Barriers to Belief:
Mental Distress and Disaffection from the Church

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Abstract: People leave the Church for a variety of reasons. Of all the reasons why people leave, one that has attracted little or no attention is the influence of mental distress. People who experience anxiety or depression see things differently than those who do not. Recognizing that people with mental distress have a different experience with church than others may help us to make adjustments that can prevent some amount of disaffection from the Church. This article takes a first step in identifying ways that mental distress can affect church activity and in presenting some of the things that individuals, friends, family members and Church leaders can do to help make being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints a little easier for those who experience mental distress.

[Editor’s Note: This paper was presented at the 2018 FairMormon Conference in Provo, Utah, August 2, 2018.1 To prepare it for publication, it has been source checked and copy edited; otherwise it appears here as first presented.]

We probably all know people who have left the Church. Often, people become involved in apologetics because they want to help convince their friends or family members who have left the Church to come back. Or they want to understand why the friend or family member left. Or they want to help prevent others from leaving.

[Page 72]About 25 years ago, one of my best friends left the Church. I have struggled to understand why this young man, who was raised in the Church, had served a mission and was married in the temple, later left the Church. Other close friends, extended family members, and immediate family members have also left the Church. As a result I have thought a lot about why. I have had conversations with people who have left, I have studied perhaps hundreds of stories that have been shared online, and I have examined survey results and scientific literature to gain some understanding of their perspectives. Along the way, I’ve also met with many therapists and researchers. Dr. Geret Giles is one of those, and I’m grateful for his willingness to join me in making this presentation.

We would like now to share some observations with you, and I hope that this kind of discussion will help all of us to be better shepherds. We have come to understand that many factors contribute to disaffection from the Church. I’ll begin with a general discussion of this topic, but we will then focus on mental distress as one of the many factors that can contribute to disaffection from the Church. And when we say “mental or emotional distress,” we intend to include not only mental illness but also distress that perhaps falls short of meeting all the criteria for a clinical diagnosis. Mental and emotional distress can impact all of us even if we are not actually diagnosed with mental illness. And while mental distress is not the only factor (and perhaps not even the predominant factor), it is worth examining and understanding the role it may play in the development of a faith crisis as we seek to lift one another’s burdens.

Disaffection from the Church is not new. Before we even came to this world, a third part of the host of Heaven turned away from God (Revelation 12:4; D&C 29:36). We can read throughout the scriptures stories of the children of “goodly parents” who denied their faith. But the reasons are not always clear.

In more recent times, we have all been aware of those among us who have drifted away. Growing up, I had relatives and neighbors who simply appeared to have lost interest in religion and just became more interested in doing other things on Sunday. We may have attributed their disaffection to the fact that they were offended or that they couldn’t stop smoking or that they really liked the taste of coffee. Or they may have quietly continued attending church — even though they had lost their faith — for fear of becoming social outcasts in a large community of believers.

One thing different today is that there are more ways for people to share their stories of disaffection about the Church than ever before. And [Page 73]the fact that there are new outlets for sharing these stories has perhaps emboldened people to be more open about their loss of faith.

It is not hard now to find a new community on the internet — a community of nonbelievers, a community with whom one can share one’s story of disaffection from the Church and instead of shock, fear and dismay, encounter compassion, understanding, and encouragement. Therefore, in seeking to prevent disaffection from the Church, it is more important now than ever that we extend compassion, understanding, and encouragement to those who express feelings of pain, doubt, and discouragement while they are still in the Church. We must prepare to address the sincere crisis with compassion and truth. After all, if people who are experiencing a faith crisis find more comfort and compassion outside of Christ’s community, we probably are not doing what Jesus would do.

Of course, some of the comfort offered outside the community of believers is false comfort, and we should be clear about that. One thing often said by online critics is that Church membership is in decline and that even Elder Marlin K. Jensen admitted that people are “leaving in droves.” However, it is not true that membership is in decline nor that Elder Jensen said that people are “leaving in droves.”2 In fact, once people started claiming that Elder Jensen had said this, it was reported in the Washington Post that Elder Jensen insisted that critics of the Church were overstating the Mormon exodus over the Church’s history. He was quoted as saying, “To say we are experiencing some Titanic-like wave of apostasy is inaccurate.”3 He is, however, concerned about people encountering troubling information on the internet and leaving the Church.

In the face of growing membership rolls for the Church internationally, critics of the Church claim there is actually a wave of apostasy simply obscured in the Church’s official numbers, since many people leave the Church and do not remove their names from the rolls. However, this speculation is refuted by the data. Attendance at other predominantly white, Christian churches in America is in decline. But researchers have noted that “there is little evidence to suggest that [The [Page 74]Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints is] experiencing similar declines.” 4 While it is true that church growth in the United States has slowed, when Americans are asked what Church they belong to, the same proportion of people, 1.9%, claimed they were Latter day Saints in 2017 as they did in 2011.

