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Depression is a serious medical illness. It’s more than just feeling “down” in the “dumps” or “blue” for a few days. It’s feeling “down” and “low” and “hopeless” for weeks at a time.
Depressive disorders come in different forms, just as is the case with other illnesses, such as heart disease:
Major depression is manifested by a combination of symptoms that interfere with the ability to work, study, sleep, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable activities. Such a disabling episode of depression may occur only once but more commonly occurs several times in a lifetime.
Dysthymia, involves long-term, chronic symptoms that do not disable, but keep one from functioning well or from feeling good. Many people with dysthymia also experience major depressive episodes at some time in their lives.
Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness. Not nearly as prevalent as other forms of depressive disorders, bipolar disorder is characterized by cycling mood changes: severe highs (mania) and lows (depression). Sometimes the mood switches are dramatic and rapid, but most often they are gradual. When in the depressed cycle, an individual can have any or all of the symptoms of a depressive disorder. When in the manic cycle, the individual may be overactive, over-talkative, and have a great deal of energy. Mania often affects thinking, judgment, and social behavior in ways that cause serious problems and embarrassment. For example, the individual in a manic phase may feel elated, full of grand schemes that might range from unwise business decisions to romantic sprees. Mania, left untreated, may worsen to a psychotic state.
Myths and Misconceptions
The following is condensed from Alexander B. Morrison, “Myths about Mental Illness,” Ensign, Oct 2005, 31–35:
Myth: All mental illness is caused by sin
In many instances aberrant thoughts, actions, and feelings result from mental illness and not from sin. They come from disease, not transgression. They are not God’s way of punishing the sinner. To assume they are is not only overly simplistic but also contrary to the teachings of the Church.
Many faithful Latter-day Saints who live the commandments and honor their covenants experience struggles with mental illness or are required to deal with the intense pain and suffering of morally righteous but mentally ill family members. Their burdens—and they are many—can be lifted only by love, understanding, and acceptance.
Myth: Someone is to blame for mental illness
Ascribing blame for mental illness causes unnecessary suffering for all concerned and takes time and energy which would better be used to increase understanding of what actually is happening—to get a complete assessment and proper diagnosis of the illness involved, to understand the causes, to get proper medication and learn behavioral and cognitive techniques that are part of the healing process. As victims, loved ones, and all the rest of us increase our understanding, then patience, forgiveness, and empathy will replace denial, anger, and rejection.
Myth: All that people with mental illness need is a priesthood blessing
Ecclesiastical leaders are spiritual leaders and not mental health professionals. Most of them lack the professional skills and training to deal effectively with deep-seated mental illnesses and are well advised to seek competent professional assistance for those in their charge who are in need of it. Remember that God has given mankind wondrous knowledge and technology that can help overcome grievous problems such as mental illness. Just as we would not hesitate to consult a physician about medical problems such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, so too we should not hesitate to obtain medical and other appropriate professional assistance in dealing with mental illness. When such assistance is sought, be careful to ensure, insofar as possible, that the health professional concerned follows practices and procedures which are compatible with gospel principles.
Myth: Mentally ill persons just lack willpower
There are some who mistakenly believe that the mentally ill just need to “snap out of it, show a little backbone, and get on with life.” Those who believe that way display a grievous lack of knowledge and compassion. The fact is that seriously mentally ill persons simply cannot, through an exercise of will, get out of the predicament they are in. They need help, encouragement, understanding, and love. Anyone who has ever witnessed the well-nigh unbearable pain of a severe panic attack knows full well that nobody would suffer that way if all that was needed was to show a little willpower. No one who has witnessed the almost indescribable sadness of a severely depressed person who perhaps can’t even get out of bed, who cries all day or retreats into hopeless apathy, or who tries to kill himself would ever think for a moment that mental illness is just a problem of willpower. We don’t say to persons with heart disease or cancer, “Just grow up and get over it.” Neither should we treat the mentally ill in such an uncompassionate and unhelpful way.
Myth: All mentally ill persons are dangerous and should be locked up
Sensational and incomplete media reports have conjured up stereotypical portrayals of the mentally ill as crazed and violent lunatics, dangerous to others as well as themselves. The truth is that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and the great majority of crimes of violence are not committed by persons who are mentally ill. They do not need to be locked up. Like everyone else, most mentally ill persons receiving proper treatment have the potential to work at any level in any profession, depending solely on their abilities, talents, experience, and motivation.
Myth: Mental illness doesn’t strike children and young people
As noted by the National Institute of Mental Health, the truth is that an estimated 10 percent of children in the United States suffer from a mental health disorder that disrupts their functioning at home, in school, or in the community. The majority of children who kill themselves are profoundly depressed, and most parents did not recognize that depression until it was too late. I reiterate: no one is immune to mental illness.
Myth: Whatever the cause, mental illness is untreatable
During the past 40 years numerous medications have been developed by the multinational pharmaceutical industry. These products have proven of inestimable worth to millions. They are not perfect, nor do they work effectively in every instance—far from it, unfortunately. But we are getting closer to the day when physicians will have available effective drugs which are specific in correcting the biochemical lesions concerned, without the side effects which too often limit the effectiveness of medications today. I have no doubt that such developments, which we are already beginning to see, will result in striking advances in the treatment of mental illness over the next decade.
Let Us Help Those in Pain
I hope these few thoughts about some of the myths surrounding mental illness can help us build understanding and rid ourselves of stigma and bias about this important problem. With knowledge and understanding come love, acceptance, empathy, and support. May God bless us to love all His children, to abandon none, and to lift up and strengthen those suffering and in pain.