Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
CLICK HERE for part two.
Brief summary: Jesus was an amazing teacher. But he did more than teach. He healed people. In Jerusalem. And in Bountiful. How about here – and now? Why do so many wonderful Saints pray so hard, and yet remain so sick? For many years, people have been told that depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions were inherently life-long. Rather than seeing their healing gradually expand, many have been taught the best they can hope for is to “cope” and “manage” a chronic condition. But with exciting research over recent decades, it’s not hard to recognize the emergence of “further light and knowledge” about mental health. What does that mean for us today – especially those among us hurting the most? This presentation will focus on exploring reasons for fresh hope in the possibility of more sustainable healing from mental health conditions, in particular – and consider practical steps that families can take to create sanctuaries of healing in their own home that more effectively counteract the accelerating risk factors for emotional distress swirling all around us.
One of the most beautiful moments in our Lord’s ministry is where he, sadly enough, made people the angriest. He came home to share a message in Nazareth that could have been one of the most comforting things these people could possibly hear – saying to the people that, essentially, I’m the one who has been “anointed…to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives…to set at liberty them that are bruised. To announce (as another translation says) that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”
Unfortunately, the idea this was happening nowwas just too much for these people.…so much easier to say, “sure, the Messiah will come one day…but you healing us here and now? That’s crazy talk. Really dangerous.”
Jesus must have known this was coming. But it still had to be a deeply painful moment for him. “This is who I really am! I can free you. I can heal you. You don’t have to keep suffering like this.”
The response: “Wait a minute…isn’t this Joseph’s son?” As Isaiah predicted, he was “despised and rejected of men” and they “esteemed him not.”
How about us today? Do we esteem this same Jesus as the one who can free us from these twin American epidemics of spiraling animosity and devastating health problems all around us? Or is that idea slightly offensive to us as well?
Our dear President Nelson is doing everything he can to prepare us for when the “earth receives her king.” We can be excited at that coming day – when, yes, “yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” But in the meanwhile, what about today? For those of us facing difficult mental, emotional and physical problems, does God expect us to simply endure debilitating things year, after year?
Clearly, the answer is yes, at times – with some hopes deferred to another world. But I was at a Christian mental health conference years ago where a speaker suggested that our hopes for healing mental illness will need to await “one day in the resurrection.” That’s when the suffering would end. Although this individual was trying to share hope, I felt sick to my stomach.
Something was missing – namely, confidence in God’s healing power in our lives today. Here and now.
If that power is still active, why does healing not come? Not always. Not quickly. Sometimes, not ever?
Clearly, miracles are happening more often than we realize. We hear them expressed in ward meetings and passing conversations now and then. Yet so many good and faithful people continue to grapple over the same confused prayer of Joseph long ago, “Oh God, where art thou?”
The ache of unresolved pain. I’ve been drawn to the Book of Jeremiah recently, partly because he lived in an angry time like ours. Among everything else he could have said about his nation in decay, notice what this mighty, persecuted prophet highlights early in his ministry: “Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people…: Is not the Lord in Zion? Is not her king in her?”
The Lord responds: “For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt.” (Another translation says, “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am crushed. I mourn; I am overcome with grief.”)
That’s when Jeremiah famously asks God, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (emphasis my own).
This is a difficult question – one I take up tenderly today…knowing how personal it is for so many. For those just trying to survive another day, this is no “interesting armchair philosophy curiosity.” Even more than the classic golden questions of missionary work, I’m convinced this is the platinum question weighing almost universally on the hearts and homes of our human family: How can I hurt less? How am I going to make it another day?
Amidst her cancer battle, my mother used to love Mary Anne Radmacher’s statement, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that simply says, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’”
It’s easy to forget that some of the thrilling healings in scripture had some very long back-stories, like the woman with an issue of blood who “had suffered [for 12 years] many things of many physicians and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse.” We also witness the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda who John says had suffered “thirty and eight years of infirmity” – depicted visually as “hudd[ing] on the floor in the shadows, exhausted and demoralized after suffering” so long.
In our day, we likewise see people enduring painful infirmities for many years. I’ve never seen anyone hurt like my sister-in-law did, across 14 years of suffering from depression and anxiety and the many treatments she tried until her death. Maybe some of you are facing similarly agonizing emotional burdens…if not, you surely know someone who is.
