As they do twice a year at general conference, top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this weekend will speak publicly to offer spiritual succor to the faith's 11 million members.
While the discussion of spiritual health has been a constant over time, what has changed some say dramatically in recent years is the willingness of those leaders to encourage the quest for mental health, beyond purely spiritual prescriptions such as prayer, fasting and scripture study.
In fact, the church's 173rd Semiannual General Conference beginning Saturday in downtown Salt Lake City comes on the heels of two major conferences of Latter-day Saints focused on everything from bipolar and eating disorders to sexual addiction and pornography.
Elder Alexander Morrison, an emeritus general authority, opened the fall convention of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists on Thursday with insights gained from his personal struggle to help his daughter, Mary, deal with chronic mental illness. A book he authored on the topic, "Valley of Sorrow: A Layman's Guide to Mental Illness," was published by Deseret Book earlier this year and has become a best-seller for the LDS-owned bookstore chain.
It is the first book by a top LDS leader about the details of mental illness. Elder Morrison said he wanted to try to "lay to rest a portion of the prejudice, ignorance, misunderstanding and social stigma which continue to dog sufferers and their families."
That the book was published by Deseret Book whose review committee includes LDS general authorities and has sold so well is a testament to the fact that "there's a new openness" among leaders to discuss such issues and a recognition of the need.
"Five years ago that book wouldn't have been written," said Rick Hawks, a psychologist who is working with several current and former LDS general authorities to provide a wide array of mental-health materials to Latter-day Saints. Several years ago, he and Elder Morrison were working on a book about mental illness that included help from other general authorities, but when an official in the First Presidency's office found out about it, he told them "you can't do that," Hawks said. "Four to five years ago there was still a clear, 'You can't do that.'"
But it appears some of the restrictions have eased. Through the Hidden Treasures Foundation, a private, nonprofit group run by "volunteers who have no financial interest whatsoever," Hawks said the church is opening some of its own resources that "have been developed over the years but never used."
That information includes volumes of material produced for LDS Social Services and stored in a large library that has heretofore been accessible only to professionals dealing with mental illness, Hawks said. "It's been written and gone through the correlation process but never been used," he said, adding most bishops wouldn't even know about it.
Those and other materials are now being assembled for distribution via a Web site set up by the foundation www.mentalhealthlibrary.info. Materials are also available in print for and are free to those who request them by calling 1-800-723-1760. To make the outreach a truly worldwide effort, Hawks said, the Web site has been structured so "even old Russian computers can gain access" to materials in HTML, and materials can be instantly translated into eight or nine different languages.
Church leaders have long been cautious in their remarks regarding how members should deal with mental and emotional problems, often suggesting spiritual counseling with church leaders, priesthood blessings and personal devotion rather than counseling or medication. But Elder Morrison said spiritual leaders "should not be expected to take on the roles of mental-health professionals.
"Just as we would not hesitate to consult a physician about medical problems such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes, so too we should not hesitate to obtain appropriate professional assistance in dealing with mental illness."
In part because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, and in part because Latter-day Saints are taught to be "self-sufficient," too many believe that seeking professional counseling for mental disorders, addictions or emotional problems is a sign of personal weakness, Hawks said. In reality, professionals tell those who finally seek them out that it takes great courage and personal maturity to admit there are problems, and to look for solutions.
Elder Morrison said in dealing with depression, "it is not unknown for a severely depressed person who has received a priesthood blessing to stop taking medication in order to show God their faith in the blessing. Weeks later, deep in depression again, they fear to go back on their medication, thinking, wrongly, that to do so reveals a lack of faith.
Hawks said his foundation has produced two books to date, designed to help Latter-day Saints deal with addiction and suicide. Both are free resources through the foundation. A third is in the works, with help from Elder Rex Pinegar, also an emeritus general authority, that will deal with mental illness, he said.
It is scheduled to include details of the struggle former church President Harold B. Lee had with depression, how LDS entertainer Donny Osmond was treated for panic attacks, and how the son of a member of the church's Council of the Twelve struggles with mental illness. Formal approval is in the works, and a final decision on content is scheduled to be made within the next few weeks, Hawks said.
The church has recently become more directly involved in fostering discussion about the particulars of sexual addiction, suicide, pornography and abuse through conferences and workshops at church-owned Brigham Young University. A Deseret Morning News story four years ago about a BYU-sponsored conference on sexual, physical and emotional abuse elicited scores of e-mails from all over the world.
At the time, no transcript of the proceedings was available, but now BYUbroadcasting.org provides transcripts of presentations from that conference as well as rebroadcasts of a "Cyber Secrets" conference earlier this year dealing with sexual addiction and pornography. Topics at this year's "Families Under Fire" conference, which winds up today at BYU, included eating disorders, marital conflict, depression, grief, at-risk children, internet filtering, homosexuality, adoptive parent challenges, pornography addiction and debt elimination.
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