"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
October 11, 2013
Spiritual Leaders Can Bring Hope to the Hopeless
by Sarah Hancock

In general, regardless of culture or religious affiliation, there are not many spiritual leaders who have spoken clearly about mental illness from both a medical and spiritual perspective.

In the past, many different cultures and religions have attributed the symptoms of mental illness to spiritual sin or wrongdoing. Others blame mental illness on satanic possession, poor parenting, or any number of things, not recognizing that mental illness can be an imbalance in the brain’s chemical makeup.

This past week The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had its semiannual general conference. During the Saturday afternoon session of the conference, one of the 12 apostles, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, spoke of mental illness, in particular he spoke of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). 

During his talk, my jaw hit the floor. There he was, not only speaking in an international conference to more than 15 million members about mental illness, but also mentioning his own battle with depression.

He also spoke of other church leaders who struggled through depression. He proclaimed loud and clear that not only is mental illness real, but it needs to be dealt with appropriately. In addition to spiritual guidance, Elder Holland spoke of the importance of utilizing many forms of treatment including medication and counselors.

For those members of the Church with mental illness, we felt validated that a beloved member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles would speak to us directly about our struggles and tell us it wasn’t just in our head. Not only does this set a precedent for lay leadership to help people by providing them proper support. It also helps people who have never had symptoms of mental illness recognize that it’s not something that can be wished away with positive thinking.

Elder Holland’s talk acknowledged that relying on treating solely through spiritual means may not be the answer, but rather a strong tool in a recovery toolbox. Now people who listen to one of the top leaders in the Church, know where the Church stands on mental illness. They have it from one in authority that medication and counseling are okay and sometimes required.

It’s virtually a mental health movement, acknowledging disorders as illness, shooting down the general belief that mental illness is a result of weakness, sin, possession or bad parenting. I felt more reassured, accepted and inspired by this talk, than any of the others.

After Elder Holland’s talk, the internet flooded with comments from people who have a loved one with a mental illness, have a mental illness themselves or serve those with mental illness. In fact, people were tweeting and retweeting their favorite quotes from his talk.

Please indulge me as I share with you some of my favorite quotes from his talk.

He said, “there should be no more shame in acknowledging [mental illness or emotional disorder] than in acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor.” Might I also add that when we do so, we lift others rather than isolating them.

If someone you know is fighting a mental illness, it’s okay to offer them a listening ear, send them a card, or take them a dinner. Random acts of kindness for those with mental illness are just as well accepted by people with a mental illness as they are with someone who has an illness that is more apparent, like cancer. What would the world be like if people supported people with mental illness like they did someone with breast cancer?

Elder Holland said that “in preventing illness whenever possible, watch for the stress indicators in yourself and in others you may be able to help. As with your automobile, be alert to rising temperatures, excessive speed, or a tank low on fuel. When you face ‘depletion depression,’ make the requisite adjustments. Fatigue is the common enemy of us all — so slow down, rest up, replenish, and refill.”

I cannot tell you how true this is. If you know of a young family with small children, relieving the parent of their children for an afternoon so that parent can take a nap could make the difference between regulating symptoms of depression (or other disorder) and becoming so fatigued that further medical treatment is required.

He continues, “If things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. Be honest with them about your history and your struggles. Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation” (italics added).

Although I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Taking medication for mental illness can be a good thing. In fact, it may make life a little easier. Obviously medication is one of many treatment tools. You can’t take it thinking that’s all you need to do (although indeed that may be the case).

For me, when I started using the medication I needed in conjunction with other recovery tools, suddenly I became more productive, reliable, pleasant to be around and confident that just maybe I could live successfully with my diagnosis. Now my illness has been in near complete remission for four years.

This quote is probably the one I liked the most, "Though we may feel we are like a broken vessel, as the Psalmist says, we must remember that vessel is in the hands of the divine Potter .... I bear witness of the day when loved ones that 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."

And just to close, I wanted to share with you a few of the responses to Elder Holland’s talk,

  • “I had two friends text me during this talk . . . Never in my life have I heard a talk at my Church's General Conference directed solely to those with mental illness. I am truly honored and touched that Jeffrey R. Holland, a strong man that I know to live by the spirit, decided to share these thoughts.” — Mary K.

  • “His talk gave me goose bumps. I felt the urgency behind the need for this so strongly it overwhelmed me and made me cry with compassion for every saint whose life I know it will touch.” — Audri T.

  • “My sweet dad died of suicide three years ago after a lifelong struggle with mental illness. My whole body flooded with peace when I heard Elder Holland speak these words, "I bear witness of the day when loved ones that 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." — Jill T.

  • “Mental illness is so deeply devastating and touches so many, whether directly or indirectly. Unfortunately, it is also often grossly misunderstood, feared, ignored, and written off as "all in their head." I hope this talk will take away some of the stigma surrounding it and give some hope and healing to those who desperately need and deserve it. I also hope it will give courage to so many of us who may need and want to share our experiences (but have been afraid to) to those who are willing to listen with a mind that tries to understand and a heart to love unconditionally.” — Aundrea C.

  • “I appreciated [that Elder Holland spoke of] respected men both inside and outside of the church, himself included, who have struggled with either situational or clinical depression. It tends to de-stigmatize the illness when such great people also struggle with it. I also like his comparison to appendicitis, yes you do rely on priesthood authority for a blessing, but then you go for medical attention ... why wouldn't we seek the medical help? This was exactly what I needed to hear.” — Hilarie P.

  • “Inspired, giving hope to those with mental/emotional illness, uplifting those who feel down for any reason, and teaching others to be compassionate of those who are afflicted.” — Tavin D. 

I hope that more cultural and spiritual leaders follow his example, starting a long overdue dialogue about mental illness. It’s desperately needed and indeed inspired. Doing so will have a lasting, hope-building effect for those who live with or have a loved one with mental illness.

If you would like to read Elder Holland’s talk, you can find it at Like a Broken Vessel.

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About Sarah Hancock

Sarah Price Hancock, a graduate of San Diego State University's rehabilitation counseling Masters of Science program with a certificate psychiatric rehabilitation.

Having embarked on her own journey with a mental health diagnosis, she is passionate about psychiatric recovery. She enjoys working as a lector for universities, training upcoming mental health professionals. Sarah also enjoys sharing insights with peers working to strengthen their "recovery toolbox." With proper support, Sarah knows psychiatric recovery isnít just possible ó itís probable.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sarah served a Spanish-speaking and ASL mission for the LDS Church in the Texas Dallas Mission. She was graduated from Ricks College and BYU. Sarah currently resides in San Diego and inherited four amazing children when she married the man of her dreams in 2011. She loves writing, public speaking, ceramics, jewelry-making and kite-flying ó not necessarily in that order.

NAMI San Diego's Fall Keynote Address: Living in Recovery with Schizoaffective Disorder

Having recently moved into a new ward, she currently serves as a visiting teacher.

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