On Mental Health
[Given by Emily Juchau at the Back-to-School Fireside for Parents, August 2015.]
The Juchau family doesn’t believe in “grounding.” When we get in trouble, we have to speak at stake events.
I’d like to start out by telling you a happy story. About ten months ago, my family went on a brief trip to Disneyland. And that’s the end of the happy part of the story; it’s all terrible from here on out. When you go to Disneyland, you don’t really expect to leave with the kind of life lessons you can talk about in church, but that’s just a reminder that horrible things can happen to you anywhere. Constant vigilance.
Anyway, we were all looking forward to the trip, because it’s Disneyland, the alleged “happiest place on Earth.” I was especially excited because my job was and is pretty high-stress. Disneyland seemed like the perfect way to de-stress, especially considering that I’d been feeling anxiety for about a month before the vacation. Just little, uncomfortable moments when I experienced fear when there was nothing to be afraid of, but it was manageable, and I figured that by getting out of Utah for a while I might also get out of my own head.
To my eternal chagrin—and this is an example of the kind of classic irony that would make my life a great sitcom—the opposite happened. Instead of feeling better, I felt worse, and two days into our trip, while we were standing in line for a ride, at Disneyland, I experienced my first-ever full-fledged panic attack.
It was horrible. I was weak and nauseated and cold—my whole body was shaking, and I thought I might faint or throw up or drop dead. It was so terrifying that my parents took me out of the park to a nearby Urgent Care. There, the nurses took samples of my blood and an EKG, and the doctor diagnosed me with a basic panic disorder. I remember that he came into the room where I was waiting with my parents to receive this information, and he said, “Well, Emily, what in the world are you so worried about?”
At the time, I was too ill to think clearly. If I’d been in my right mind, I may have responded, “Well, doctor, I’m a junior in college studying English in a world where an English degree won’t get you anywhere. The cost of tuition is rising, and so are nationwide unemployment rates. I work in a field that is shrinking more and more by the minute. I don’t know why I’m shaking; I don’t know why I want to vomit; I wish my body would remember how to breathe. Meanwhile the Ebola virus is running rampant on the other side of the world, earthquakes ravage and ruin lives in Chile, China, and Nepal, and you can’t even go to a movie theater or a first grade classroom without wondering whether you’ll get shot. What in the world, doctor, shouldn’t I be worried about?”
What I actually said was something like “Ebola and stuff.” So he prescribed Xanax, and I spent the last two days of our vacation in a drugged stupor.
I wish I could say that everything’s been uphill from there, but that isn’t true. Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, I can take a little white pill every morning and feel just like normal. But it took a while to find the correct dosage, and until then I continued having occasional panic attacks, sometimes at home, sometimes at work, sometimes in class. Sometimes I still have moments of anxiety. I never found a good therapist, and in fact it’s nearly impossible to schedule a first-time appointment fewer than four months in advance, which ought to tell you exactly how prevalent my problem, and problems like mine, are.
Mental illness, I think, isn’t a topic we’re very comfortable with, despite how widespread it is. We live in a society that stigmatizes it. We know how to sympathize with cancer patients and amputees, but we freeze up when we hear about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder or anxiety and depression. Our brains are our most important assets; when they fail, even if it’s only for a minute, we get very nervous. We don’t even want to talk about our own struggles with mental health, because we worry that we’ll seem crazy or needy or pathetic. Although we’re social creatures who require the acceptance and warmth of others, we believe that if we stay silent, our minds will heal themselves and we can return to normal independently.
I will be the first to tell you that there are wounds you can keep to yourself. Frankly, no one cares about a papercut—you put a Band-Aid on it, it’ll be all better within two days, and complaining won’t get you anywhere. But for some reason, we have the same attitude about mental health, and that’s about the dumbest move we could possibly make, because you can’t fix a disorder of the mind with a Band-Aid. A depressed person cannot simply square their shoulders and smile to feel better, and someone having a panic attack can’t just tell themselves to calm down. When I’m having a panic attack, believe me, I would like nothing more than to calm down. The problem is that my brain won’t let me.
