Mental Illness and the Atonement

Mental Illness and the Atonement October 6, 2013

Inspired by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s masterful talk on mental illness, I have been reflecting on the great hope that is in Christ’s suffering on our behalf. I don’t want to repeat myself, but as someone who has been touched in the most personal and painful way by the effects of mental illness on a brother who took his life many years ago, I simply want to reiterate the truthfulness of his words.

Elder Holland was emphatic about one point that didn’t used to be widely understood in our society: mental illness is an illness, and it can be as indiscriminate and biological as any other illness, even if it seems to manifest itself chiefly as a behavioral or emotional problem. It is dangerous, in other words, to want to find someone to blame because this usually leads to either blaming the victim or blaming parents or others. I am not suggesting, of course, that mental illness that stems from abusive or otherwise unjust treatment of a child excuses the abuser. But the fact of the matter is, we often do not know what the source of mental illness is, even though we can identify a biological manifestation of it. And we don’t always know what will lift it from us. In this sense, it isn’t all that exceptional of a problem, since so much of what causes us daily anguish is a sense of our own biology warring against our best intentions, that feeling we all have of being not quite as free as we would like to be to live as we should, to feel the depth of joy and happiness that the great gift of life affords.

What is exceptional about mental illness and most anguishing is the way that it affects personality, choices, and outlook. It challenges an individual’s ability to be fully oneself, and this in turn causes pain and sorrow not only to the one who is ill but to those who seek to love and care for the ailing one. A good friend of mine recently confided his own struggle with anger towards God for allowing his daughter to suffer an unspeakable amount of despair and difficulty in being able to lead a normal life. Her illness has cost her so much anguish and so much pain and kept him and his wife up many nights worrying about her well-being, never being able to feel confident that they will ever get out of these treacherous woods. As great as my sorrow was as a brother to one who took his life, I know my sorrows do not compare to those of my parents or the pain of my friends who cannot seem to stanch the flow of their daughter’s pain. Theirs is a shared and holy sorrow that is born of love. It speaks profoundly to me about the value of family bonds and the preciousness of life.

There is little I know or understand about mental illness that can answer these challenges, but I do believe in love. I do believe that individuals who suffer such trouble deserve and need loving parents and family and friends. Because you are willing to love and care for them may be the very reason such people come into your life. I do know that we need to be more compassionate, more like Christ who absorbed the sins but also the sorrows and pains of us all. To accept his love is to accept a God who weeps on our behalf, whose capacity for sorrow is only exceeded by his capacity for love and joy. To believe in such a divine Father is to then be empowered by a love that is beyond our natural capacity and that allows us to bear all things, endure all things, and suffer all things. Trying to bear these burdens alone will only grind us down. Believing that God knows of these sorrows, that he sorrows with us, and that there is, nevertheless, a perfect brightness of hope, gives power to feel more than we otherwise feel.

Here are some of Elder Holland’s words:

“Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel that we are like a broken vessel, as the Psalmist says, we must remember that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken  hearts can be healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful, non-judgmental and kind.”

I have heard, far too many times than I wish to recount, that those who suffer real mental illness just need to buck up and exercise more discipline and get more true doctrine. This is said with good intention, but it is profoundly ignorant of the nature of mental illness and when it is the first and only advice someone who suffers from depression hears, it is potentially dangerous. I say this because it assumes that an individual is entirely and always responsible for everything he or she feels. Not all depressing feelings are symptoms of mental illness, of course, but real mental illness is precisely the loss of such control, and it was apparent that Elder Holland understands this. We might feel that we are standing up for true principles when we insist that because obedience to Christ brings lasting happiness, therefore the only cause of sorrow is sin or injustice of some kind. Sometimes sorrow comes and stays for inexplicably long periods of time. Sometimes it shapes a personality even when it has dissipated because there is always the possibility of its return. And over time, we see that our frailties and weaknesses, our sorrows and our infirmities, have become a part of who we are. I believe in personal progress. I believe in striving to be captains of our own souls and I believe in the happiness of following God’s laws. I believe a good diet, plenty of exercise, and rest make a huge difference in my life. But I also believe we will carry many burdens to our grave that we were never able to entire be free of, at least not in this life, and I believe this is perhaps just as important a reason for Christ’s atonement as the fact of our own sinful nature. We are broken and we need mending, all of us. And my abiding hope and confidence is in Christ, in his power to heal us root and branch from our sins and from our sorrows. That healing takes place in stages and sometimes I have seen miraculous changes and other times I have seen a stubborn persistence of circumstances that are simply not fair. I plead with those who suffer to hang on, to remember how much they are loved. No person who decides to end his or her life does so in clear recognition of how much sorrow they will have asked their loved ones to bear nor what love the Lord bears them at all times.

Ultimately final and complete healing is available to everyone. I do not have any doubt that my brother is free of his sorrows and that he now looks down upon me and my life with compassion. I do not believe this means he should have left us. I don’t believe he feels that way. But I do believe it means we can have confidence that we can bear our sorrows with deep and abiding love and the happiness that comes from such love. I commend to you these words from Elder Holland:

“I testify of the holy resurrection, that unspeakable cornerstone gift in the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. With the apostle Paul I testify that that which was sown in corruption will one day be raised in incorruption, and that which was sown in weakness will ultimately one day be raised in power. I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind…. Until that hour when Christ’s consummate gift is evident to us all, may we live by faith, hold fast to hope, and show compassion one to another.”

I honestly don’t know much, but this I do know to be true.


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