I found General Conference, on the whole, to be wonderful. Many talks addressed the exact problem I found with the Young Women meeting. The message? Life is hard and the atonement helps us deal, helps us grow, helps us endure, helps us repair parts of ourselves we didn’t even know were broken. I appreciated Elder Kent F. Richards‘ acknowledgement of suffering as an inherent part of the human condition and not something for which we are necessarily culpable. “Much of our suffering is not necessarily our fault”; Elder Richards mentioned unexpected disease, death, hurt at the hands of others, and offers this comfort: “There is a physician. The atonement of Jesus Christ covers all these conditions and purposes of mortality.”
He says, however, we are responsible for our spiritual pain. “Spiritual pain lies deep within our souls and can feel unquenchable even as being wracked with an inexpressible horror, as Alma described. It comes from our sinful actions and lack of repentance.” He noted Christ’s work with people during his mortal ministry, healing physical, spiritual, and emotional ailments. But, his labor on our behalf did not end with his death. I found this statement interesting. “Perhaps his most significant work is in the ongoing labor with each of us individually to lift, to bless, to strengthen, to sustain, to guide, and to forgive us.” The vision of Christ-with-us is exceedingly comforting. It concretizes something that is very abstract and helps me picture a currently relational Christ, something that has always been hard for me to do.
This was another interesting theological statement: “Perhaps we also need to experience the depths of mortality in order to understand Him and our eternal purposes.” Suffering as a key to understanding certain Christian attributes and our purposes in eternity is a new concept for me. We do not suffer our way to salvation, but we become new beings (Saints, as Elder Richards says) through trials that refashion us in Christ’s image as we humbly approach him with our problems.
Now, where does mental illness, and depression in particular, fit within this schema? Elder Richards did not explicitly mention mental illness, although a picture of mental illness could be patched together from his list of afflictions. Depression is a particularly pernicious disease that can affect body, mind, spirit, and emotion. From the inside, it can look like the torment of the pains of sin Elder Richards describes–existential horror, causing a loss of hope and sometimes complete despair coupled with the inability to escape. The fault does not belong to the person who experiences it; it is not a moral failing, although a loss of belief in Christ’s healing power can feel devastating. “If I just had more faith I would be able to endure or get better. I feel so terrible that there is no way anything is ever going to be okay. I am completely broken.” Such soul-wracking pains are not always a result of sin (a point which I wish Elder Richards had made more explicit, although I think it was implicit in his account of Jesus’s healings). Depression is not the result of someone succumbing to temptation.
Depression’s roots are often in biology and how it affects the human psyche. It is an illness that does not receive the same kind of overt nod of understanding as other physical ailments. It is bedeviling and cannot be cured by sheer willpower, hopefulness, or spiritual devotion. Medical measures do not completely eradicate it, either. It is a disease people control, sometimes without success.
As someone who has suffered bouts of depression and severe anxiety, I have a hard time saying that enduring these things is soul-sanctifying or educating. I truly believe the atonement heals, but depression and mental illness require an additional discourse that is not a prominent part of our culture, church or otherwise, and receives somewhat intermittent attention. As I was searching through the bloggernacle to see how this topic had been treated, I came across these reflections and resources:
Mood Disorders and the Spirit: Seraphine’s reflections on how mood disorders influences a person’s spiritual experience.
Deciphering the Divine Signal: Lynette’s experience with sorting through the epistemological and theological issues prompted by brain chemistry.
“Mental Illness: In Search of Understanding and Hope“: Article written by my mom in the late 80s that’s still relevant.
“Myths about Mental Illness“: Article by Elder Alexander Morrison, who confirms that mental illness is not a moral failing.
Psychiatric disorders in Mormon theology: “Can obtaining a greater understanding of mental illness be a form of healing? It was for me.”
This Emotional Life on PBS is raising awareness about mental and emotional well-being, and includes a lot of additional resources.
I trust that God will not give his children stones who ask of him bread. I trust that ultimately Christ will “bind up the brokenhearted, . . . proclaim liberty to the captives, and [open] the prison to [them that are] bound” (Isaiah 61:1). Although a discourse of mental illness and Mormonism isn’t completely lacking, mental illness is a persistent human condition that requires our attention and compassion.