I tried researching a topic for this “Scripture Snapshot” earlier but was thrown off when I found a conference talk from Elder Packer circa 1978. Long story short, it was not an encouraging talk for someone wading through a mental illness and attempting to procure help via appropriate channels of therapy and medicine.
It’s hard to read talks from General Authorities that seem to contradict what we are hearing today. To me, they are little indicators of why we have the problems we do today in the Church. Times change. Medicine and treatment theories and options change over those decades. But still these attitudes born in different times and seasons remain. They linger on the Church website. They hide out in the minds of older Church leaders, parents, or grandparents. And unfortunately they stunt the ability for so many to understand and receive proper help.
Elder Packer in the talk I mentioned said,
“We are indoctrinated that somehow we should always by instantly emotionally comfortable. When that is not so, some become anxious—and all too frequently seek relief from counseling, from analysis, and even from medication.
“It was meant to be that life would be a challenge. To suffer some anxiety, some depression, some disappointment, even some failure is normal.
“Teach our members that if they have a good, miserable day once in a while, or several in a row, to stand steady and face them. Things will straighten out.
“There is great purpose in our struggle in life.”
When teachings are hard to swallow
There is more to this talk that I don’t necessarily embrace. He goes into how damaging therapy or counseling can be. He urges people to read scriptures and seek forgiveness. And yes, reading scriptures is great. Seeking forgiveness is great. But having a mental illness is not something you need to seek forgiveness for having. In the 1970s, medicine for mental illness and even counseling or therapy was different than it is today. Maybe there was reason for Elder Packer to feel hesitant. But I sincerely hope that Church leaders today have different feelings. If we are to take Elder Holland as an example, then I think they do.
I just hope the trickle down effect doesn’t take another 10 or 20 years for this attitude to get to all members.
Where is Christ in this mess?
Sometimes I find myself wondering where the Atonement fits in all of this. I believe in the Savior. I believe in the Atonement, But sometimes I have a hard time figuring out where the Atonement begins to heal and comfort when it comes to dealing with mental illness.
The other night as I was praying and pondering, I thought of the phrase “after all we can do.” It refers to the end of 2 Nephi 25 verse 23, which I will quote here:
“…for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”
I had the thought that “all we can do” changes depending on the culture and time in which we live. “All I can do” to take care of my mental health is far more than someone in Christ’s time could do, since mental health wasn’t really addressed then, besides maybe calling someone a lunatic or saying that someone was possessed and letting them live in the wilderness somewhere. And as such, in that time period, we read about Christ casting out those devils and healing people with these infirmities of the mind.
In Elder Packer’s time, perhaps medicine and therapy hadn’t quite reached the point we have today. Maybe there were techniques (ahem, lobotomy or electric shock therapy) that were widely used to treat mental illness that really were not actually the best options….but we just didn’t know it yet then. But I bet the Lord did and quite possibly warned Elder Packer to caution members against these extreme or unsafe measures. Maybe?
But now, “all we can do” is so much greater. We can take medicine that has been studied and is more properly understood. We can find appropriate psychologists and counselors who are trained in specific areas of mental health. We have so much more ability besides just fasting and praying to address our mental health concerns. And I think that we are expected to use those resources instead of banking on a miraculous, one size fits all recovery.
Are you doing “all you can do”? Maybe all you can do is different than all I can do. And that’s fine too. And you know what’s great? The Atonement can even help us as we try to do all we can do. Because we aren’t alone. And that’s one of the most important parts of the Gospel plan.