Other health conditions can be similarly long-term and draining. After a third member of our family was afflicted with cancer, leaving our family feeling a little like a leper colony, I remember my Dad reading about the Savior’s visit to the traumatized Nephites – who had just endured gruesome destruction and witnessed mass casualties – and inviting “all them that were afflicted in any manner” to come forth, where he did “heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him.” In a passage screaming so much hope, my great father of mighty faith wept. Why not us?
There is a lot that could be said about this – and which has been said, by people much holier than I. Prophet leaders remind us of the purpose of mortality, the role of adversity, and the way all these things will give us experience and will – one day – be made right….in what my family sometimes calls, the Plan of Eventual Happiness.
But still, the question lingers and nags: Why so delayed? There are no supply chain issues with the grace and healing power of our Savior, which is available now. So, is there anything else getting in the way of us receiving it?
My wife and I have been thinking a lot about this in our family lately, watching our sweet baby girl with brain injury living without the hoped for healing we have sincerely anticipated. One evening this week, Emma was up most of the night; each time she would get calm enough to almost fall asleep, she would be shaken awake by some agitation inside. It was torturous to watch. After taking my turn in the early morning hours so Monique could finally get some sleep, I pulled out a small volume of writings about the atonement of Christ – finding some new peace and comfort as I read about this ancient episode of awful pain in someone so innocent.
“Surely, he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53)
Many of you reading this also know in your own families what it’s like to witness suffering in someone pure and innocent suffering. Whenever any of us – or our children, loved ones, or brothers and sisters anywhere in the world – endures such suffering, I wonder if we’re not bearing witness in some small way of this awful moment long ago in Gethsemane?
To the many testimonies that have been given of our awesome God, I would add mine today – in specific response to this most vexing of questions I keep repeating. Why are we still hurting so bad?
One clue from Nauvoo. For me, one meaningful answer to that question comes from our experience in Nauvoo as a people. In 1839, the Saints got sick. Really sick. And not because they didn’t have faith. They were viciously driven from their homes in winter – arriving in a state of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion, soon to experience “excessively warm” weather in Nauvoo’s early swampland with disease-carrying mosquitos all around them.
The death rate among these noble, faithful Saints was “well above” the national average at the time according to one analysis. Those sad losses included many children, including the 14-month-old baby boy of Joseph and Emma, Don Carlos.
We rightly celebrate the demonstration of God’s priesthood power in that Nauvoo period to heal many. But notice what the Lord did not do. He did not just “make things better.” After all, He could have said, “hey, these are my people – no way am I going to let malaria take them out…” Or, he could have come to Joseph Smith and said: “Psst, mosquitos…” in a way that could have delivered them more quickly.
Eventually, of course, this is precisely what the Saints felt guided to do. They drained the swampland and became immediately less vulnerable. But it took many years for things like improved sanitation, better water, and safer food, to become generalized in society in a way that helped to eradicate diseases like malaria, and cholera. [In fact, in the next 50 years – exactly parallel with the restored gospel expanding over the earth – I find it fascinating that common epidemics of cholera, smallpox, malaria and typhoid were virtually eliminated, thanks to these kinds of improvements in living conditions: handwashing, refrigeration of foods, purification of water, sewage systems, etc].
This is the story that has burned in me when I’ve tried to make sense of the emotional burdens of depression and anxiety that have burdened even our own people in recent decades (although not as much as the rest of the world). Like the earlier Saints, we simply haven’t been aware of everything contributing to disease – or facilitating its healing. In both cases, God had not revealed yet all that would have delivered our people out of so much of the pain.
The early Saints were in the middle of nearly impossible circumstances. And we are too. But this time, it’s not mosquitos, lack of food, and angry mobs. It’s a spiritual and emotional assault beyond what anyone has experienced before. Listen to what John the Revelator says about our day: the dragon “was [enraged] at the [church] and declared war against…all who keep God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” And then in the next chapter he says about “the beast was permitted to wage war with the Saints and to overcome them.” Six hundred years earlier, the prophet Daniel foresaw in vision a fantastic entity that “spake very great things” (and sure sounds a lot like media’s modern day megaphone) and “made war with the saints, and prevailed against them.”
