Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others

[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)AttributionsPart 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

19 comments for “Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others

  1. Ah, that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Recognizing error, that is. Difficult under the best of circumstances, downright punishing when mental health is poor. At the very least, my experience with depression (and I’d wager your experiences) have forced me to rethink the image of “accountability” propounded by the more insular portions of Mormon society. As, you say, our path to improvement does not end at death, though I’m going to be real disappointed if it continues as slowly, strenuously, and (chiefly) hesitantly as presently. It’s hard to imagine the cost mental illness has born on your life, so I won’t pretend I can. I had supportive, (though a bit misguided) parents and my depression has frequently nearly killed me, so I feel awe at the sheer magnitude of the cross some have been called to bear. I’ll be very interested to see the Lord work out the calculus of constraints and influences on agency, not only in my own life, but throughout this world’s very troubled history.

  2. This post touches on my worst fear about my depression: how it will affect my kids. Will they think it is normal? or that it is okay to emulate? When I can’t function and don’t do much, will they learn to just say “I can’t” rather than to try?

    I try to spend time with them, encourage their interests, and be uplifting. But I fear they will see through it and think that they are in some way the cause of the pain and depression, rather than seeing themselves as the cure. They are all young still (oldest is 10) and because they are young they are SOOO perceptive and able to learn, I hope they don’t LEARN to be depressed.

  3. thank you for sharing the insights of your personal life. It was not only touching but it opened my eyes to an issue within my own family. My father’s PTS was not only never treated but never acknowledged. Problems associated with this untreated mental condition shadowed his life and reflected into his treatment of his children. If we had understood that we were not the cause of his negative hyper-critical, nervous personality it would have helped so much. Acknowledge is the key to understanding.

  4. Mark, I completely agree on the hope that it doesn’t get harder or slower after this life! There have been statements by church leaders opining that as this life is the time to prepare to meet God, repentance will be more difficult when we don’t have the help of our physical bodies to form new habits, and that spirits in the spirit world view the absence of their physical bodies as a bondage, and anxiously await resurrection. But I suspect that as with physical illnesses, those with mental illnesses will have some relief when physical challenges are lifted (ie when we die), but even better, when perfected bodies are given us in the resurrection.

    Jax, a great and very helpful resource we’ve used with our own kids is a book called The Optimistic Child, specifically designed to help teach healthy cognitive skills that help insulate kids against depression. It’s like preventative cognitive therapy. I also like Playful Parenting (since playing with kids just doesn’t come naturally to and wasn’t modeled for me) and Traits of a Healthy Family. The gospel teaches some of these skills, but those of us with specific challenges to mental health can benefit from more concrete instruction and suggestions!

    We’ve also found that being open about and owning our own issues, moods, difficulties,actually naming what is going on, letting them know when we have counseling, see a doctor, etc., and get them help when they need it. These actions clearly convey that getting help when you’re struggling emotionally or mentally is the right thing to do, and also that it’s not their fault when we’re down, and that getting help is the right thing to do and improves things for everyone. We also gather as much social support for them and for us (friendships, childcare help, … help with things we need help with).

    Jennifer- AMEN! Acknowledging what is going on is so key.

  5. Demaris, fortunately we do not have to repent of mental illness, so maybe the ideas you expressed and referenced aren’t incompatible. I like to think that prophets through the ages have suffered with us the pains of depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and all other such ailments. I once knew a Vietnam vet with PTSD so severe he was a danger to his family and had to live alone. He took especial solace in reading about Moroni, a valiant and righteous man who had probably seen and possibly participated in unimaginable horrors. Personally, I like to read Nephi’s psalm and imagine him battling depression not of his making and for reasons unknown to him. Perhaps that is fanciful thinking, but in some ways so is faith.

  6. While we are not accountable for mental illness, and hence do not need to repent in that sense. But whether or not we struggle with mental illness, we do eventually need to learn healthy/ true/ right/ productive ways of thinking to replace unhealthy patterns, no? I think much of this can occur here, and much will occur in the afterlife, for everyone.

  7. Strike the “While” above. It became a sentence fragment when I added a period after “in that sense.”

  8. Lisa, only in the same sense that a person born without legs will need to learn healthy/true/right/productive was of walking, no? But once the affliction is lifted, won’t those become rather obvious?

  9. Mark, I don’t know. A person born without legs might need to learn whatever lessons come from proper/ godly use of legs in this life. Our physical bodies are supposed to be part of our learning, right? With a few possible exceptions, there aren’t really “commandments” regarding how we get around. But let’s look at one of these exceptions. If someone asks you to carry their pack a mile for them, you should go the extra mile if you are able. Clearly a physical disability impairing mobility might make that impossible and relieve you of that accountability for that particular commandment, but certainly the spirit of that law would apply (would I be willing to serve in that way if I could), and if you could find a way (I can hang your pack on my wheelchair, for example), it could/ should be done. I think similarly challenges to mental health can be approached in this way. I may not have the energy to bring a meal to a ward member recovering from surgery when I’m depressed. But the underlying principle that I should serve when and how I am able doesn’t go away any more when I’m limited by mental challenges than, say, financial ones. So when I’m doing better, and I’m asked to serve in some way, and I decline just because I don’t feel like it (this time) or because I’ve gotten out of the habit of serving, I may be accountable or need to “work on” that negative pattern of behavior resulting from my illness.