It has been reported that Christian millennials in general, not just Latter day Saint millennials, are “leaving in droves.”5 It is therefore significant to note that “Mormons are also much younger than other white Christian religious traditions. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of Mormons are under the age of 30. Fewer than half (41%) are age 50 or older.”6 In light of the fact that our church is younger than other churches and yet is not shrinking like other churches, it seems, as Mark Twain might say, the reports of the death of the Church are greatly exaggerated.

Of course, reports that people are leaving in droves may help those who leave the Church to feel more confident in their decisions, especially as they join online communities. When someone close to you leaves the Church, something shifts. The taboo against leaving diminishes, and the social prohibition that says leaving the Church is something you should not do also fades. Social media amplifies that because more people hear about it. As people feel supported in their decision to leave the Church and emboldened in finding they are not alone, we hear more about why they left. The bright side of this is that it gives us the opportunity to understand and to prepare a wiser, more compassionate, and more effective ministry to those who are struggling.

It can come as a surprise to those who have assumed that people leave only because they were sinning to hear all variety of reasons why people have left. It may also have come as a surprise to hear President Uchtdorf say that “sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations.”7 In fact, when the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked more than 2,800 Americans why they had decided to join a new church or leave religion [Page 75]behind entirely, “the answers were so varied that analysts nearly ran out of codes to categorize them.”8

Discussions regarding loss of faith among Latter day Saints commonly identify intellectual or social factors such as troubling historical or doctrinal issues9 or social or cultural factors such as not feeling like they belonged among Latter day Saints or simply wanting to do other things with their time.10 So there is not just one reason all people leave. But it is also true that for any one person, probably a complicated variety of factors led to an exit from the Church.

In my personal experience of examining the stories of people who have left the Church, I’ve found that people often point to some incident that ignited a flame under them, creating severe emotional pain. When the flame was not extinguished, it became too difficult to stay in the Church. They may have identified some point of doctrine or episode [Page 76]of history or a policy of the Church. Some have acknowledged being offended by a Church leader or other member. Some have reported that due to shame or guilt, they stayed away and found it difficult to return. And, of course, there are a myriad of other reasons.

Unfortunately, believers can sometimes dismiss the doubter’s pain. For every person who identifies one particular issue that led to his or her exit, there are many others who have encountered the same issue and have decided to stay. Church apologists familiar with the arguments against the Church and the responses to those arguments are sometimes guilty of exclaiming, “They left because of that? That’s just silly!” Every member of the Church has encountered difficult doctrinal or historical issues. All members have been offended or felt like they did not fit in. And every member has sinned (Romans 3:23). So when those of us who stay hear that someone left because of one particular issue, we may find it hard to understand unless it is an issue with which we have also personally struggled. And even then, we may conclude that we stayed, so that person should too.

Of course, some who have left the Church find it difficult to understand how we can stay. They often assume that if we just knew what they knew, if we just watched this movie, or if we read that letter, we wouldn’t stay either. They are surprised to learn that many of us know everything they know but choose to stay anyway. And just as there are a variety of reasons why people leave, there are a variety of reasons why people stay. We hope the reasons we stay may help others see how they, too, can stay. However, because we are always ready to give a reason for the hope within us, we should do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). We should not trivialize, demonize, or dismiss those who choose to leave. We don’t embrace the apostasy, of course, but we should seek to understand and love the lost sheep and, where we can, offer comfort, care, and compassion.

Whether one leaves or stays, a complex set of factors is involved. Once some incident lights a flame of discontent, various other experiences may feed the flame. For example, a person who is disturbed by some item of history or doctrine may begin to find it harder to avoid taking offense at the actions of Church leaders and Church policies. A person who feels overwhelmed by the demands of a religion that calls upon us to become “perfect” (Matthew 5:48) may stumble upon upsetting issues related to Church doctrine or history and feel relieved at the thought that perhaps it isn’t true anyway. A variety of social, historical, doctrinal, spiritual, [Page 77]and intellectual factors combine, so that if a person does not find a way to douse the flame of distress, he or she will feel compelled to escape.

Along with social, historical, doctrinal, spiritual, and intellectual factors, psychology may also play a prominent role in many cases. This concept first dawned on me as I searched for answers to the question of why people leave the Church. As I looked for common factors among those closest to me and among the stories of others who have shared their experiences on the internet, it occurred to me that many who leave the Church comment on the mental illnesses they are also experiencing. As I began to explore the possible connection between mental distress and disaffection from the Church, I found an emerging body of scientific literature that helps explain how depression and anxiety disorders can possibly contribute to disaffection from the Church.

A 2015 survey conducted by Michelle Medeiros, a non-Mormon PhD candidate at Palo Alto University, found that “more religious Mormons were more likely to report lower levels of obsessions and compulsions, and, correspondingly, less religious Mormons were more likely to report higher levels of these traits.” 11 One could say that either OCD is causing a decrease in religiosity, or a decrease in religiosity is causing an increase in OCD. However, because OCD has a strong biological component, it seems more likely that OCD may be causing a decrease in religiosity among Mormons.

