I believe that many religious people believe that talking to spiritual leaders, seeking spiritual blessings, and finding comfort through the priesthood will cure mental illness. Let me start off by saying that these are important parts of dealing with mental illness; they are not cures.
I think this myth is really a sub-myth of the “get over it” myth we talked about last time. It carries the implication that someone else will solve your problem or that you can just kind of work it out. If only that were possible. I also think this is an unfortunate side effect of “hyper-faith.” In a religion such as my own, we truly do believe in and accept the extraordinary power of God. Sometimes that hyper-faith gets in the way of understanding that God’s blessings can be effected by other people.
Quoting from Elder Alexander B. Morrison:
Christ said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden.” He, and only He, has access to the healing Balm of Gilead needed by all God’s children. However, without denigrating the unique role of the priesthood, may I suggest that spiritual leaders are not mental health professionals. Almost all of them lack the skills and training to deal effectively with mental illness.
God has given us wondrous knowledge and technology that can help us overcome grievous problems such as mental illness. Just as we would not hesitate to consult a physician about cancer, so too we should not hesitate to obtain professional help when dealing with mental illness.
To make it perfectly clear: I believe in Christ, and I believe in His omnipotence. I do believe that He can completely heal any malady or affliction we may face. However, we face our trials for specific reasons, and I cannot ignore the idea that mental illness is one of those lessons some people must face. But I forget myself….
Moving back to the myth, remember that most priesthood leaders are not professionals in this area. The church is becoming more experienced and aware of these issues, and training resources are consistently more available, but they are not yet perfect nor as complete as they will one day be. Most church leaders now receive monthly training on dealing with common issues such as mental illness, and that will only improve things.
The following is a story shared with me by one of my contributors who suffered from a particular harsh episode of depression:
At my husband’s insistence, I approached the bishop about counseling through LDS Family Services. I don’t know if the bishop knew how to handle me either, but he was honest about it and told me what I needed to do in order to contact the right people. He also told me that he believed my depression wasn’t caused by sin, that it was a real, physical problem that needed treatment, and that he would do what he needed to do to see that I got that help.
He also acknowledged that just reading the scriptures, praying, or even asking for a blessing wouldn’t “cure” this, which was reassuring to me. It meant that I wasn’t being punished for something that I had or hadn’t done. This was a problem as real as heart disease and needed professional help.
It took months of professional counseling, stopping one medication and being put on another before we started to see an improvement in my moods and behavior. It wasn’t a fast recovery either. This was literally a day-by-day, fighting for improvement with every step, every moment of every day, type of recovery. I’d do better and then some days I regressed and I’d have to fight even harder to regain the ground I had lost. It truly was a process and a learning experience.
The truth of the matter is that the spiritual side of dealing with mental illness is an important part of the cure, but it probably will not be the cure. Just as I believe that God can heal mental illness, I also believe that He has provided the means by inspiring men and women with ideas and methods of treatment. And I think that Elder Morrison nailed it on the head: Surely we would seek the assistance of a professional with serious illnesses like cancer. Mental illness is a serious illness, and it needs to be treated as such.
I’ve always found comfort in the “after all we can do” principle. I’ve yet to go through an experience where the Lord did not pick up the slack after all I could do. While blessings, the priesthood, and priesthood leaders are surely a part of “all we can do,” so is counseling, medication, and other forms of professional help.