Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34)

[This is the first in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The subsequent installments are available here: Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions,  Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness]

Not many years ago, a younger sibling of mine sought to stop her unbearable emotional pain by ending her mortal life.  While she succeeded in completing her suicide, she did not consciously chose this path, and she is not fully accountable for her desperate and tragic actions. In some ways, she is in a safer place, as she is now beyond reach of some of the individuals, circumstances, and influences that had power to destroy her soul. I also believe that many of her challenges continue, and some may even be greater.  I do not know the ultimate destiny of her soul. But I know for sure that God’s love, watch care, influence, empathy, and grace go with her beyond the grave, that the Plan of Happiness, Salvation, and Exaltation is for her, as much as it is for me, and you, and all of God’s precious children. Christ endured the emotional pain that my sister endured specifically so that He can now succor her.

As I have mourned and been mourned with through this tragic loss, and as I observe and mourn with others bearing similar and other losses, I am more keenly aware of the limitations of our knowledge and understanding of others, and the importance of kindness and love in our interactions with even those we personally find abhorrent or topics with which we are personally uncomfortable.  While we must seek knowledge and understanding, make “proximal” judgements (as Elder Oaks calls them) about appropriate behavior and attitudes, and declare truth as we can best discern it, we must recognize how little we can truly know and understand, and how completely unable we are to judge others, even when their actions are starkly at odds with our understanding of and commitment to those behaviors which bring us the greatest happiness and peace.  It is within the balance of these dual responsibilities that I want to discuss, over several guest posts, current attitudes within the church towards mental health and its confluence (or not) with the “Good News” of Jesus Christ, as well as doctrinal concerns and practical applications.

Our Creator and Physician is well aware of our collective physical, spiritual, and mental imperfections. None of us is completely whole–even those of us, to use a traditional Christian term, “in grace.” But mental illnesses and limitations are particularly troubling due to their potential negative impact on understanding, spiritual discernment, free will, and experiencing happiness and peace–essential barometers to revelation and the assurance that we are on the right path.

What is an individual with anxiety, paranoia, or inaccurate perceptions of reality to conclude from 2 Timothy 1:7 “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind”?

What does one struggling with addiction or unwanted desires hear in the reassurance in 1 Corinthians 10:13 “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

And how is a severely depressed individual supposed to respond to New Testament and Book of Mormon equations of being “past feeling” with iniquity, wickedness, and lasciviousness?  (Ephesians 4:19; 1 Nephi 17:45, Moroni 9:20)

We accept mortality as a growth opportunity and proving ground without full understanding of the conditions, limitations, and challenges we face here. But we are reassured (and I believe) that where there are limitations, allowances and compensations are made through grace, and that correction, instruction, and requisite character development will eventually come.  (See Romans 2:12 and 7:8-9, Doctrine & Covenants 76:72; Moroni 8:22)

I rejoice to see greater awareness of the reality and complexity of mental illness as a physiological as well as psychological condition within as well as outside the church.  Mental illness and other conditions which affect understanding and behavior are increasingly addressed in new leadership training, church magazines, and on the church website (see here and here as just two examples).  Note in particular the recognition of the need for reliance on professional help, and the emphasis that mental illness is not the fault of the individual so suffering. This is really important information for individuals who have assumed that depression or addiction, as just two examples, can and will be “fixed” if someone just tries hard enough to live the gospel, or prays with enough faith to be healed.  Sometimes, miraculously, they are.  It takes even greater faith (and grace) to endure when wanted relief is not supplied in the here and now despite ones best efforts, intentions, and pleas.

In the meantime, we can all seek refuge, help, and greater understanding through the Teacher and Physician who was sent to tutor and heal (in time, and eternity) each of us.  Even in his sorely pressed hour of greatest need, our Savior understood the unintentional neglect of Peter, James, and John, recognizing “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)  May we extend that same divine recognition and love to ourselves in our own times of weakness, and particularly to those around us who cannot, due to mental limitations, now feel, comprehend, or act in accordance with God’s love.


*Author’s name has been changed due the sensitive nature of this series of guest posts

19 comments for “Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34)

  1. Demaris – My mother committed suicide when I was a teenager. When I hear people taking about how Christ’s love and the atonement can heal all of our wounds, with the assumption that this can happen in this life, it is painful. They don’t know the pain of a loved one with serious mental health problem. Both of my parents suffer from serious mental health problems that prevented them from being good parents. As a child and teenager, I was continually told at church that if love, share, and serve more that I will make my family happy. We should encourage teenagers not to be selfish, but my faithfulness drove me to a feel like I had to be perfect and if only I achieved perfection, my family’s problems would go away. I wish that someone had taken me aside and told me that I couldn’t fix my family, that my family’s happiness did not depend on my perfection.