Scientists have also observed that “there are major similarities in information processing between anxious and depressed patients. In both groups, maladaptive schemata systematically distort the processes involved in the perception, storage, and retrieval of information.”12 In other words, people with depression and anxiety see things differently and remember things differently.13 It has also been postulated that “‘an anxious patient will be hypersensitive to any aspects of a situation that are potentially harmful but will not respond to its benign or positive aspects.’ There is plentiful evidence that anxious individuals [Page 78]selectively allocate processing resources to threatening rather than to non threatening stimuli.”14 “Non-anxious individuals, if anything, show the opposite kind of bias.”15

To illustrate this point, two friends of mine who are married were burglarized once while they were at church. She is anxious and he is not. It haunts her to remember how he left a side door unlocked, which allowed the burglar to enter their home while they were away. She ruminates on what might have happened if they had surprised the intruder by returning while he was there. Despite his wife’s distress, he still forgets to lock doors. When he is home he doesn’t lock the door to the house or garage, even at night. By contrast, she locks doors whenever possible, including times when she has locked him out of the house while he mowed the lawn. Their psychology results in completely different evaluation of likely threats, even after experiencing the same burglary through an unlocked door.

A substantial body of research that exists demonstrates that anxious people, whether diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or who simply have an anxious disposition, are drawn to threatening information, tend to dwell on threatening information longer than others, and tend to interpret information in a threatening way when the information is ambiguous.16 Whether they [Page 79]experience a social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder, they have a harder time ignoring information they perceive as threatening.17

When the future is unclear, people who experience anxiety and depression tend to expect the negative and tend to expect the results to be more costly when compared to those who are not anxious or depressed.18

This research makes it easier to understand how two people can encounter the same information and respond to it in very different ways. Consider how this may play out when encountering information regarding Church history, policies, doctrine, or ambiguous social situations. An anxious person will tend to focus on the threatening information and will tend to think about it longer, and when it is open to multiple interpretations, an anxious person will tend to interpret it in a more threatening way. If you are generally more likely to identify a situation as threatening and more likely to expect the results of the issue to be devastating, your experience with challenging issues at Church is more likely to be painful and hard to ignore or dismiss.

For many of us, when we encounter Church history or doctrine that is upsetting or hard to understand, we find some relief in “putting it on the shelf.” We stop thinking about it and perhaps come back to it later when we have more information. However, those who are anxious or depressed seem to experience difficulties in ignoring or forgetting negative information.19 It is more difficult for them to divert their attention from threatening information.20 Many people cannot just “put things on the shelf” and forget about them. Instead, issues they find threatening just keep piling up but do not easily leave the forefront of their minds. In light of this, it is interesting to note that many ex-Latter day Saints talk about how, after putting so many things “on the shelf,” their shelf finally broke. It is therefore important to ask how we might help unburden a loaded [Page 80]shelf before it breaks, strengthen the shelf, or repair a broken shelf and clean up the shattered mess beneath it.

In many instances you don’t need a scientific study to tell that depression and anxiety can reduce Church activity. If someone is lying in bed for most of the day due to depression, that probably explains why he or she is not coming to Church on Sunday morning. We may wrongly assume such people have been offended or have lost their faith for some reason, without considering that those persons may need to be treated for depression. In the past, some bishops have maybe even felt reluctant to refer someone to a psychologist. However, the Church now provides bishops with resources to address mental illness, and lds. org21 even lists phone numbers people can call, along with information on how to respond to mental illness. So as we minister to others and seek to build faith, it is important to recognize how mental distress can affect our experience at Church. Inactivity due to mental health issues may spiral into a faith crisis. Faith comes by hearing the word (Romans 10:17), and faith grows as we nourish the seeds of faith (Alma 32:37). Faith may begin to wither and weaken when persons reduce activity in the Church and isolate themselves from hearing the word.

Anxiety psychology probably impacts church participation in significant numbers in ways we may not have considered. Another interesting study is being conducted by Jana Reiss, who commissioned a survey of 541 former Latter day Saints to determine why they left the Church. She reports that among millennials, tied for first place among the reasons they gave for leaving the Church was that they “felt judged or misunderstood.”22 This is especially interesting in light of the fact that “the defining feature of social anxiety disorder, also [sometimes] called social phobia, is intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively [Page 81]evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” 23 Of course, all of us experience some concern over being judged by others. But when the concern has begun to interfere with normal activities, this ordinary concern may develop into a psychological disorder. This is a condition that “affects approximately 15 million American adults and is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobia. The average age of onset for social anxiety disorder is during the teenage years,” just the time when we see many begin to drift away from the Church. There are effective treatments available for social anxiety disorders through therapies and other means. Sadly, “despite the availability of effective treatments, fewer than 5% of people of with social anxiety disorder seek treatment in the year following initial onset and more than a third of people report symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.”24