Whatever part of that is still in the future, don’t we all feel that starting to happen today – with the numbers among us succumbing to addiction, despair, family dissolution, etc.?
Maybe this is why President Nelson has been pleading – over and over (and over) for us to receive divine power – to “stretch” like we’ve never stretched before to receive personal revelation, to “reach up for the Lord’s power in [our lives] with the same intensity that a drowning person has when grasping and gasping for air,” and “to implement extraordinary measures – perhaps measures we have never taken before – to strengthen our personal spiritual foundations [in these] unprecedented times.”
That’s not what you say when you see smooth sailing ahead. Our prophet sees what’s coming.
Could it be that some of the increased power and foundation-strengthening the Lord wants to see in our lives is for greater emotional healing and resilience to come into our homes? If that is true for you, I bear witness of further light and knowledge our God has revealed to help us find just that – just as he did with physical disease in previous eras.
Further light and knowledge. What I’ll be reviewing below isn’t just my ideas or philosophy. There are literally tens of thousands of studies backing up what I’m about to say.
Dr. Neil Nedley was a primary care physician in Oklahoma helping people facing depression, but his patients were overwhelmed. And he was noticing the medical support he was giving them wasn’t often helping people get to a better place. So, he took a leave from his practice, and spent months reviewing the published medical literature – searching for anything shown to contribute to a vulnerability to depression. What he found blew him away, with thousands of peer-reviewed studies confirming hundreds of factors that can set up someone up for depression and anxiety. If you, for instance, don’t move your body around a lot, don’t get much sunshine, eat and drink like a normal American, consume media like a normal American, stress out like a normal American, experience trauma in the past that still hangs on your back, become sleep deficient, feel distance and isolation like a normal American…guess what? If that’s how your life goes, you should be depressed. Your brain would be working right – not wrong.
That’s what the research suggests. After the brain gets hit by enough of these things, it shifts into a different, depressed state. One researcher at the University of Kansas has said, “Our brains just weren’t designed to handle the sedentary, socially isolated, indoor, sleep-deprived, poorly nourished, stressed-out pace of twenty-first-century life.” Researchers at the University of Washington have argued that we are living in a “depressogenic society” making its members “more prone to depression on a number of levels” – almost like a petri dish where depression is being incubated.
That may sound like bad news. But it’s not. Because if we know that – if we recognize the hundreds of contributors to depression and anxiety – we can actually do something about them, even in our own homes.
I’ll never forget a depression recovery class I was teaching when a woman came up to me after taking a survey we gave everyone showing the wide spectrum of possible factors influencing her depression (click here to review that survey for yourself or for a child). She said, “I have nine risk factors for depression!” with clear excitement. But why? Because for the first time in her life – after 15 years of being resigned to having to simply endure a life-long brain disorder, she understood clearly that there was a lot more she could do about this. And rather than just “managing” that disorder for the rest of her life, those choices could start to literally change her brain in positive ways. Listen to these summaries of what brain scientists today believe:
- “The brain [has an] astonishing power to learn and unlearn, to adapt and change, to carry with it the inscriptions of our experiences. (Dr. Schwartz OCD expert at UCLA)
- “The structure of the brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience….and can refine and retune itself every day of our lives.” (Science journalist Gary Marcus)
Compare that with how you hear most people saying about mental illness these days. Like when I asked one woman, “How would you define depression?” And she told me, “It’s that little glitch in my brain that doesn’t produce the chemical that lets me be happy and content.” If that’s what you believe, it’s going to be pretty hard to have much hope in any healing, let alone believe that your own choices could make a real difference.
Now let me be very clear – we’re not talking here about realizing you can just “choose to be happy.” No, that’s not the choice for many. The choice they have is what to do with everything else in their life beyond just their immediate mood. It’s what you do between depressive episodes or anxiety attacks – what you do between struggles with an addictive pattern – that will largely determine whether you will move towards deeper healing (or not).
Dr. Nedley, who I mentioned earlier, took all this information and started teaching it to his patients with depression. What he found is that if he could reduce people’s overall depression vulnerability from 8 or 9 or 12 risk factors, down to 4 or 5 – they would inevitably start to feel better. That’s not just an anecdote. In a study of 4200 people, his research team found that over 90% of people facing both depression and anxiety found some significant improvement – with 85% having a response rate of at least 50% reduction in symptoms.
