While I spend most of my time doing research (both testing participants and dealing with the MRIs of their brains), I also spend time conducting therapy with clients. The more I learn about common mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, the more convinced I am of the benefits the gospel of Jesus Christ can have for mental illness. I find that at least some of the time in every session I find myself thinking, “The gospel sure could help with this problem.” I am not implying that the gospel is a panacea for issues such as depression but it can benefit a person tremendously.
I am going to focus on a narrow range of psychological disorders in this post. As psychologists we are most concerned about people with depression who state that they feel hopeless. It is usually a precursor to suicidal thoughts and intent, at least in the United States of America (depression manifests differently in different cultures). That is why when someone states or acknowledges that they feel hopeless, we become quite concerned. There might still be other things that are keeping people from killing themselves but hope is one of the most important keys. Those who are without hope despair (see Moroni 10:22) and have a tendency to act in desperation. However, there is a cure for this despair.
The gospel of Jesus Christ and faith in Christ provides one thing that makes mental illness – be it depression or anxiety or even something more severe – bearable. The gospel and faith provide hope. Hope is not always happiness but it can exist even if happiness is gone; hope can exist even when the inner calm is gone. For someone who is suffering from a mental illness, I believe that illness can become more bearable when faith in Christ leads to hope – hope for a better and brighter day and hope for a life when there will no longer be sadness and sorrow, at least not quite like we experience here in mortality.
It would be inaccurate to state that much sorrow and even depression was not caused by sin and other wickedness; after all, Moroni wrote, “Despair cometh because of iniquity” (Moroni 10:22). Also, “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10). People will not always find happiness in sin (see Mormon 2:13), whether in this life or the next, they will sorrow. Sometimes sorrow is good – it can help spur people to repentance (see 2 Cor. 7:10) – sometimes people become so ingrained in wicked habits that their sorrow is not unto repentance (see Mormon 2:13).
If you do a scripture search for the word sorrow you find many instances of the word; in most of the cases sorrow is juxtaposed with sin – the people’s own or some one else’s (see Mormon 5:9,11; 2 Nephi 1:17; Alma 31:2). The righteous can be sad and feel down because of the wickedness of those around them and those they love. The cure, at least in the scriptures, for most sorrow is repentance.
I want to repeat that in no way do I think all depression is caused by wickedness but I also not deny that wickedness can play a large role in the sorrow and depression people feel. It is not possible to live a wicked lifestyle and remain happy over time; we all have a divine spark within us that is offended by wickedness. As that flame burns dim, it affects how we feel. I have to add that any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is depressed should receive treatment from a competent mental health provider (and preferably one who respects one’s religious beliefs). Sometimes a bishop can be involved if the person feels that he or she has unresolved issues but the gospel is not a panacea for depression. As Elder Wilford Andersen stated at the April 2010 General Conference: “I do not wish to minimize the reality of clinical depression. For some, solutions to depression and anxieties will be found through consultation with competent professionals. But for most of us, sadness and fear begin to melt away and are replaced by happiness and peace when we put our trust in the Author of the plan of happiness and when we develop faith in the Prince of Peace.” (Andersen, Apr. 2010 Conference).
Now I want to shift gears for the rest of this post. Within the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are built many tools that while not explicitly established as treatment for mental health issues, can be beneficial for a range of psychological problems. One frequent contributing factor in depression are feelings of loneliness. All LDS Church members should be assigned home teachers (two men or a combination of a man and a young man 14-18 years old) who are supposed to visit monthly. All members of the Relief Society (women 18 and over) are also assigned visiting teachers (two women who are part of the Relief Society as well). In theory no one in a ward or branch (and thus the whole church) should feel completely isolated because they should be visited regularly by fellow church members. This program is not perfect but there are many people who fulfill their responsibilities every month. Related to this, all church members are also either a part of a Primary class (for the children), a Priesthood quorum (young men and men), a young woman’s class, or the Relief Society. Thus, ideally there should be a number of people who are involved and interested in each church member (in addition to the Bishop or Branch President). People are not perfect so this organization does not always work as it could but the organization is sound, even if the people are not always sound.
In addition, all church members are ideally assigned a responsibility – from librarian to Elder’s quorum president to Primary teacher to Bishop to General Authority to ward usher. All should have some level of responsibility and should (I’m dwelling in an ideal world for this post) feel needed. Some callings are busier than others – most bishops spend at least 20 hours per week fulfilling their responsibilities whereas a ward greeter might only spend a few minutes each week with his or her calling. Regardless of the level of responsibility, if a person has the right attitude he or she will feel needed. Even something as simple as that can alleviate symptoms of depression.
One thing that we often teach people who are depressed is that they should do something active every day, even if it is only for a few minutes. The Church provides numerous opportunities for people to be active and involved with other people. The Church provides a social situation where friends can be made. These social interactions are also key in helping people feel less depressed. That gets back to feelings of isolation or aloneness that so many people who are depressed feel.
Now what about other mental illnesses? I want to focus briefly on social phobia (performance anxiety or anything else related). The best and most lasting treatments for phobias are behavior treatments and in particular, exposure therapy. Exposure does not work for everyone but it is generally very effective. If someone has performance anxiety (specifically about public speaking) there are opportunities to overcome that anxiety. A person might be called as a teacher in church and have to teach every week. A person also might be asked to give a talk in Sacrament Meeting or bear his testimony or say a public prayer. Doing any of these these can serve as an informal exposure therapy. In addition, many young men and women in the Church serve full-time missions where they spend 18 to 24 months interacting with complete strangers. If you want a good situation to get over any social phobia one might have – that is a great time to overcome a phobia. With repeated exposure things become normalized and easier to do. This does not mean all anxiety will go away but it can be alleviated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Fear comes not of faith – faith replaces fear. Fear is at the root of a lot of anxiety disorders and faith can help someone overcome that fear. Again, I do not want to downplay the role that competent professionals can play but I think there are a lot of blessings that come through believing and living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly we will not be free from sorrow or psychological or medical or neurological problems but through faith we can find meaning in such adversity and have hope to overcome.