I’ve found this a particularly difficult post to write, so I hope that a) I can do it some justice, and b) those with particular insights and experience will comment*. It is a subject we rarely discuss, but which I feel we need to gain greater insight into, so that we are better able to comfort those in need.
A few months go I posted a couple of articles on the subject of depression, one of the great plagues of our age, and how we can find relief through Christ. Those posts can be found here, and here. While depression is fortunately becoming increasingly discussed in the Church (not enough yet I think, but we’re making some positive progress), other aspects of mental illness or disability are generally discussed either rarely and on obscure internet forums, or (more likely) not at all.
But if Christ suffered for ALL of our pains, sicknesses, and afflictions, that means he suffered also for our mental illnesses and disabilities; it means that through His atoning sacrifice there is power for those suffering. Elder Joseph B Wirthlin said, “No grief is so great, no pain so profound, no burden so unbearable that it is beyond His healing touch.” (Special Witnesses of Christ, Ensign, April 2001). That includes those with Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Personality Disorders; and it includes things like Autism, and so many other conditions. Some individuals with these and a host of other mental illnesses and disabilities are amongst the most vulnerable in our society and they, along with those who care for and are very close to them, often suffer intensely through their lives. Surely of those whom the Saviour would wish to comfort most in this life, these sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father are amongst the most precious to Him, and I’ve no doubt that He weeps for their pains and sorrows.
The seeds of my decision to write on this broader issue of mental illness and disability, and the Atonement, probably lie in a meeting I had some time ago with someone who suffered from Bipolar Disorder. The purpose or content of the meeting are not relevant, other than to say that this good man had suffered for many, many years. At one point during the meeting, I felt a prompting to say to him something along the lines of, “Brother………., I want to testify to you that our Saviour Jesus Christ suffered for all of our afflictions and infirmities. And in suffering for them, He also understands them. Christ knows what it is like to have Bipolar Disorder. He understands!”
Well, the reaction of this good man was something I hadn’t expected. He was a religious man already. He already believed in Christ, but now his eyes widened, and he replied in an astonished voice, “Really? Wow!”
That moment has stuck with me, as it seemed that in that instant this man gained an additional hope from a greater understanding of the Atonement. It didn’t change the medication he was on; it didn’t change his strategies for dealing with his condition; but somehow it change just a little his perspective to know that his Saviour understood. That instance taught me that while there is very little that appears to be written on the subject, it is nonetheless a subject that needs to be discussed.
All of us need to have a greater understanding of, and compassion for, those who suffer from mental illnesses. As Elder Jeffrey R Holland recently said, while God is helping those with mental illnesses, “…the rest of us can help by being merciful, non-judgmental, and kind.” (Like a Broken Vessel, October 2013 LDS General Conference). Writing and talking about these issues should hopefully help us all become a little more understanding.
We are complex beings you and I. As spirit children of our Heavenly Father there is really is an eternal part of us that lived with Him prior to our birth here on earth. But our genetics also plays an important part in our behaviour, as does our upbringing. And the values of the society in which we live also has a tremendous impact on how we view the world; our own personal values and attitudes towards what is morally right or wrong. I think that when we get to the next life and we finally see things “as they really are” (Jacob 4:13), we will be astonished at just how much bias and prejudice we had in our mortal lives. I also think we will be astonished at just how many of our choices and decisions were based on appallingly flawed beliefs which we were confident at the time were “right”.
LDS Psychotherapist Allen Bergin wrote a fascinating paper which he presented at BYU in 1975 (a version of which was in the 1973 New Era) on our ability to make choices, and how that is impaired by a host of issues. A link to the article is here for those interested.
Similarly, Terryl and Fiona Givens recently wrote,
“Our decisions are often made in weakness, or with deficient will or understanding. We live on an uneven playing field, where to greater or lesser degree the weakness of the flesh, of intellect, or of judgment intrudes. Poor instructions, crushing environment, chemical imbalances, deafening white noise, all cloud and impair our judgment.” (The God Who Weeps, p 100, 2012)
How these various influences that affect our judgment also affect what today we would call our mental health I couldn’t begin to guess. Certain genes have now been identified that are associated with some mental health disorders, but there remains a huge mystery surrounding how much influence the birthing process, a child’s early upbringing, nutrition, and a host of other factors also play in the development of mental health.
