The first time I saw the scars on my younger sister’s wrists from where she had been cutting herself, I started crying. A wave of guilt came over me. I had been living away from my family for school, and came home for a visit during the summer. As a protective big sister, I felt like if I had only lived at home, I could have cheered her up enough to beat her depression. I also felt terrible for thinking that her diagnosis of depression several years earlier was just something she could “shake off” or “snap out of”.
When I did move home months later, she was now severely medicated for both anxiety and depression, and was sleeping about 18 hours a day. When she was awake, she was barely coherent and the hilarious, intelligent sister I grew up with was lost in a sea of side effects. There were days when I would sit at the edge of her bed and tell her stories and sing songs we used to listen to. I believed that my sister was in there somewhere, and if I loved her harder she would make it through.
Throughout that year we watched her try to recover, barely graduate from high school, and try to wean herself off of medication. The guilt my parents and I felt began to disappear as we educated ourselves on mental illness. A 2005 article from the Ensign entitled “Myths about Mental Illness” is very helpful on this very relevant topic. Here are five very common myths, as listed in the article.
- All mental illness is caused by sin. “The truth is that 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.”
- Someone is to blame for mental illness. “Many victims of mental illness wear themselves out emotionally by futile attempts to remember something they, their parents, or someone else might have done that resulted in their suffering. Most often, victims blame themselves. Many seem unable to rid themselves of terrible though undefined feelings that somehow, some way, they are the cause of their own pain—even when they are not. Parents, spouses, or other family members also often harrow up their minds trying futilely to determine where they went wrong.”
- All that people with mental illness need is a priesthood blessing. “I am a great advocate of priesthood blessings. I know, from much personal experience, that they do inestimable good. I know too that final and complete healing of mental illness or any other disease comes through faith in Jesus Christ. We must understand, however, without in any way denigrating the unique role of priesthood blessings, that 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. “
- 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.”
- 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.”
If you love someone who struggles with mental illness, never lose faith. Heavenly Father will help you and those you love. Be patient and kind. I’m still learning how I can help my sister every day. Sometimes all I can do is let her know that I love her and be there to listen. When I feel helpless I remember these words from Elder Holland:
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. What a thrilling moment that will be! I do not know whether we will be happier for ourselves that we have witnessed such a miracle or happier for them that they are fully perfect and finally ‘free at last’.
My sister is not defined by her illness. She is one of the most incredible people I know, and her future is filled with so many possibilities. I have hope that the injustices of this life will all be made up, and that all of us, no matter what burden we carry, will be “free at last”.