The Shakespeare play Hamlet comes to mind, probably because I’m an English major and I’ve studied it about seven times in the last three years. Hamlet’s mental health is one of the most important conflicts of the play; he seems to be depressed and struggles with thoughts of suicide. Early on in the play, long before his famous “to be or not to be” speech, he outlines what he’s going through, from his father’s death to his mother’s rapid remarriage, to how horrible and betrayed it makes him feel. He wishes that he could explain these problems but feels he can’t. “Break, my heart,” he says, “for I must hold my tongue.”
He chooses, fatally, as it turns out, for himself and for his friends and family, to stay silent. Break, my heart, for I held my tongue.
My friends, we are not meant to suffer in silence. God did not make us social creatures only so we could deny ourselves and each other sympathy and aid in our times of greatest need. We don’t read of many instances of mental illness in the scriptures, but I am reminded of the moments leading up to the Atonement, when Christ requested that Peter, James, and John stay awake and pray while he went into the garden to do what would amount to the greatest and most difficult act in the fabric of our universe. While Luke focuses on Christ’s physical agony and the drops of blood like sweat from his every pore, Matthew lingers on his emotional state, writing that Christ was “sorrowful” and “very heavy.” It seems to me that Christ, when he was about to face the greatest possible pain known to the history of the world, felt the kind of depression and fear that can render us immobile. And although he was empowered with divine strength and courage, he asked for help. He wanted his friends. He needed his Father. That didn’t make him weak or pathetic or needy. It serves as a reminder to me every day that some things I cannot and should not do alone.
I urge you to be open about your mental health, with yourselves, with each other, and especially with your children. Kids sort of believe that adulthood means having the solution to every problem and never needing help, when in fact the opposite is true. It’s the hope of every parent that their child or children will grow up to be happy and healthy and successful, and I promise you that they will be happier, healthier, and more successful for having grown up in a home where mental illness isn’t a secret, where they have learned to respond to their own inner problems and to empathize with the problems of others.
Your kids are entering a new school year, whether they do so as college students, like me, or as teenagers or even as smaller children, and although I am not a parent, it is my incredible privilege to give you parenting advice anyway.
First, promote mental wellness in your homes. The first thing my physician told me when I visited him about my anxiety was that I should focus on following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting an appropriate amount of sleep. These steps are crucial. Our mental health is intertwined with our physical health. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, you know that the following day is usually miserable—lack of sleep makes us irrational and cranky. But the symptoms of sleep deprivation are immediate, whereas improper dieting and a lack of exercise may take more time and have subtler results. Provide an example for your children by taking care of yourselves, and encourage them to do the same.
Our mental health is also related to our spiritual health. Does that mean every inactive church member suffers from depression? Not at all. Does that mean that having depression or anxiety makes you spiritually deficient? Again, no. When we talk of spirituality and spiritual health in the LDS Church, I think we often try to simplify it into an easy, understandable check list. Do you say your prayers every morning and night? Do you read your scriptures? Do you go to church on Sunday? Those steps are important, but remember that atheists can still be mentally healthy, and people who attend religious services every week can still be mentally unwell. What matters is your own, deeply personal relationship with God. If you feel that your spiritual health is suffering, despite checking everything off your to-do list, counsel with your bishop.
Remember also that you can’t force spirituality. If you have a child who is suffering a crisis of faith and no longer wishes to attend church, there are healthier ways—for you and your child—to deal with that than by compelling them to go. Be open and communicative with your children; listen to what they have to say; again, counsel with your bishop; and above all, remain faithful. Sometimes all we can do is wait.
Second, understand that adolescence is much harder now than it has ever been. In our economy, getting a job isn’t guaranteed. Understandably, we try to raise children to be hireable in an extremely competitive job market, so of course they have to go to college. But to get in to college, they’ll need a 4.0 GPA and a 36 on the ACT, not to mention AP classes and extracurricular activities. So your kids have to study whenever they’re not at mutual or after-school soccer practice or learning to play the harp or going to the literacy center to teach less privileged children how to read. And, they have to pay for college, while tuition costs are rising every year. So your kid also needs a part-time job, the second they turn sixteen and the state will let them work. And we wonder why they’re falling asleep in class!
As pressures rise, so does the importance of taking care of mental health. What’s the point of getting your kid into college if, after they get there, they struggle so much with depression or anxiety that it’s impossible to get out of bed in the morning to go to class? In our quest for a future, we’re forgetting the present, which should be unforgettable. Relax. Let your kids relax. Don’t expect perfection; don’t demand perfection. We all need a mental health day now and then, so I say, let the kids cut class and take them to a movie. Yeah, they need a job eventually, and they should get an education, but you can find a balance between building hireable adults and having happy children.