Our Church expects us to be social. We are expected to speak and pray in Church, to teach lessons, read things aloud, answer questions in class, and call people on the phone, and we are sometimes asked to knock on the doors of strangers and ask them if they are willing to drastically change their lives. These are difficult things for anyone to do, but they can be among the hardest to do or simply impossible when someone experiences an anxiety disorder. Someone may be sitting in the lobby during sacrament meeting because he or she finds it difficult to be in a room with a large group. Or someone may go home after sacrament meeting because he or she feels worn out after spending an hour in a crowd of people and needs to take a break. We may wrongfully assume the person has a weak testimony. As a consequence, we may begin to treat such a person as one who lacks faith or who has repudiated us and our faith. If such people begin to experience a sense of rejection, they may further distance themselves from members of the Church, they may seek out more supportive communities, or tragically, they may simply suffer in isolation. It is not hard to imagine how this kind of separation from members of the Church and Church activity can ultimately result in a loss of testimony.

Similarly, a person who turns down a request to pray in church or give a talk may not have a lack of faith but may simply have a fear of speaking in public. “As a syndrome, social phobia is the third most common psychiatric disorder, with estimated life-time prevalence rates [Page 82]of 7‒13 per cent.”25 “The fear of public speaking is called glossophobia (or, informally, stage fright). It is believed to be the single most common phobia, affecting as much as 75% of the population.”26 It is said that people are more scared of public speaking than they are of dying. So when you attend a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.

Someone who experiences maladaptive perfectionism or scrupulosity may feel overwhelmed with guilt and a painful sense of inadequacy in listening to a speaker talk about how her family reads the scriptures together every day or how her life was changed by a ministering brother or sister who came every month or how much she enjoys going to the temple every week. As others talk about how energized and uplifted they felt during the talk, a person with anxiety or depression may feel alone, scared and hopeless as that person wonders whether he or she really belongs in this church and whether going to heaven is really wanted if such perfect performance is expected.

Let me share one example of how mental distress can affect a faithful person and how wise leaders and family members can adapt the Church’s standardized ideals to meet the needs of individual circumstances.

We all know that Steve Young did not serve a mission. I always assumed the reason was that he felt a need to develop his football career, and considering the great influence he has been, I’ve never faulted him for that. But I was surprised to learn recently that he wanted badly to serve a mission, and the reason he did not had nothing to do with football. At the time he decided he would not serve a mission, he had been the eighth-string quarterback and had recently been moved to playing defense. More importantly, his decision had nothing to do with a lack of faith. Rather, as he thought about being away from home for two years, he began to feel overwhelmed with anxiety. It had been so difficult for him just to travel to Provo to go to school that he had not actually unpacked his clothes during the entire fall semester. Once he came home for the Christmas break, he decided to talk to his bishop and tell him he could not go on a mission. He felt terribly guilty.

[Page 83]But as he told his bishop that he decided it was best for him to continue going to BYU, his bishop told him about an impression he had received a couple of weeks earlier that Steve was going to visit him to tell him that he planned to return to school. The bishop also received the clear impression that he should tell Steve that it was right for him to return to BYU. Instead of trying to talk him into going on a mission, the bishop told him to serve Jesus Christ, live his religion, and be a great example.27 It was not until he was 32 years old that he was finally diagnosed with separation anxiety. 28

Steve Young had understanding parents and a bishop who was open to receiving a surprising revelation. It is not hard to imagine how, under a different set of circumstances, Steve Young may have decided that it was easier to leave the Church than it was to remain a member of a church that had expectations for him that he felt he could not satisfy.

As a church, we have gotten better at identifying the kinds of problems Steve Young faced and accommodating them. The process of applying for a mission call now includes considerations of mental health, and mission programs are adapted to the capabilities of the faithful youth who struggle with mental health issues. Calls can be issued for shorter assignments, can be closer to home, and assignments can be adapted to the strengths of faithful individuals without imposing crushing challenges. Our church is learning to deploy unique, faithful individuals into appropriate ministries without assuming that every person is the same and must adapt to a standardized pattern. Likewise, I believe apologists and ministering brothers and sisters can learn to adapt to the unique needs of people who are experiencing a faith crisis, including a faith crisis with mental health components.

Now, in introducing psychology as a factor that can contribute to disaffection from the Church, we hope we have made very clear that we do not think that any one factor causes a person to leave, including any particular psychological factor. In other words, mental illness is only one factor that could create a vulnerability that can lead to disaffection from the Church. Of course, like other factors mentioned, some people who struggle with mental health issues leave, and some stay.