On the one hand, this should not be surprising. After all, there are a host of “physical” illnesses for which we don’t really have a full explanation, even if we have some idea of what makes some diseases more likely. Why does one person living a similar lifestyle and with possibly even the same genetic predispositions get cancer while another doesn’t? Why shouldn’t the same uncertain but complex interactions be at play in our brains and minds?
But on the other hand, the idea that mental illness and disability may be a complex interaction between genetics, brain chemicals, nutrition, etc. is a relatively new concept for us. Physical illnesses have been accepted and tolerated (even if not understood and even if bizarre cures have been sought) for thousands of years. In contrast, those with mental ill-health were simply deemed “crazy”, and locked away; or were deemed to have been possessed by evil spirits. There remains a powerful stigma attached to mental ill-health and disability probably in part because we still have thousands of years of prejudice to get over.
But Christ came to heal us all. As the ancient prophet Alma declared,
“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:11-12)
Christ suffered for all of our infirmities and afflictions. And He didn’t suffer just so that He could say He had done so – He suffered specifically so that He would know “how to succor His people according to their infirmities.” That means He really does know what it is like to have Bipolar Disorder, or Schizophrenia, or Autism, or any of the other myriad mental health conditions, disorders or disabilities. He knows, and He is able to succor those who suffer. What’s more, He is anxious to do so.
What does that mean? Well, during His mortal life, and during His post-resurrection visit to the Nephites, Christ healed all those who came to Him. The story of the father bringing his child to the Saviour is well known. Christ was coming down from the mountain and encountered a multitude, and one among them came forward,
“Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away… And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him.” (Mark 9:17-27)
Today we would probably explain the recorded symptoms as being that of epilepsy, although in Jesus’ time the only explanation is that a demon had taken possession of the child. What parent, imagining themselves in this father’s place, wouldn’t have similarly pled for the Saviour to heal his child? And Jesus healed Him.
There are other examples, of course, of those who heard voices, or who had a compulsion to self-harm. All of these were assumed to be devils. All of these the Saviour healed.
Now, I am not suggesting here that none of the stories in the Bible represent actual possession by evil spirits. Maybe they do, but the principle is that we see in the New Testament those with symptoms we would today describe as being those of known mental health disorders or disabilities, and the Saviour was able to heal them all. All of them – no exceptions. When He then visited the Nephites, He asked that all those who were afflicted “in any manner” come forth to be healed; and again, He healed them – all of them.
Outside of these times when Christ was physically present, however, complete healings appear to be the exception rather than the norm. Although healings can and do occur, as with our physical illnesses Christ’s succoring for us today appears more often than not to be His carrying our burdens with us, rather than taking them away. Elder Dallin H Oaks said,
“Sometimes a ‘healing’ cures our illness or lifts our burden. But sometimes we are ‘healed’ by being given strength or understanding or patience to bear the burdens placed up on us…. The Atonement… gives us the strength to endure ‘pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind,’ because our Saviour also took upon Him ‘the pains and the sicknesses of his people’…. If your faith and prayers and the power of the priesthood do not heal you from an affliction, the power of the Atonement will surely give you the strength to bear the burden.” (quoted in The Religious Educator, Vol 9 No 1, p 103)
Above, I referred to a meeting I once had with a man with Bipolar Disorder. I’d now like to refer to someone I know with Autism. He sees things in black and white – absolute right or absolute wrong – and he wants to do what is right. That makes him rather intolerant of people who don’t do things which he thinks are right, and as one characteristic of autism is a lack of tact and diplomacy he can sometimes sound quite rude when he disapproves of what someone is doing. It would be easy for us to judge him for his rudeness, not understanding that what we are seeing is his autism, rather than his spirit.