That’s pretty remarkable, but it isn’t the first time someone has taken this approach, by the way. One of my friends, Dave Larsen, has dedicated his life to exploring a similar approach with Alzheimer’s – where a “healthful diet, physical and mental activity” have been shown to help “reduce risk of Alzheimer’s dementia by 60%.” And it’s not just prevention. One study found 9 out of 10 people having symptoms reverse when they make incremental changes number of lifestyle area. (You can learn more about this here or in Dave’s Ensign article last August or by contacting him directly, [email protected]). As a second quick example, Dr. Stephen Aldana studied a very similar “therapeutic lifestyle approach” to heart disease in hundreds of people. Basically, he helped encourage them to exercise 25% more, while dramatically improving their daily intake of fruit, vegetable, whole grains – and was stunned to learn that health risks could improve dramatically in as little as six weeks, with benefits maintained even up to 18 months after this program began.
Okay, so is that kind of lasting, sustainable healing even possible for depression?
Check this out: Dr. Stephen Ilardi at the University of Kansas tried the same thing as that Oklahoma doctor I’ve been telling you about – bringing depressed people into their clinic, and then giving them coaching to make 6 or 7 major lifestyle changes. And here’s what Dr. Ilardi’s team found: “We’ve yet to see someone put the entire protocol into practice without experiencing significant improvement.” Every patient who put the full program into practice got better” (defined as experiencing at least a 50% reduction in depression symptoms) – including people who didn’t experience improvements from other approaches. These improvements were maintained at a 6-month follow-up – with no significant relapse after completion of the program.
So, why am I quoting statistics like this in a religiously oriented essay? Because this is an approach bringing people lasting healing from depression and anxiety – rather than just coping, and managing, and enduring year after year after year. And I believe it represents some of the further light and knowledge the Lord is making available to us today.
These results are so unbelievable that few professionals even believe they’re possible. That’s why you likely haven’t heard about it. How to introduce this to more people has become my life’s work – and why I’m working at a tech company making apps that help people adopt a “therapeutic lifestyle approach” in seeking deeper healing and freedom from depression and anxiety (Lift), chemical dependency (Turn) and pornography addiction (Fortify).
Is healing even possible for me? Sometimes I wish I could put on a nametag and go door to door asking – “do you have someone facing depression or anxiety, ADHD or schizophrenia? I have some good news for you.” Once again, sadly enough, most people – professionals and normal folks – have given up on the idea that lasting healing is even possible for these conditions.
Fifteen years ago, during my dissertation research, I asked a woman I was interviewing, “Do you ever talk about getting better from depression?” She responded, “I don’t think that’s possible. I want it to, but a couple years ago, I just faced it that I’m always gonna have to have something.”
I asked her, “Who told you that you don’t get better?” She responded, “Well my initial diagnosis – they said this is something permanent. This isn’t something that you’ll ever not have.”
This isn’t an exception or an anomaly. I’ve come to recognize it’s what almost everyone – on every condition, including seizures, including cancer, and perhaps especially with mental and emotional disorders – are being told. And what an added weight that creates! We take someone already burdened with something like depression, then tell them a depressing story about depression that would bum anyone out! One woman I interviewed told me that her suicidal thoughts started “the same day” her doctor told her that her depression was “life-long.”
If science confirmed that depression was life-long, then we should be telling people that. But it hasn’t. Not only is that message fundamentally at odds with the best research out there (and the recent history of depression too) – it’s also profoundly at odds with the Christian message itself, which is all about mighty changes and transformation and restorations and a God “making all things new.”
Okay, you might be thinking…so maybe this kind of deeper healing is possible for minor depression and people without chemical imbalances and biological issues. But for people with serious mental illness – none of this applies, right?
Except that it does. Even people with severe mental illness – locked in the hospital – have found remarkable healing. I’ve been collecting their stories. So, don’t let anyone tell you that “some people can recover,” but you or your child have “something different.”
I’m not saying you will get better soon. I’m saying there is a way. So, don’t give up on it. Maybe just leave the future possibilities open. As one woman told me, “Never predict the recovery of another person.”
Into that wide-open future, we can trust the Lord to lead us – showing us whatever He wants us to find, and supporting us no matter what that ends up being.
CLICK HERE for part two.