  2. Demaris:
    Sorry to hear about your sister. I had an experience where I came to realize that mental health is more fragile than what we think.

  3. I was sorry to read about your sister. My brother committed suicide and I have been suicidal many times. The scriptures you mentioned have given me anguish and I have at times felt abandoned by God. It is only the memory of having felt the Spirit in the past that keeps me going, hoping I can feel again. I look forward to your future posts.

  4. This is an area that I am at a total loss as to figure out how God is involved in all of this. I have relatives that weren’t mentally stable and one it was just years and years of grinding poverty and she just “rusted out” and that was it. I don’t know why God allows things to get so bad as to have people think suicide is the only answer. With members of the Church who commit suicide are they negligible people, like God doesn’ really care about them and can spare them while others he seems to put help and people in all the right places and life is all set up for them like Pres. Hinckley. I don’t know why other people in society or Church have things so good that they seemingly never “feel after God” Others pray and pray and pray for help, relief, understanding and seemingly never get it, as if the answer was some kind of a game and others get their needs are met almost instantly. To figure out the ways of God is IMO almost a fruitless exercise, God’s hand isn’t so easily seen in the lives of some or many

  5. Glad to have you here exploring this topic. As I’ve encountered (relatively innocuous) mental illness in my extended family, I think it’s certainly something we need to hear about more in order to have greater sympathy and understanding.

    1 Corinthians 10:13- I’ve always wanted to dig into that. I suspect it doesn’t quite mean what we shallowly claim, but have nothing to show on it yet.

  6. Nickel, Mandy, and Whizzbang, I’m so sorry to hear of your struggles, losses, and the struggles of your loved ones as well. Some lives do seem disproportionately difficult.

    Because we can be an influence for good in the lives of those around us, I think we sometimes err in our assignment of responsibility. And it seems common for children of emotionally unavailable, neglectful, addicted, narcissistic, or abusive parents to assume responsibility for the treatment they receive. Scriptures about sins of fathers extending generations forwards, and responsibilities of posterity to provide saving ordinances for their kindred dead can be easily misunderstood.

    The 2nd Article of Faith makes clear that we are each responsible for our own sins and behavior (insofar as we are accountable–as discussed above). And Ezekiel 18:20 is even more clear: “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” While this does not “fix” a dysfunctional family or heal the losses inherent in having grown up in one, and while we cannot repent or reform an individual family member, it does make it clear that you are not responsible for anyone else’s behavior, choices, or failings– family or not.

    whizzbang-it does seem more difficult for some than for others to see and feel God’s hand in their lives, just as it is more difficult for some than others to get enough food to survive, or to overcome political unrest, violence, or other trauma in their lives, or to overcome false teachings in their home or culture about what behavior will ultimately lead to happiness, or to be physically healthy… The variety of difficulties is as varied as the inhabitants of this earth. I do not believe this is a result of greater concern for some children than others. I believe God weeps with us in our sorrows, every one, even though we often do not know or feel it.

    There are times when what is most needed (even more than gospel teaching) is food, shelter, sleep, safety, medical treatment, love. When a basic need is not met, that is the first priority, and the most godly endeavor.

    “Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the aname of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42

  7. I heard a novel interpretation of Moroni 10:22 at church recently (I suspect you meant to cite 10:22 above, but if not, it fits in with the litany of scripture you’re reviewing). This individual had undergone significant anxiety on account of this scripture – it exacerbated his despair because he felt that it attributed personal responsibility for that despair on account of his own wickedness. Then a light went off and he realized that the verses didn’t attribute specific responsibility for the wickedness that decreases hope and leads to despair. Obviously our personal wickedness can lead to despair. But he realized that the wickedness could be general or distributed. It might be the wickedness of one’s society, perhaps the commonly held false beliefs or a failing culture that encourages people to shun those with struggles rather than embracing them. I certainly hope we can all avoid that form wickedness and the increase in despair that accompanies it.

  8. I first begin feeling suicidal as a very young man. Sometimes prayer helped, but sometimes it didn’t. As I got older, the depression worsened and I felt nothing during Church services, temple work, scripture reading, or prayer. I pled for years and only heard silence. It was devastating. I lost my testimony. Eventually, after being diagnosed and given medication, I began to feel spiritual promptings again. For a time, this change greatly bothered me because I thought it implied those promptings were self-generated (What, couldn’t God reach through to me despite my depression?). Later, what I believe was the Spirit conveyed to me the following thought – suppose a righteous person (even the prophet) was in the midst of being taught by the Spirit as they walked around their home one night. Then, suddenly they misjudge a step and their foot slides under the bathroom door, tearing their big toenail completely off and scraping the raw flesh underneath with the rough wood. What would happen to their spiritual experience? It would end very quickly and not because God wasn’t there anymore, but because the searing pain so occupied their mind they could no longer hear Him. Through this I came to learn that the constant, heavy pain that is depression prevented me from feeling Him. This is perhaps depression’s most insidious effect. I am so grateful he taught someone enough chemistry to make Lexapro so I can have Him in my life again.

