame) to aid us. These means include the atonement to heal and strengthen us; scriptures, prophetic teaching, the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our pursuit of truth and greater understanding, and countless individuals in and outside the church with knowledge, experiences, and resources to help us.
I’ve come to appreciate more fully that children are innocent (not perfect, but innocent), alive in Christ, and deserving of special care and protection. Likewise, every person on earth is a child of God who was valiant in the pre-existence and chose to come here to become more like our Heavenly Parents. Yes, there is evil and depravity in the world, and even simple ignorance and misguidedness. But there is much goodness, too (I would say more). Most people are doing the best that they can, and are willing to help others in need as they are able. I’ve read and heard again and again that parents are responsible to care for their children’s temporal, emotional, and spiritual needs and that my needs and wants are known by and of concern to the Lord. I also now know our bodies, though mortal, are also a divine gift, and to be cared for adequately, and that the earth was created not just to “try” us, but also “for food and for raiment” and “to please the eye and gladden the heart.”
I suspect that as with everyone else, my journey to wholeness will not even end when I die, but I’m sure in a better place now than I have been, and could not have made this journey back in the right direction without recognizing that some individuals (including my parents, some church leaders, and even some LDS social services professionals) have been in error, and some spiritual leaders and mental health professionals (in and outside the LDS church) have had the knowledge, skill and resources I needed most to get back on track emotionally and spiritually as well.
*Author’s name has been changed due the sensitive nature of this series of guest posts