[Page 84]Our point, of course, is that it may help those who experience mental health issues to stay if they received proper treatment, if they were to consider new perspectives on history, practice, and doctrine, or if they received appropriate kinds of support from Church leaders, friends and family. So it is our hope in introducing this topic that we can encourage people to be more aware of mental illness issues and seek help for themselves and others.

A significant amount of research demonstrates that religion has a positive effect on mental health. Daniel K. Judd found that “the overall body of research from the early part of the twentieth century to the present supports the conclusion that Latter day Saints who live their lives consistent with the teachings of their faith experience greater well being, increased marital and family stability, less delinquency, less depression, less anxiety, less suicide, and less substance abuse than those who do not.”29 As Daniel Peterson explained at last year’s FairMormon conference, regular church attendance is associated with “a roughly 30 percent reduction in mortality over 16 years of follow-up; a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide; and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression.”30 This suggests that if a person struggles with mental illness, leaving the Church would be counter-productive with respect to mental health. Yet it seems that some people who experience mental illness choose to disengage from church activity in response to struggles they experience, perhaps assuming that leaving the Church will resolve their mental anxieties or depression.

This response would not be unlike that of a woman I heard about recently who had panic attacks when she entered parking garages. She initially responded to this by avoiding parking garages. Of course this made her life more difficult, since she often had to park a long way from where she wanted to go. Once she sought treatment for her anxieties, she learned how to begin using a parking garage again, which made her life easier and happier.

Similarly, if a person is distressed because of church activity, the answer would not be to stop going to church. Some may feel that it is [Page 85]church that is causing their depression and anxiety, but upon leaving, the mental illness does not go away. They have simply abandoned something that could have helped them. So the proper thing to do would be to seek treatment so those persons are able to gain all of the social, intellectual, spiritual, and mental health benefits that come from church activity.

In presenting these ideas, we do not mean to suggest that there are no issues of Church history or doctrine that are confusing or upsetting, or that Church members and Church leaders never do anything that might be considered offensive. We hope that you will take away from this that when someone with mental illness faces a challenging situation, there are things we can do as friends, family members, and Church leaders to help. Of course, there are those who will say we are stigmatizing those who leave and are suggesting we can dismiss those who leave the Church as merely being crazy. We are most certainly not saying that. However, the only way to avoid the accusation would be to simply ignore the problem. If we were to ignore the fact that mental illness can make it difficult for some people to remain active in the Church, we would be ignoring an opportunity and perhaps shirking a duty to help bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those who mourn, and to comfort those who stand in need of comfort (Mosiah 18:8‒9).

Just as there are a variety of reasons why people leave, there are a variety of things we can do to help them to stay. So we would like to turn now to a discussion of some of the key features of mental distress that can affect Church activity and what friends, family, Church leaders, and individuals themselves can do to respond to the challenges posed by mental distress.

Features of Mental Distress That May Present Barriers
to Belief and Participation

In this section, we’ll look at elements which contribute to mental distress and which also may block religious belief and participation. We will then consider ways that people can get help when suffering from mental distress.

One way to understand mental distress is to consider it through the lens of cognitive psychology, which is the basis of one of the most common evidence-based treatments for depression,31 and one of the most effective.32 Cognitive therapy says there is a link between what we think, how we feel, [Page 86]and what we do.33 Our thoughts influence our emotions, and our emotions influence our actions. Using this model, mental distress, which is manifest by our emotions, is viewed as being impacted by our way of thinking. A number of distorted ways of thinking have been identified as contributing to mental disorders, such as Major Depressive Disorder.

As we will more fully explain, the cognitive distortions that contribute to mental distress can also be seen as barriers to belief and participation in religious activities. Mental distress is built upon cognitive distortions. Religious belief and participation may be negatively affected or blocked by those distorted ways of thinking.

For example, one common cognitive distortion is “All-or-Nothing Thinking.” Such thinking causes us to view the world in strict, mutually exclusive categories. This way of thinking contributes to depressed mood because when one categorizes one’s experience strictly between perfect and ruined, most experiences will end up in the ruined category — even if the person is nearly perfect. It’s either all or nothing. There is no in-between. This distortion may affect religious thinking by causing a person to expect that unless every aspect of doctrine makes sense, none of it can be true. It’s either all or nothing.

Another common distortion is Overgeneralization, which causes people to view a single event as a never-ending pattern. This pattern often includes the words always and never. This way of thinking contributes to depressed mood by incorrectly concluding that experience has only been of one type while overlooking other aspects of the experience. A single event is not the same as a never-ending pattern, but Overgeneralization would have you believe otherwise. This way of thinking may affect religious belief and participation by inaccurately assigning frequency to religious experience (e.g., when an answer to prayer is slow in coming, such people may tell themselves that their prayers never get answers, and so they stop praying entirely).