  10. I tend to agree with Lisa. I suffer from chronic depression that is definitely caused by a chemical imbalance. However, I wonder too if a spiritual weakness in this area doesn’t make my struggle a little harder. God gives us weaknesses that we may be strong. Even though I go in stops and starts, sometimes giving up on ever being optimistic or light-hearted, each little step I take in overcoming the deceptive and discouraging thought patterns in my head I believe is eternal and will be magnified. I have to believe this in order to have any motivation whatsoever.

  11. Demaris, I really appreciate these posts. Up until the last couple of years, I pictured Heavenly Father with His arms folded across his chest, shaking his head, and rolling his eyes when I said in prayer that I was sorry every day for the exact same things I’d said I was sorry for the day before and every day before that. I thought he was sick of hearing it. I didn’t realize that I had projected my mom’s personality onto the Lord.

    At 37, I’m finally starting to understand how gentle, merciful, and patient the Lord really is. But for so many years, the gospel felt like punishment to me. I felt so weak and guilty. I’d take copious notes each General Conference, and come away weighed down with heightened awareness of my innumerable sins of commission and omission. I wrote in my journal at least once every few months, “I think I may have to choose one day between the church and my sanity.”

    My testimony is weak, but I want to believe. I go back and forth between feeling like the church has faults that caused me to feel such intense guilt and the need to be perfect, and wondering if the church is perfect, but that because of my faulty brain I interpreted it all wrong.

  12. As a young single adult, I worked for a perceptive man who asked me once whether I had lived with criticism as a child. He saw my “bad posture” as the result of a permanent cringe. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but yes, I did. I spent a lot of years trying to please surrogate adults, sometimes effectively. It took me into my 40s to realize that it was not I who was unable to please my parents, (and I wasn’t, no matter what I tried) it was my parents, notably my mother, who set the emotional tone, who was unable to be pleased. That insight turned my relationship with her around, and I began to see what a desperately unhappy person she was, perhaps had been much of her life, unable to see things to praise, unable to find things for which she was grateful. Did she have untreated major depression? Perhaps. But knowing the label wouldn’t change things. Our relationship improved; my own sense of worth did too. Even in her 70s she could not think of anything to be grateful for, including her being welcome to live with our family. I couldn’t fix things for her, she wouldn’t have it, but my daughter and I have done her temple work in hope. “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.” Each of us deserves to be valued, clinical labels notwithstanding. I have learned from her that I can and should look for things to praise in others and myself. I feel well blessed in my own 70s.

  13. I’ve never thought of it as an escape, just growing up, becoming the responsible carer [I use the term quite generally here] instead of the one trying to be cared for. I have no resentment toward my parents at all, just a grown up compassion for the unhappiness they must have felt, and a sorrow that it took me so long to see past my own needs.

  14. Demaris, if our attitude were right (i.e., we’re willing to serve in the capacity we have), then I think those lessons have already been learned. The physically intricate act of walking without falling down will be easily accessible to someone with newly resurrected legs, I believe, and not something they’ll have to work to master. Similarly, when I am resurrected, healthy patterns of thought will be easily accessible to me, IMHO. We see this principle on a micro-scale all the time. Things that are very difficult for us to do when we are sick or tired are practically effortless when we are well and invigorated. I certainly hope that the resurrection is likewise.

  15. Well, we simply don’t know. But the “hints” I base my opinion are include whatever “intelligence” (light and truth) we attain in this life is carried with us into the next phase. Don’t think that means that level of intelligence and more, until we gain more. I believe what we’re fuzzy on may still be fuzzy until more learning/ progress occurs.

  16. If what you are saying is true, why the need to obtain a mortal body in the first place? Why not just learn it all in spirit/ intelligence form, then presto, get a perfected body to make the transformation to glorified realm?

  17. Demaris, I give you two possible answers, of various levels of speculation:
    1) An imperfect body is a necessary physical precursor to a perfected body.
    2) We still need to choose. What I am describing is not a removal of choice, but an increase in ability to perform choices. As you pointed out, we can still make an underlying choice to serve, no matter how limited we are.

  18. I agree with both of these. But also believe that there is something significant in the physical acting out of our choices that aids in our progress, and that in addition to correct choices and attitudes, there is a need for increased understanding. Often that understanding is a necessary precursor to righteous action/ development/ being.

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