Mental Health and Being Mormon

It's 11:15 PM and my wife and kids are in bed. Normally I have no trouble drifting off to sleep, but tonight I can't seem to make the transition to dreamland. Maybe it's some flashes of inspiration. Maybe it's the B12 shot I had earlier in the week. Whatever it is, I have the urge to write and I know that it won't calm down until I get my fingers on this keyboard. Something has been weighing on my mind off and on for the last several years. It was brought to my attention again after seeing this personal Facebook post from LDS Church Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland two days ago:

UPDATE: Since starting to write this blog post, the video has since made its way to the homepage of LDS.org. This is a big deal, and I'm glad that the leaders of the church are addressing it in a meaningful and public way. They've even launched a website dedicated to mental health.

I've been a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints my entire life. Baptized at 8 years old. Attended seminary in High School. Served a two-year mission in Frankfurt, Germany when I turned 19. Married in the Mesa, Arizona Temple to my wonderful wife 14 years ago. I even have a profile set up on Mormon.org. I guess you could say I'm all in. Fully involved. "Dyed in the wool. True blue, through and through."

Seeking out and receiving treatment for mental illness is not a sign of weakness. It does not mean you have lost faith in God. It does not mean that you have sinned or that you are being punished.

The LDS Church expects a lot of its members. Most members of the church have a "calling," or assignment within their local congregation. These callings vary in responsibility and complexity. You could be asked to teach a Sunday School class to a group of children, or you may be asked to serve as a Bishop. There is no financial compensation for serving in the church, even if the hours of dedication add up to that of a part- or full-time job. The moral standards of the church can also be considered somewhat demanding. For example, we follow a code of health known as the Word of Wisdom. This prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and "hot drinks" (interpreted to mean coffee and tea). In addition to these restrictions, the Word of Wisdom strongly advocates for eating fruits and vegetables in their season, limiting the consumption of meat, and encourages the use of healthy grains.

The importance of the family is heavily emphasized in the teachings of the church. Marriage is strongly encouraged, and having children also. Large families are commonplace; I grew up in a family of seven children. Mormons typically get married young and many couples choose to start having children right away. This can put an incredible amount of stress on an individual, a relationship, and a family. Combine a young family dynamic with the demands of educational pursuits, work and career, financial stress, and church responsibilities, and you've got the potential for trouble.

The trouble can take on many forms, and the Church is becoming increasingly responsive to this fact. In recent years, the LDS Church has launched a website dedicated to helping those suffering from addiction. While not unique to Mormons, addictions seem to be on the rise. Two years ago, CNN published a documentary entitled "Unholy Addiction" which exposed prescription drug addiction within LDS communities in Utah. Read more about the show here. The full documentary can be viewed on Netflix. (Search: This is Life with Lisa Ling. Season 1, Episode 2)

One report shows Utah as leading the country in the percentage of its adult population who have experienced any mental illness. This same report ranks Utah high for people experiencing serious mental illness. I remember reading a fascinating article in medical school where a neuroscientist attempted to identify why Utah's suicide rates were so high. (His theory? It's because of the high altitude. Read the article here.)

Whatever the cause or reason for mental illness, it's important for me to identify that it is absolutely real. Just like diabetes, pancreatic cancer, or leprosy--anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and any number of other mental illnesses are very real. It is also important for me to say that they are absolutely treatable. Sometimes the effects of mental illness are alleviated with prayer and faith, but sometimes that just isn't enough. Sometimes this might require taking medication, and that's okay. Seeking out and receiving treatment for mental illness is not a sign of weakness. It does not mean you have lost faith in God. It does not mean that you have sinned or that you are being punished.

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect
— Jesus Christ, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:48

I've often heard from friends and colleagues outside the church that we are expected to be perfect. This burden of perfection can definitely cause mental turmoil. If Catholic Guilt and Jewish Guilt can have their own Wikipedia pages, then it's about time we get to join the Guilt Guild. If you don't mind, I'll share something personal. There is a verse of scripture in the New Testament which has contributed, at least in part, to personal feelings of guilt for not achieving perfection. It is found in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, a lengthy instruction from Jesus Christ on how we should conduct our lives. This verse says: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." For the longest time, I struggled with this. Knowing how often I have made mistakes, and yet here is Jesus telling us that we are to be perfect. It wasn't until I was in my late 20's when I discovered something in that verse. The LDS Church uses the King James Version of the Bible. There is a footnote translation in this verse for the word "perfect". It references the Greek translation of the original text which describes "perfect" as meaning "complete, finished, or fully developed." I don't know about you, but I am far from being "complete, finished, or fully developed!" And I don't feel bad about that one little bit! I'm growing and learning, falling down on my face and making mistakes, and that is totally okay. So if there is anyone out there (Mormon or otherwise) expecting mistake-free perfection of themselves or others, I say Stop It! Life is full of mistakes and learning opportunities. 

As a naturopathic physician, I have a unique perspective on the treatment of mental illness. Rather than immediately reach for my prescription pad, I try other things first. There is much research to support the connection between gut health and mental health. Dysbiosis, or the disruption of normal bacteria balance in the gut, has been very heavily connected to mental illness. Watch the video here from Dr. David Perlmutter, MD. He's a neurologist and author of a handful of books which explore these connections. Did you know that the majority of serotonin (the neurotransmitter targeted by most antidepressant medications) is made in the gut? Nutritional deficiencies and food sensitivities can also contribute to the development of mental illness. Hormone imbalance and poor sleep patterns are other factors that may be at the root of the problem.

If you live in Arizona, my doors are open. I offer a free 10-minute phone consultation at both of my offices. Schedule today.

If you're in Utah, go see my good friend Dr. Michael Hummel at Cameron Wellness Center in Salt Lake. He's a very capable naturopathic doctor with a vast knowledge of herbs and botanical medicines. While attending medical school together, he taught me and some other friends how to do Qigong (pronounced Chee-gong). This ancient Chinese system of physical movement and breathing did amazing things for us in school. It helped relieve stress, decreased testing anxiety, and was super relaxing.

If you or someone you know are living with mental illness, please reach out for help. And I would encourage you and your loved ones to dig deeper than simple pharmaceutical intervention. Our bodies and minds have the innate ability to heal. When we give the body and mind what they need, then healing is absolutely possible.