It’s one thing to talk about adult members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with mental health struggles and another when we think about the youth of the Church who have mental illnesses.
Children are not immune to mental illness. It can be even more difficult to recognize these issues in children and adolescents for a few reasons. First of all, they might not understand that their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are not the “norm” and signify a mental health problem. Parents or leaders may not recognize these behaviors as being distinct from issues that the children or youth will “outgrow” or “get over.”
Since children and teenagers go through many changes and shifts in personality and emotional behavior, it can be hard to determine what is normal for this individual in their maturation or actually a mental illness. It also difficult to notice and recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses if one is not familiar with these illnesses; plus, many times the symptoms present differently in youth than in adults.
But the fact remains that many youth and children can and do live with mental illness, often times dealing with it without knowing what it is that they are up against. Parents need to be willing to accept that their children might have a mental illness rather than ignoring or assuming that it can’t or won’t happen to them. They need to be proactive and supportive rather than defensive and angry.
When it comes to Church support, it can be even more difficult for leaders to know what to do or how to help children and youth with mental illness. Primary and Young Men/Women leaders are not officially trained in how to deal with mental health issues, or really any behavioral issues for that matter. Perhaps this is an area in which the Church can improve. There are so many issues that youth bring with them to Church, whether ADHD, Autism spectrum disorders, abuse, or mental illnesses, and these things often affect the children’s behavior, emotions, and ability to participate and succeed in Church classes and relationships.
Ignoring these issues and simply giving the kids over to leaders or back to their parents isn’t really helping anyone. There might need to be special classes or extra teachers called to help with children who struggle with various issues so that they can participate effectively. Is it fair to label them as “problem children” and dread their presence in Church, further stigmatizing and creating issues emotionally and socially for these children? I don’t think that’s what Christ would want for this individuals, regardless of their age.
Now let’s talk about missionaries. The Church is trying to “screen” prospective missionaries even more, attempting to stem potential issues off before individuals even get into the mission field. Questions about their past and mental health history are now asked before they serve.
But what if we prepared youth emotionally and mentally in addition to spiritually for missions? Or what if we could somehow rid our Church culture of the stigma of not having gone on a mission or getting sent home from one?
Parents and Church leaders need to recognize that mental health issues cannot be solved a week before a missionary heads into the MTC. Mental illnesses need to be addressed long before that.
I was a missionary on medication for my mental health. I remained on that medication throughout my mission, but it didn’t make my symptoms disappear. I had several companions who dealt with emotional/health struggles. Counseling was involved. We took time off our missionary work to deal with these issues. Missionaries struggling with mental illness is not a rare or new issue. It is actually probably pretty normal. But the problem is that we don’t talk about or acknowledge it enough. How many people have I heard about coming home from missions because of OCD or anxiety related issues?! A lot. I think this is partly because dramatic life changes seem to exacerbate mental illness, and the focus of “exact obedience” on missions can stoke the OCD fire so extremely well.
Couple that with a lack of training of mission presidents and mission leadership (you think the APs or District/Zone Leaders have mental health training! ha!), and you get missionaries silently struggling with very real and debilitating mental illnesses because no one cares or believes them. How many times have I heard about mission presidents not thinking a missionary’s mental health struggles were real or valid?! Let’s not even talk about it.
The intensity of a mission is probably not completely necessary, and it creates a very negative environment for those who deal with mental illness. Mission health care is also pretty difficult to access, or was when I was a missionary. It’s almost as if they expect missionaries to be magically shielded from major health crises, and you feel ashamed or unworthy if you try to get appropriate care for physical or emotional care. This is not okay. It is not healthy for anyone.
There are a lot of things that could be adjusted with missionary service to make it more appropriate for those with mental health issues rather than simply excluding them completely and only letting “the cream of the crop” out in the field. In reality, missionary numbers will most likely continue to decrease if this continues, or potential candidates might start to lie or hide their issues in order to serve (as happens with the military).
I don’t have all the answers, but I do have hope that change is possible if Church leadership acknowledges these issues and desires to accept rather than exclude members who struggle.