Mental Filter is another common cognitive distortion, causing people to pick one aspect of a situation and make that the focus of their attention while ignoring and filtering out other equally important aspects. This way of thinking contributes to depressed mood by orienting to only one aspect of a given situation — usually the negative or unfavorable aspect. An example of this would be when a person focuses on one unkind thing [Page 87]said or done to them at church while ignoring or filtering out the many other kind things that have been said or done to them there.

There are other types of cognitive distortions, but the point to be made is that mental distress is sometimes significantly fueled by cognitive distortions. Such distorted thinking may also serve as a barrier to religious belief and participation.

Fundamental to mental distress related to anxiety is the Intolerance of Uncertainty, or fear of the unknown. Those who struggle with anxiety tend to have higher intolerance of uncertainty, as manifest by persistent thoughts about the unknowns in a particular situation.34 Dwelling on the unknowns is a surefire way to increase anxious feelings. In other words, focusing on the unknowns, rather than the knowns, will create mental distress. In the words of the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”

Anxiety may also arise when new information conflicts with old. This conflict may make it unclear how to proceed and result in inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes. Such internal conflict is often referred to as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance may cause us to choose from the following responses: reject the new information as false, consider the new information as unimportant, suspend judgment (“putting it on the shelf,” as discussed above), accept or reject the new information but with a greater understanding of context and definitions, or reject the old information (for example, rather than take the time to process how one’s former assumptions about Church history and doctrine might need to be readjusted, one might hastily decide the Church is not true in order to more quickly resolve the anxiety created by cognitive dissonance and uncertainty).

Besides creating a depressed or anxious mood, these distortions can also make it difficult to focus on the more subtle influence of what we call “the still, small voice,” thereby creating a sense of distance or isolation [Page 88]from God and communication with Him, which may be erroneously interpreted as “God doesn’t care or isn’t there,” instead of being more accurately seen as distorted thinking getting in the way. Some report that the medications they take also have the effect of muting their sensitivity to those spiritual feelings.

In summary, then, cognitive distortions contribute to mental distress. Those distorted ways of thinking affect our mood. Cognitive distortions may also serve to undermine the process of religious belief and participation by creating distorted ways of thinking that make it difficult to process new information when compared to information we already have.

Ways in Which People Can Get Help

So when a person is experiencing mental distress, what can be done? How can that person be helped? In this section we’ll consider what can be done by the individual, friends and family, and the Church and Church leaders. Finally we’ll talk about the prospect of professional help.

It is useful to think about helping people with mental distress as three concentric circles. The first, in the center, is Self. Ultimately, the responsibility for overcoming mental distress lies with the individual. Unless the individual is motivated and engaged, very little progress will be made. Next is Family and Friends. These are the people closest to the person in need. They are those most intimately connected to the individual, who have the most access. Next, there is the Church. The Church consists of neighbors and leaders who also know and love the individual but are not as intimately acquainted with the individual, perhaps, as family and friends.

The Individual

Healthy practices that a person may adopt to help him or herself include exercise,35 adequate rest, proper diet, and developing social connections.36 Developing attitudes of generosity37 and gratitude38 have [Page 89]also been shown to be helpful for maintaining good mental health. These practices are clinically proven to contribute to good mental health.

Family and Friends

Family and friends can help by knowing what to say (and what not to say), having the right attitude toward mental illness, and helping those afflicted make a plan of action. For the most part, the things to say should be messages of support and presence. Words can help or hurt. Efforts to explain or to fix usually have the unintended result of making the person feel bad or wrong for their condition. Friends and family don’t have to fix their loved one or the situation he or she faces, but they should try to reassure and comfort them.

There is no way to list all the things to say or do for a loved one with emotional distress, but there are a few attitudes to cultivate which, when followed, will give some ideas about what to say or do. Emotional distress is a real thing. Depression and anxiety are legitimate medical conditions. If we were in a major auto accident, we might have bandages and bruises that would be visible to others and would verify or validate our injuries. Major emotional trauma often has few physical signs but can be no less debilitating than physical injuries.

It is important to be patient with the person struggling with emotional distress and with the process of recovery and healing. There may be setbacks. That is common.

Communication is very important to develop and maintain understanding among family and friends. Ask questions and make observations. Share your thoughts and feelings and ask the loved one about his or hers. You may be surprised at what the loved one says.

Accommodation and adjustment are powerful ways to show support. Creative problem-solving with humor and good will has the potential to say, “I love you,” and “I am here for you,” in powerful ways. We wouldn’t be helping very much if we allowed our loved ones to avoid every distressing situation, but we can be resourceful in how we help them to meet the challenges they face every day.

Part of meeting the challenges of every day is helping to develop a plan of action which might include education, self-care, and the use of available resources. Knowledge is power, and becoming knowledgeable about the condition one finds oneself in will help everyone know what to do. Self-care, as has been covered previously, is essential to feeling better emotionally. While we can’t provide self-care for our loved one, we can encourage and support his or her efforts for self-care. We can also help [Page 90]identify available resources which may be found through family support, Church leaders and the priesthood, the blessings associated with temple worship, and the help to be found through healthcare.

