Latter-day Saints with limited knowledge about mental illness can add to the pain of those who suffer when they ascribe to several common myths.
Rick Hawks, a psychologist and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told an audience gathered Thursday at Brigham Young University that he has received criticism in the past for characterizations that some church members' insensitivity adds to the pain of those with mental disorders and their family members.
In a lecture titled "Mental Illness: How Latter-day Saints Shoot Their Wounded," was one of hundreds of presentations offered during the annual Education Week at BYU, drawing tens of thousands of people to the Provo campus. Classes concluded on Friday.
Hawks dismissed what he said are commonly held myths about the mentally ill and their families.
The first, that "if you keep the commandments, you won't have mental illness," reinforces an ancient but false belief that spirituality inoculates people against mental disorders, which in reality are physical illnesses like cancer and diabetes.
The myth goes hand in hand with the idea that "all emotional difficulties have to do with personal sin." Yet the truth is that no one is immune, including church and community leaders, he said, noting former LDS Church President Harold B. Lee suffered from depression.
"Praying, fasting, reading the scriptures and good parenting are all important, but they don't treat mental illness."
The second myth is that those who suffer simply need a "priesthood blessing" to restore proper mental function. Complex mental disorders require consultation with professionals, proper medication and lifestyle changes, he said, quoting top LDS leaders who have advocated such treatment in public settings.
While church leaders are often helpful with problems of the soul, such spiritual "shepherds are not veterinarians," he said, quoting Elder Vaughn Featherstone. Some need to realize that, Hawks said, noting he was once in a church meeting where an LDS stake president told the congregation from the pulpit that if they were taking Prozac, they should stop doing so.
Sometime later, after Hawks approached the stake president about what he'd said, the leader told Hawks he learned a hard lesson about the consequences of his advice when he later visited a woman with clinical depression who had followed his counsel, stopped taking her medication and was planning to take her life within hours.
A third myth says that seeking professional help "is a sign of weakness." Instead, such attitudes tend to be generated by fear and ignorance, he said. "Some believe that no one who is right with the Lord has a nervous breakdown or needs medication."
Such beliefs complicate treatment because it's often difficult to convince the mentally ill to acknowledge there is a problem, let alone to seek help for it, he said. "God doesn't need a psychiatrist, but sometimes his Saints do."
Some believe that medication is bad, he said, invoking a cultural concern that too many Latter-day Saints take Prozac for minor problems that should be handled by other means. Yet statistically, Hawks said, for every LDS congregation of several hundred, approximately 24 would be predicted to need medication for mental illness.
Other myths include the "easy belief" that the mentally ill simply lack willpower or they are psychotic, severely impaired and have nothing to offer. Yet the majority of those who suffer some type of mental illness and are being properly treated are successful in their professions.
Many are community leaders including doctors, attorneys, dentists and businesspeople. "They simply are not 'less than' you or me."
Co-presenter Jack Marshall, an instructor at the University of Utah's LDS Institute of Religion, said he and his family have experienced some of the pain associated with the myths surrounding mental illness. After his son committed suicide, many friends and fellow church members gathered to offer comfort, but one in particular stayed away.
When asked later why, she said if she had experienced such a loss, she would want others to "leave me alone," possibly in part because of the stigma attached to his death.
Yet "the love and time and attention and caring" of so many around them "made such a difference to us." The family has felt much the same way about those who have been sensitive to their daughter's struggle with mental illness.
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