  9. Clinical Depression is genetic in my family and I have always had it
    though most people aren’t aware because I’m an upbeat, happy person. Even with medication, I still have difficulty focusing and concentrating long enough to get through a reasonably long enough prayer with Heavenly Father. I still feel as if my thoughts bounce around off the walls and ceilings. I contrast this with a bishop who knew nothing of my illness, that when I became endowed in the temple it would be as if I had razor sharp perception and answers to prayers. Really? I can only imagine! When the Lord needs to get a message to me, He sometimes hits me over the head so I can’t miss it–but that’s very rare. I usually feel the still small voice is too
    still and small. But I do my best and I figure that is part of my trial here. Sometimes praying and trying to hear an answer is so labor intensive my mind seems to push a pause button and I give up.
    Then I feel guilty for not praying more diligently but I also know I always have a prayer in my heart and so He knows what I want to pray about.
    I’ve learned to pray and tell Him what I think, etc. and ask if I am wrong that He will make sure I find out. Otherwise I do as I think best.
    The other thing is Depression is a mood disorder so you can easily answer your own prayers by how intense you feel. That also make me
    overly cautious wondering if it’s me or the Spirit. So sometimes I
    feel not a lot comes from my efforts to pray but I know the Lord knows that. He understands why I try and the times I fall asleep and give up only to awaken the next morning and think I’m a failure–but that’s Depression and Satan can use those thoughts for me to self-destruct. So I tell myself the Lord loves me and knows my thoughts and understands and I just have to hold onto the iron rod and keep pressing forward. With Depression, you can really beat yourself up but your perception is flawed–again, He knows that and takes that into account.

  10. P.S. Oh, one more thing. We often hear how we won’t be given a trial that’s too hard for us. What the scripture says is not about a trial being too hard, but a temptation. I don’t think anyone commits suicide because it was too tempting for them. No, their perceptions became flawed most likely due to brain chemical imbalances so they perceived their life as too hard a trial to endure–not too hard a temptation to overcome. And people with mental illness can have impulse control problems which means temptations may be way hard to control. I haven’t
    quite figured that last one out yet. My guess is that unless they are in the temple 24/7 or praying constantly, temptation will overcome them but I don’t know for sure. I would like to think the Lord’s Atoning grace strengthens us to overcome all we encounter–but
    even so, we still keep falling short and needing His grace.

  11. In recent years, it has been popular in the church to make exception to the “sin” of suicide, assuming that often these people are not in full control of their mental capacities. Obviously they are not. But if you think about it, many other sins also fall into this category. Anything done within an “addicted” state is by definition, an action which cannot be resisted through will power. In many cases, this includes heinous crimes such as murder and pedophelia. Should we also make exception to these sins?

    I believe we should. We make an exception for suicide, because we are moved to compassion by it’s pathetic and lonely specter. But we lash out hypocritically at those whose pathologies lead them to commit acts which are much less palatable to our sensibilities, even though they are acts done by creatures who are slaves to something beyond their control.

    People in an addicted state have moved beyond the sphere of self-control, becoming creatures to be “acted upon, not creatures to act.” The only way out is intervention, or grace. Something outside of themselves must intervene.

    A suicide is a creature who has not found that grace on earth. In a way, the suicide IS the grace, it is the divine intervention. The smile on the face of the suicide, as he plunges to his death is a smile of rapturous freedom, released from the shackles of cruel mortality, to embrace the mysteries of the beyond, yet with the fears of unknown chains that may await there. A suicide has overcome his fear of the unknown to break the chains of his mortal existence. It is an act of supreme and desperate will in the face of total powerlessness, the embrace of eternity, of God, of oblivion. Total and complete surrender.

  12. James (#8) No, I had not recalled that particular scripture, but it is a difficult one. [Moroni 8:22, which I cited, is about children and those who are not “under law”] I agree that seeing wickedness even outside of ourselves also causes despair. But either way, without the pure love of Christ, and the hope offered by the atonement, we are all in despair. When talking about the type of despair that accompanies clinical depression, we’re talking about hopelessness unrelated to personal faith and righteousness, so I don’t think this scriptures is talking about this type of despair at all.

    Mark (#9) :-) I really appreciate your toenail analogy. This mirrors my experience with by own periods of clinical depression. I’m glad someone invented Lexapro for you, too.