The Church

The Church can also help through existing doctrines, opportunities for activity, and shepherding from Church leaders. These three areas can contribute positively to alleviation of mental distress.

President Boyd K. Packer explained, “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior.”39 President Packer lists two of the three elements of Cognitive Psychology in this statement: Thoughts and Actions, only he calls them Attitudes and Behavior. If attitudes and behavior are changed by true doctrine, it is reasonable to conclude that feelings could also be changed by true doctrine.

Some interesting research has found this to be the case: that true doctrine does change feelings. One study of Latter day Saint people found that believing God is a loving God (a true doctrine) contributed to limiting or reducing anxious traits in those who held that belief. It also found that those who hold a view of God that is less loving or more controlling than what is commonly taught in Latter day Saint doctrine were more likely to endorse more serious or frequent anxious traits.40

Other research has also found that increased views of the lovingness of God are most strongly related to a reduction of emotional symptoms for Latter day Saint people. In other words, subscribing to the doctrine that God is our father and He is perfectly loving appears to have the effect of reducing mental distress. Similarly, other researchers found that those who reported having an experience confirming the doctrine of God’s grace as taught by the Church had a positive relationship with mental health while those who had a more legalistic view of God’s dealings with his children correlated with decreased mental health.41

As shown in Figure 1, there is a stark difference in levels of shame, anxiety and depression between Latter day Saint Church members who view God through a construct of works being the most important (called “Legalism”) and those who view grace as the most important. As one can [Page 91]see, those with a Legalism outlook had noticeably higher scores on shame, anxiety, and depression than did the members with a grace outlook.

Figure 1. Grace and Mental Health

Association with the Church also brings opportunities for church activity. Activity in the Church produces social connection through serving others, teaching and learning from others, and working toward the common good. As mentioned earlier, social connection can also help reduce mental distress.

Church Leaders

Church leaders are in a position to have a powerful impact on those struggling with mental distress. Demonstrating compassion and a willingness to be attentive to the afflicted member can be a great comfort to the struggling member. As noted above, helping the brother or sister to develop a plan of action can also be very helpful and provide focus and motivation to the distressed. In addition, mobilizing ward resources may be appropriate.

Ward resources include involving the ward council, ministering brothers and sisters, and specifically called ward specialists. There may be ward temporal resources that could be brought to bear on the situation. Also, inspired ecclesiastical counseling could be included.

As demonstrated earlier, true doctrine changes attitudes and behavior, and there is evidence that it also can alleviate mental distress. If that is true, then teaching the pure word of God could be seen as important medicine for those who are distressed — and for all of us, really. When it comes to counseling from ecclesiastical leaders, consider how many true doctrines there are to understand and how they might change a person’s functioning if they were better understood.

[Page 92]Professional Help

Sometimes, the efforts of the individual and the support of family, friends, and the Church do not have sufficient impact on the emotional distress. When this is the case, it may be time to seek professional help. When the loved one is not responding sufficiently to the help offered or he or she is not maintaining the progress that should have been made, it may be that the problem is of a psychological nature, and professional help is required. One way to think about the severity of a loved one’s symptoms is to consider the amount of distress combined with the inability to control the symptoms combined with the frequency of the difficulties.

For most mental disorders related to depression and anxiety, the research is clear that professional counseling is an effective treatment.42

For depression and anxiety, counseling and medication appear to be equally effective. For some people, the combination of counseling and medication will be more beneficial than either treatment separately.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which focuses on the link between our thoughts, feelings, and actions, is one of the most common evidence based therapies for depression.43 Such therapy also appears to be one of the most effective.44

In recent addresses, Elder Holland has discussed his struggle with depression. Clearly, the fact that one experiences anxiety or depression does not mean that one cannot fully participate in and accept significant responsibilities in the Church. He said, “If things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. Be honest with them about your history and your struggles. Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.”45


We’ve been talking about mental distress and its potential to affect religious belief and participation. Some interesting research suggests [Page 93]that the factors which produce depressive and anxious symptoms are also those which make it difficult to navigate conflicting information such as may exist about the Church’s history, policies, and doctrine. There are a number of things individuals can do for themselves when experiencing depressive or anxious symptoms, and there are things that friends, family, and Church leaders may do for those individuals as well. Sometimes professional help is needed to address the mental distress.

We hope this presentation can be seen as a step toward more clearly understanding the factors that contribute to disaffection from the Church and what can be done to help ourselves and others remain close to the Church and the salvation found therein.

