Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings

[This is the fourth 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 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness]

During graduate school (in a different field of study), I worked in the university’s office for staff and students with disabilities.  I learned a great deal about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and about how individuals with a variety of disabilities qualify for and obtain accommodations in their work and schooling to enable them to do the work they otherwise (disability aside) are able to do.  As a neophyte, I was most surprised by accommodations given for “invisible” disabilities.  For example, did you know that an individual with certain types of anxiety can qualify for a handicapped parking permit, giving them accessibility to classrooms and other needed campus resources they would not have without this accommodation?  And that students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities can have “readers” and “note takers” (or technology that does the same)?  Extended test time, special accommodations like calculators for testing, someone to type for a student or help edit spelling errors on papers, someone to fill in test bubbles, extra notes or outlines of lectures from professors…  these were all new to me, and frankly, some seemed a little like cheating initially.  But I was even more surprised by the backlash some staff and students received from similarly ignorant professors, administrators, and other students who felt the same!

I was also impressed with the amount of work individuals with disabilities must do to obtain the help they need, not to mention how many students do not get help because they don’t know they qualify, or how to obtain it, or because while they recognize their need for help and know how to obtain it, they aren’t willing to endure the backlash.

I’ve been out of school for a couple decades now.  I think there is greater awareness about disabilities and reasonable accommodations in our larger society as well as within the church, but we are just beginning to understand the potential impact of mental illnesses on our collective spirituality and church participation.  The realities of a lay clergy can increase some attendant difficulties, but can also help in some ways.

Many articles in the Ensign over this time period have focused on mental health issues from the perspective of professionals treating and individuals struggling with mental health challenges.  At the same time, church leadership materials have increasingly addressed a variety of special circumstances including disabilities that impact church participation and instruction, This training occurs in special conferences and meetings, handbooks, multimedia and print materials for teachers and leaders, online resources, even materials in the teacher development course.  These resources, like the church web pages about serving those with disabilities within the church, have increasingly addressed awareness of the differing personalities and backgrounds of investigators, church members, and students, the importance of age-appropriate and audience sensitive instruction and counsel, and inclusion and accommodation of disabilities where appropriate.

In my experience, most gospel teachers do not take the time to read or access these materials, even when faced with a challenging situation within their class, and it’s unfortunately often up to affected individuals themselves to point to these resources and instructions when they are needed.  I think bishops and Relief Society presidents are more likely to refer to the handbook when out of their depth, but if a leader or teacher assumes they already know what they are doing, or already have a handle on the situation, that’s where problems arise, and where lay leadership can be a cursing rather than a blessing.  When we recognize our limitations, and utilize the resources provided for us, we all benefit.

The church website instructs leaders to counsel with individuals with disabilities and/or those who know them well to seek understanding and in decision making on their behalf.  There are leaders who are really good at this, and others who cannot accept that an individual with a mental health issue could possibly be the best person to decide what type of calling she should have, or what accommodation(s) could help him, or which activities and programs will (or will not) be most beneficial for a family dealing with mental health issues.

There are also privacy concerns presented here.  Should a church leader ever talk to anyone else about an individual’s sensitive health information without their specific permission?  I believe there may be rare times and circumstances where this may be necessary, but I think we do it too often without a second thought, and call it leadership instead of gossip.

I look forward to the day that individuals with mental health difficulties and their leaders and peers can recognize that these struggles are not the fault of weak spirituality or unworthiness.  I look forward to the day that mental illness is recognize by church members and leaders as a legitimate medical issue. (Can you imagine a bishop offering that the sacrament be brought to individuals with severe depression, anxiety, or agoraphobia that prevents them from attending church? Wouldn’t that be the right thing?)  I look forward to the day when all church teachers carefully consider the impact of their words, and all church leaders ask (as ours have of late) what they can do to help us and if their are any issues or concerns they should consider in making decisions and callings, course placement, even ward boundary changes that could adversely affect them or their family.  And I look forward to a time when members and leaders recognize that serious mental health issues require professional assistance, rather than relying solely on the prayers, blessings, and “counsel” of well-meaning but untrained lay leaders and teachers.