    Jill (#10) Your bishop told you the endowment would have that effect? Wow. Do you know if he told everyone that? I believe gifts of the Spirit operate differently for different people. “to some it is given…” One of my pet peeves is how Moroni 10:4 is taken out of context. Reading the entire chapter gives a much more nuanced description of seeking (a more than 12-step process!) and receiving (in a huge variety of ways) revelation of truth.

    Not sure I agree on your distinction about trials vs temptations. I think suicide is a temptation for some. I don’t know. Glad those judgements aren’t my call. And all temptations are certainly trials, though I agree that not all trials are temptations. But it’s an interesting distinction I’ll look at more. In this particular scripture (1 Cor 10:13) I’m curious about the meaning of the wording “above that ye are able” Able to what? Not succumb? Or not be destroyed as a result of doing so since He atoned for our sins? Escape can happen after we’ve succumbed to a temptation. It’s called redemption. The fact that the temptations aren’t actually removed in this verse is interesting as well–else there’s no need “to bear it” (counter to other scriptures that indicate in some instances, people who repent retain “no more disposition to do evil.”) Escape can also be getting as far away as we can, since temptations (in my experience) are not actually removed from me (I have to remove myself from them, set up precautions, etc.)–hence “bearing” by minimizing the pull of the temptation by distance. I think God being faithful to us has more to do with grace and redemption than with charting an easy path for us so we never fall in the first place.

    Nate: you’ve hit on one of the topics I’ll be discussing in one of my posts. For now, I’ll just say that *we* don’t make any exceptions for suicide or any other sin. The Lord does (or not). Forgiving all, as we are required, doesn’t mean we absolve anyone of responsibility for wrong-doing. It means that though we recognize that a wrong has been done, we leave the absolving (or not) to God.

  13. Yes, I think my bishop would have told that to everyone as there was no reason to single me out. And he tends to be an all or nothing type thinker.
    I read that scripture as saying every temptation we have, others have as well. But that God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear. He will provide a way for us to escape it so that we are able to bear it. I have to ponder whether that last sentence means escaping it by means of the Atonement or we have the strength to overcome it because He won’t allow us to be tempted beyond our ability. I mustn’t be understanding that because if we were always strong then we wouldn’t ever succumb (unless we have a favorite sin we just like doing??) and an Atonement wouldn’t be necessary. But He knew we would sin. Sometimes we don’t succumb and other times we do –even with the same temptation. Then our escape has to be through the Atonement. I agree that God being faithful has more to do with grace than with our being strong enough to never fall in the first place. He knew we would fall and keep on falling.
    Thank you for discussing the trial/temptation question I wonder about.
    Yes, I see that all temptations are trials but not all trials are temptations.
    With regard to suicide,I see that it can be a temptation. But I’d expect that a sore trial came first, then the temptation to release
    oneself from it.

    Nate–Very interesting thoughts on addictions. I think some suicides are people in their right mind who choose to opt out of a situation rather than deal with it and those would be judged quite differently.

  14. Jill-That scripture does wrap it up nicely. And clearly refers only to those “under law.”

    Just a note on usage: suicide is an action or event, not a person. My sister is not “a suicide.” She’s a person who ended her life. And Nate-though it may be a relief for some (we don’t know since we don’t see what happens on the other side, though my sister was sent back after a previous attempt on her life to wrap up some unfinished business) suicide is not grace from God because God hasn’t caused it.

  15. Regarding 1 Corinthians 10:13 — This scripture really used to give me trouble. I hated it. Not just a little. Every time I read it, I had to remind myself that the Bible isn’t always translated correctly. When it was quoted in local meetings, I could pass that off as individual ignorance. But when General Authorities talked about it, I really got bothered.

    It just didn’t fit my personal experience. Then as I studied human behavior, it became quite clear that some behaviors are not chosen. Despite the insistence of some members on radical free will, the scriptures don’t explicitly support such an understanding. Like you wrote, all of us suffer from limitations here in mortality. Some of those limitations are visible, the are better hidden.

    What the scriptures do clearly state, is that humans have the ability to choose between life and death, freedom and captivity. Lehi doesn’t say we can choose whether or not to commit a particular sin or not. What we can do is choose to turn to Christ and accept the Atonement, which has the power to free us from the Chains of Sin. Whether that deliverance comes immediately or in the Lord’s own time is up to Him.

    So, my suggestion is that the only temptation any of us face is to continue in the natural man rather than yielding to Christ. That temptation is common to man. The idiosyncratic outward forms our natural man takes are really incidental. The test for each of us is whether or not we will give up our pride and insistence that we can do it ourselves or surrender to Christ and trust wholly in His merits.

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