Another aspect of his autism is an inability to sense another person’s emotions. Brain scans have shown that the brains of those with autism do, indeed, process emotions very differently. A spiritual downside of this is that he finds it much harder to feel the Holy Spirit. While feeling emotions doesn’t equal feeling the Spirit, our emotions can facilitate the feeling of the spirit, and unfortunately the different “wiring” of the brain in those with autism means that for some at least they can feel nothing but frustration while all around them are having a strong spiritual experience.
But the individual I am referring to has felt the Spirit – perhaps in an unexpected time and place, but I suspect the experience will be all the more special because of its rarity.
An article on Deseret News online (click here for the article) related the experience of a young woman, Josie Thompson, with Bipolar Disorder who has battled the condition for many years now. The article relates,
“During one particularly challenging day in November 2009, Thompson could feel an episode of depression and suicidal thoughts coming on. She began listening to a rendition of “I Believe in Christ” by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“As she struggled with her thoughts and feelings, the music sounded faint — until the fourth verse.
“And while I strive through grief and pain, his voice is heard: Ye shall obtain. I believe in Christ, so come what may…
“When those words echoed, I felt this literal lift of burden,” she said. “It was absolutely, hands down, the hardest, darkest, most difficult experience I’ve ever had, but at the same time it was also the most enlightening, most fortifying experience. … It’s a fundamental part of why I believe what I believe and why I’ve endured the way I’ve endured.”
“The verse can now be read in vinyl letters on a wall in her room….
“Thompson’s mother has seen her daughter cling to the Atonement during this process. ‘I have seen her grow in her testimony and turn to the Savior and literally grasp hold of the Atonement and the Savior,” Lisa Thompson said. ‘There are times when she feels like that’s all that’s going to get her through and she has become a different person through all of this.’”
I don’t understand why so many people suffer from Bipolar, Autism, or any of the many mental health conditions we recognise today. None of these individuals I have referred to have had their mental conditions removed from them because of their faith. But they have all felt the sustaining power of the Atonement of Christ in their lives.
The day will come when they will be fully healed. Until then, the blessings of Christ’s atoning sacrifice are still available to all those with illnesses of any kind – whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual – to support and sustain, and to help us bear our burdens.
Elder Jeffrey R Holland’s words at the October 2013 General Conference seem appropriate to end this post on:
“I testify of the holy Resurrection, that unspeakable cornerstone gift in the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ! With the Apostle Paul, I testify that that which was sown in corruption will one day be raised in incorruption and that which was sown in weakness will ultimately be raised in power.I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind. What a thrilling moment that will be! I do not know whether we will be happier for ourselves that we have witnessed such a miracle or happier for them that they are fully perfect and finally “free at last.” (Elder Jeffrey R Holland, Like a Broken Vessel, October 2013 LDS General Conference)
(I hope that those who are far more eloquent, have greater spiritual insight, and are more professionally knowledgeable write more on this subject in months and years to come. In the meantime, any comments to my posts would be very much welcome.)
* I wasn’t sure whether to write a post at all on this subject for a variety of reasons. These include firstly that I am no expert. I currently work in the field of mental health, and have some personal connection with the subject, but I am not professionally trained, and my knowledge is restricted to those areas where I have some experience. So while I may have some insight on the subject, it is necessarily limited.
Secondly, because the subject is so vast it is difficult to move beyond vague generalisations. Can hope be found in vague generalisations? I fear that I will struggle to adequately express principles related to our Saviour’s atoning sacrifice that will help those in need.
Another challenge in writing on the subject is precisely because very little has already been written. This means I haven’t had much opportunity to read another’s thoughts on the subject to help inform my own. Similarly, because our understanding of the biological causes of mental illnesses are very recent, our scriptures don’t explicitly acknowledge them. Ancient prophets, being a part of their own time and culture, are more likely to refer to demonic possessions than mental ill-health; and because those who wrote our scriptures didn’t live in a time when mental illnesses were understood, there is very little in our holy writ that clearly and directly addresses it.
All of the above said, my experience with the man with Bipolar Disorder I refer to convinced me that this is a subject that can give comfort to individuals who need such comfort. My hope is that we can increasingly discuss these subjects and believe that as we do so we will receive greater light and knowledge.