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

12 comments for “Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings

  1. I had a family member who had to drop out of BYU due to mental health issues that were causing severe anxiety. Rather than let him withdraw from one particular class, without a penalty, the instructor insisted that he had to be recorded as failing the class. When the instructor was asked by the family why this was done, the instructor said that the instructor’s uncle had said that the particular illness the student had been professionally diagnosed with was not a “real” mental illness, and that he should be held fully accountable for his behavior. It required communication with the BYU General Counsel in the context of the Americans With Disabilities Act to get that instructor straightened out.

    If it can happen in an academic environment that is supposed to seek knowledge and concern itself with a code of conduct and fairness, you can imagine how often such ignorance is applied in other situations.

  2. Oh, I don’t have to imagine, Raymond. I have plenty of firsthand experience.

    I don’t think ADA in the church setting would necessarily help, where attitudes towards authority and leadership, revelation and church activity, church discipline and judgments about “righteousness” & “need for” or whether someone is “deserving of” church welfare are concerned. But I’m not an attorney. Any of you legal types have on opinion here?

  3. I’m the president of an organization in my ward, and I’ve had several people in callings that I directly supervise dealing with mental illness, including bipolar illness, anxiety, and depression. It can be a challenge to know how to deal with things at times. For instance, one of these persons tried to commit suicide a few months ago. I am not supposed to know about this. I was told by someone else who is not supposed to know. This did not come through the bishop; he has worked hard to protect their privacy, but people have other ways of knowing things, and the information came to me in that way. In most ways, I’m glad I know because it explains so many issues that we were having with this person as far as performing her calling. However, I am not passing on this confidential information to anyone else. So it gets interesting. I’m hearing all the complaining and criticism from the people who think this person is just slacking in her duties. (And to be frankly honest, I would probably be thinking the same things in my own mind if I didn’t know what was really going on. I’m human!) I’m dealing with the people who are frustrated because they are picking up the pieces left by this person’s absence. If these people knew the truth, I have no doubt they would bend over backwards to love and help her, and there would be NO judgment. But I can’t and won’t divulge what I know, which means a delicate balancing act for me.

  4. having a child who qualifies in the academic and the legal world for special accomoditions we met with our new bishop, a mental health professional, when we first arrived in the ward to explain our child’s background. We also invited him to share with the leadership in the young men’s presidency and the scouting program what we had shared with him. I even went so far as to bring a copy of the document used by the schools to introduce his needs to his teachers. We thought as a mental health professional and and leader of the Aaronic priesthood he would the right person to be our son’s advocate. Boy, were we wrong. Our wonderful son sufferred through the most unpleasant negative experience of his life as an Aaronic priesthood youth in this ward. We do not know how much information our Bishop share with his leaders and teachers but it became very clear that they did not understand his situation and were not willing to welcome him into their programs. We must salute his strength that he remains an active member of the church through this negative experience and now question the wisdom of share his situation with priesthood leaders.

  5. I look forward to the day that individuals with mental health difficulties and their leaders and peers can recognize that these struggles are not the fault of weak spirituality or unworthiness.” A great thought, and it is sad that we need the reminder.

    And I look forward to a time when members and leaders recognize that serious mental health issues require professional assistance, rather than relying solely on the prayers, blessings, and ‘counsel’ of well-meaning but untrained lay leaders and teachers.” This is more problematic for me, if the purpose of the sentence is to require that church leaders and teachers provide something more than prayers, blessings, and counsel. I hope we never look at the pastoral Church as an employer or service provider, to be held to ADA standards — rather, I hope we can always look at the pastoral church as friends and neighbors, with no expectations or demands of other members. The accommodations that anyone might need should only be sought after with persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and love unfeigned. Maybe they’ll be provided, maybe not, but a spirit of love can still be maintained. I write this as the father of a son who is entitled to accommodations at his school, where I demand them in individual education plan meetings — but I never demand anything at church. Many times, the only thing well-meaning members can provide is prayers, blessings, and counsel — these are good things. My child’s teacher at Church is a friend and neighbor — not a professional of any clinical sort — that’s okay.

