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Recognizing mental illness

LDS speaker says problem isn't spiritual

Elder Alexander B. Morrison spoke on mental illness at the Families Under Fire conference at BYU Monday.
Elder Alexander B. Morrison spoke on mental illness at the Families Under Fire conference at BYU Monday.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — It's a disease that's estimated to strike as many as 15 million Americans, but nearly two-thirds of them are not getting help.

It can be life-threatening if left untreated, yet some insurance companies won't pay the medical bills. Many sufferers think they brought the illness upon themselves, and family and friends often tell them all they need is more will power to get better.

Few diseases encounter the misconceptions and myths that surround mental illness, one of the topics selected as a focus of Brigham Young University's Families Under Fire conference. The conference brings LDS Church members together to learn about topics affecting their families.

This year's opening address on mental illness and families was given by Elder Alexander B. Morrison, an emeritus member of the Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who wrote "Valley of Sorrow."

The book addresses coping with mental illness from an LDS perspective.

Although not a mental-health professional, Morrison, the father of a mentally ill daughter, has dealt with many of the issues surrounding mental illness. In his address, he focused on the myths and misconceptions surrounding mental illness, including some specific to the LDS population.

"People tend to believe that a priesthood blessing is all you need — just go get a priesthood blessing and you'll be fine," Morrison said in an interview after his address. "Priesthood blessings don't cure all cancers or all heart disease. Why would we think that all you need is a priesthood blessing if you are mentally ill?"

Morrison said that members who suggest only a spiritual action often do more harm than good, especially if the person who is mentally ill already struggles with his or her self-perception.

"When that kind of stuff is presented to the mentally ill —'All you need is a priesthood blessing' — and then it doesn't work, then they just get cynical, they get discouraged and think, 'Well, either God doesn't want me, I'm useless to him.' "

Morrison said those affected by mental illness cannot rely solely on bishops for healing but require treatment from heath-care professionals. He said church members who believe the problem is spiritual are mistaken.

"It must be emphasized that in many instances, aberrant thoughts, actions and behaviors result from mental illness and not from sin," Morrison said. "They come from disease, not transgression. They are not God's way of punishing the sinner."

Morrison said he doesn't think LDS people have more misconceptions than the general public does about mental illness — but they don't have a better understanding either.

"I wish Latter-day Saints were more sensitive and understanding and compassionate, and that's coming, but to think that we're immune from the general prejudices of society would be foolish," he said. "We're not."

He said educating church leaders is part of the solution.

"You shouldn't try to make (bishops) into mental-heath professionals, but what you can do is help them to know what the symptoms are and know enough to differentiate between those suffering from sin and those suffering from disease," Morrison said. "Then they can take those suffering from disease and refer them to a mental-health professional."

Training incorporating those principles has been conducted in LDS regional church welfare meetings in Utah for two years, according to Jay Fox, a BYU professor and Utah board member for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. He helps coordinate such meetings.

"It starts out with a professional talking about the nature of the illness, then we use Elder Morrison's talk; we talk about the stigma created by the misconceptions, then we have a family member talk about the impact on the family, then we talk about resources available for priesthood leaders," Fox said.

Morrison said time is what's needed to change perceptions about mental illness in the church, as well as in society.