Third, mental illness isn’t always explainable. Sometimes it just happens. We might be doing everything medically possible to stay sane—exercising and sleeping well and eating correctly; we might be handling daily stresses in an appropriate way—but there can and will still be times in our lives and in the lives of our children when we simply become overwhelmed, the same way you might get the flu even if you’re washing your hands frequently. You can’t vaccinate yourself against mental illness. In Romans we read that “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience, experience; and experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed.” I love the use of the word glory. We don’t just deal with hard things, we welcome them; we’re proud of them. It’s hard to remind yourself that tribulation worketh patience, and patience, experience when you’re in the middle of a panic attack, or when you feel so depressed that you can’t get out of bed. It’s hard, when we’re feeling broken, to remember that, in the words of Jeffrey R. Holland, “we chose to live in a fallen world where for divine purposes our pursuit of godliness will be tried again and again.” But we did choose this world, with all its tribulations, and for that we have great reason to hope.
Lastly, I ask you to take your children’s mental health very seriously. If your child came to you with a broken bone, you wouldn’t tell them to walk it off—you’d rush them to the hospital. Similarly, it is unacceptable to dismiss even the less evident signs of breakage in health as the result of hormones or teenage mood swings or just discouragement. Elder Holland says that depression, and here I will add that this could refer to any form of mental illness, is “an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively.” Depression and anxiety are not exclusive to adulthood. And even if it is just a mood swing, listen and learn. Validate their feelings. Express love and acceptance, no matter what.
Your children may not always tell you what they are going through. That’s the Band-Aid mentality. As a teenager, the last thing you want to do is ask for help from your parents; you want to prove that you’re independent and can fix it by yourself. That’s why it’s critical to be open about your own mental health, and to display love and acceptance for those who struggle with mental illness. You can also be on the look-out for warning signs, which include fatigue, insomnia, consistent aches and pains, difficulty concentrating, and changes in personality. Though there’s no easy fix for mental illness, you can help by offering comfort, educating yourself on what they’re going through, and ultimately seeking help from professionals.
Mental illness isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s not an indicator of spiritual deficiency; it is not God’s way of punishing us. It is just something that happens—in the broad spectrum of mental malfunctions, many, many things can go wrong. In Biblical times, mental illness was understood in terms of demonic possession—Christ healed many men and women who were “possessed” by devils, which probably simply meant that they struggled with their mental health.
As Christ offered healing then, so does he now. In the ninth chapter of John, Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath. It’s one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. It starts with Christ’s disciples indicating the blind man and asking, “Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
And here I might point out that you can substitute blindness with any infirmity, physical or mental. Who did sin, this child or his parents, that he was born with major depressive disorder? That he was born with crippling anxiety, or debilitating phobias, or compulsions, or manic-depressive mood swings? Who did sin?
“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
I can’t imagine being that man, being blind from birth, living in total darkness, believing that you’ll never see the sun, or the earth, or your loved ones’ faces. That you’ll never read, or walk in new places without help, or understand what people mean when they speak of color and light. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like, after a lifetime of blindness, to have an entire new world made accessible to you because one man stopped, and made clay, and rubbed it in your eyes. Sometimes mental illness can feel like total darkness, but I testify to you that He is the Light. He is the Way. He can open our eyes, and even if that’s not tomorrow, even if that’s not in the moment when we feel like we need it most, it will happen.
And until then, we live our flawed and broken lives so that the works of God should be made manifest in us, and we must remember that the paramount work of God was the Atonement of his Son, to which we have access every day. The Savior didn’t come here to save perfect people. He came here to save us, and for that reason, we need not be ashamed of our hope. He loves us; He died for us; He wants us to be happy, and He knows that long-term joy and divinity can only be achieved by doing hard things now. Our path may not always be easy, but the obstacles in our way are mere blips in the grand scheme of eternity, and with His help and grace, we can overcome them. Our future is so, so bright.
I testify of the love of our Savior and of our Heavenly Father. I testify that no matter what you are enduring, you are very much not alone. Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” So keep going. You will find that your Savior walks beside you. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.