  6. ji- I think you have misunderstood me. I agree that we must recognize that church leaders are NOT qualified mental health professionals, or expect them to be so. This is also what more recent LDS church materials indicate and emphasize. I think too many leaders and members still assume that they ARE qualified, and try to apply spiritual solutions to mental health problems with disastrous effects. And too many individuals with mental illness erroneously believe that if they just try harder to live the gospel, or if they get blessings from priesthood leaders, they will be “cured.”

    I am saying we absolutely should NOT look to unqualified church members to treat, counsel us, or make decisions about mental health problems for us, just as we should not go to our bishop for advice about a strep throat or lifelong physical disability. We should look to professionals for that, and the right professionals, as mental health treatment is as nuanced and specialized as physical healthcare treatment, if not moreso. Leaders should inform members that they are not qualified to help with mental health issues (as current leadership training teaches), make referrals where necessary to help members obtain the help they need, and recognize that when someone with a mental health condition extends as much trust as to bring them into confidence as to a significantly stigmatized condition in our society, they should do what they can to help that person, rather than turning it into a battle of wills or righteousness.

    I loved being in the temple doing sealings one Memorial Day with a serviceman who had lost his right arm in the service. Rather than dismissing him as unable to participate in sealings, the officiator simply invited him to use his remaining arm. No symbolism was lost. If anything, it was greatly enhanced.

    Unfortunately we sometimes unknowingly disqualify or discourage members with mental health problems from participation in church meetings, ordinances, and activities because they are differently abled in some ways than mentally healthy individuals. We cannot expect those who discriminate in this way to understand what they have not experienced. We must educated others about our needs as necessary, and forgive those who are insensitive because they are ignorant.

    My sister who took her life had struggled to overcome her substance abuse and return to church, but was told she could not keep attending the ward where she had found (and needed continued) support to stay sober and continue in church activity with individuals and leaders she had learned to trust when she had to move to a new apartment just a few blocks away. For many individuals, a change like this can be uncomfortable initially, but they soon make new friends and continue in their spiritual progress unhampered. For an individual with mental illness that affects their day to day living, let alone their ability to reach out and risk and trust, it can be devastating.

    I don’t know what type of accommodations you think I (or the church website) are expecting. Teacher manuals have long instructed church teachers to be aware of and sensitive to special needs in their classes. And the new Disabilities website of the church listed above counsels leaders to find ways those with disabilities, including mental health issues, can serve and participate which will NOT exacerbate their condition. I would hope disciples of Christ would not legalistically hold themselves solely to the requirements of the ADA, but would go even further, to honor the covenants they’ve made to mourn with those that mourn, lift up the hands that hang down, succor the weak and afflicted, have compassion on and provide help and encouragement wherever possible.

  7. Jennifer-I hear you! We’ve been most successful talking directly with whichever teacher or leader is involved in the specific issue at hand. For example, telling a course instructor “please do not call on me or ask me to pray in class”; or letting a church leader who suggests or issues calls know of conditions that may impact individual ability to serve; or letting a scout leader know about scouting accommodations that are needed. In our experience, BSA is strict about ADA compliance, but requires specific documentation for each accommodation requested–at least in our area. If an issue does not require the help of anyone at church to be addressed, there is no need to bring it up. And often, a request can be made without disclosing the specifics of a condition (one can indicate a “health condition” that makes ____ difficult but can be helped by ____).

    We always assume if there are problems, it’s due to misunderstanding or someone else’s own limitations rather than due to ill-will, and try again, using continuous dialog rather than a one-time request approach. It can be frustrating and demoralizing in the extreme when another ward member, teacher, or leader denies a reasonable request or adds insult to injury either by implying (or stating outright) that they disagree with your doctor or other healthcare professional, or by acting superior or condescending once they’re aware of your condition.

  8. Demaris — the first paragraph of your no. 6 is helpful to me — thanks! I understand better. It has to be done one person at a time, as a ministry, rather than as a program. I’m always hopeful that there will be goodwill going both directions, from the person needing the accommodation outward to his or her local church and also from each local church to each of its members and visitors.

  9. Demaris, I’m so sorry about your sister. I do think that it is unfortunate that some bishops choose to remain rigid about boundary areas. Fortunately in the stake I live in there is a focus on getting people to church and we do have quite a few people/families who attend wards not in their boundaries due to varying needs. In my calling as activity days leader I have one girl who is not officially on our role but we welcome her with open arms and love. I think we would all do well to remember that ward boundaries are invisible boundaries meant to make the administrative side of the church function better. It does not mean the people outside the boundaries don’t belong to us and don’t need our love and compassion.

  10. Thank you, MD. I realize this was just one of many issues facing my sister at the end of her life, and may not have ultimately made a difference. But sometimes it can. We have other friends who were not “allowed” by their bishop to change wards/buildings after their child had been molested AT A CHURCH ACTIVITY by another ward member and was traumatized whenever she re-entered the building.

  11. As a church member who entertains multiple obvious physical and mental challenges, I have to laugh a little bit up my sleeve about articles like this. My perception is that the Church as a whole looks the other way when a crippled person happens by. Like the story of the Good Samaritan, people will cross the street to avoid encounters with me. Out of embarrassment, maybe, not intentionally being cruel — but because they don’t have a clue how to act.

    People in my ward respond to my peculiar inabilities in interesting ways. For a handicapped person, it can be almost fun to note the different reactions. A few try to maintain a sort of pretense that they are treating me like they would anyone else. In my case, this is damn near impossible, and it provides continual light comedy.

    A few people act as though they are fully cognizant of my greater demands for support and encouragement. I am enjoying taking the sacrament more now, because the Deacons Quorum seems to have put the word out that, in particular, I cannot fully control my right hand, and now some of them will actually take the sacrament cup from the tray and place it in my right hand for me. The first time this happened I was really surprised, shocked even, because it seems somewhat unusual for twelve-year-old boys to recognize such a need. Sometimes they hold doors open and more obvious things like that. But they apparently got some good coaching about offering me the sacrament, and it is an encouraging sign. I’m not sure they understand why I need this extra consideration, but perhaps it is enough to know that some of them are really good boys, and they just want do what they are told.

    Our Gospel Doctrine instructor calls on me to make contributions in class discussion, even though he knows my speech is slow and halting, and it is difficult to understand me. I feel valued as an individual whenever I feel that I can make a significant contribution. Most other avenues of participating in Church more traditional forms service are forever closed to me now. This is all the more hurtful to me because I used to enjoy working and serving in that capacity.

    Like many who have sustained serious brain injury, I often lose control over my emotions, and this makes itself known in various situations where emotional displays are inapproprite, or in poor taste. This serves to further alienate me from people who do not or cannot overlook my obviously innappropriate behavior. I have become rather distant from many who used to seem to be close.

    Fortunately, I still have many friends who are almost infinitly forgiving, if not understanding. I take comfort in the obvious efforts of those who go out of their way to offer honest gestures of kindness and compassion. It is touching to realize that at least a few seem to grasp the idea of true charity, the absolute expression of the pure love of of Christ.

  12. I add here that in conjunction with a number of Church service positions I have witnessed several of my Bishops lending assists in counselling and referal to a mental health professional, to those expressing a request for such. As former assistant ward clerk for ward finances, I have paid many bills for professional counselling services that were approved by the Bishop. It appears to me that the Church advises Bishops to offer such support, in cases where it is appropriate. As I understand it, this is as it should be.

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