1. For more information on the 2018 FairMormon Conference, see
2. For a transcript and analysis of Elder Jensen’s remarks, see Stephen Smoot, “Reports of the Death of the Church are Greatly Exaggerated,” FairMormon Blog, January 15, 2013,
3. Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormons confront ‘epidemic’ on online misinformation,” Washington Post, February 1, 2012,
4. Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” Public Religion Research Institute, September 6, 2017,
5. Daniel Burke, “Millennials leaving church in droves, study finds,” CNN, May 14, 2015,
6. Cox and Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Identity.”
7. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” Ensign (November 2013), 22.
8. Amy Sullivan, “Church-Shopping: Why Americans Change Faiths,” Time magazine, April 28, 2009,,8599,1894361,00.html.
9. See, for example, “What Mormons had to say about their faith crises,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 3, 2016,, in which a poll of Salt Lake Tribune readers identified the following items as triggering a “faith crisis”: 1) 327 of more than 1,700 respondents mentioned Joseph Smith’s sealings to the wives of other husbands, his differing “First Vision” accounts, his character, and/or translation questions about Mormon scripture (presumably the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham); 2) 322 respondents mentioned polygamy in Latter day Saint history; 3) 373 respondents mentioned LGBT policies and practices; 4) A few (about 20 of more than 1,700 respondents) brought up their activities in the group Ordain Women, which advocates female ordination to the all-male Latter day Saint priesthood.
10. See, for example, Stan L. Albrecht, Marie Cornwall and Perry H. Cunningham, “Religious Leave-Taking: Disengagement and Disaffiliation among Mormons,” in David G. Bromley, Falling from the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy (Newberry Park, CA: SAGE Publications, 1988), 68‒70. The chapter reports that 54% of people wanted to spend their limited time and resources on other interests and activities. Forty percent indicated that they didn’t feel they belonged. Twenty-five percent reported feeling it didn’t matter to anyone whether they attended or not. About a third of the respondents gave contextual reasons (movement to a new community where they didn’t get involved, work schedule conflicts, etc.). Twenty-three percent reported problems with specific doctrines or teachings. Twenty percent reported problems with other members of the congregation. Some said the church demanded too much of their time and money (cf. 1 Timothy 6:10 and Matthew 13:22). Others said it no longer was a help in finding meaning in life. Female respondents in particular were affected by marriage to a nonmember spouse.
11. Medeiros, Michelle, PhD, “Intrusive Worries, Related Behaviors, and Religious Beliefs Among Mormons” (PhD dissertation, Palo Alto University, 2015), 42.
12. Michael W. Eysenck , Anxiety: The Cognitive Perspective (Hove, East Sussex, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd., 1992), 20.
13. “An impressive body of empirical evidence … has firmly established that emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression are accompanied by characteristic cognitive biases in the processing of emotional information.” Jenny Yiend and Bundy Mackintosh, “Experimental Modification of Processing Biases,” in Cognition, Emotion and Psychopathology: Theoretical, empirical and clinical directions, ed. Jenny Yiend (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 190.
14. Eysenck, Anxiety: The Cognitive Perspective, 21, quoting Aaron T. Beck and Gary Emery, Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 33. There is “considerable evidence that individuals with generalized anxiety selectively allocate their attentional resources to threat related information. … Attentional biases have also been studied in other anxiety conditions, such as social anxiety and specific fears. There is considerable evidence indicating that socially anxious individuals have an attentional bias favouring social-threat stimuli, such as angry faces and social-threat words.” Karin Mogg and Brenden P. Bradley, “A Cognitive-Motivational Perspective,” in Cognition, Emotion and Psychopathology: Theoretical, empirical and clinical directions, ed. Jenny Yiend (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 74 (citations omitted).
15. Susan Mineka, “The Positive and Negative Consequences of Worry in the Aetiology of Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Learning Theory Perspective,” in Cognition, Emotion and Psychopathology: Theoretical, empirical and clinical directions, ed. Jenny Yiend (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 31.
16. Paula Hertel, “Habits of thought produce memory biases in anxiety and depression,” in Cognition, Emotion and Psychopathology: Theoretical, empirical and clinical directions, ed. Jenny Yiend (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 109–1 0. “There is abundant evidence that anxiety is associated with an attentional bias for threat …. There is also evidence that anxiety is associated with a failure to disengage from threat ….” Anne Richards, “Anxiety and the resolution of ambiguity,” Cognition, Emotion and Psychopathology: Theoretical, empirical and clinical directions, ed. Jenny Yiend (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 139. “Evidence that anxiety vulnerability is associated with the negative interpretation of ambiguity is equally compelling.” Colin MacLeod, et al., “Causal status of biases,” Cognition, Emotion and Psychopathology: Theoretical, empirical and clinical directions, ed. Jenny Yiend (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 174.
17. MacLeod, “Causal status of biases,” 173. “Selective allocation of attention toward threatening information” has been confirmed in generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and specific phobia.” Ibid., 174.
18. Richards, “Anxiety and the resolution of ambiguity,” 130.
19. Hertel, “Habits of thought,” 121–22.
20. Elaine Fox, “Maintenance or Capture of Attention,” in Cognition, Emotion and Psychopathology: Theoretical, empirical and clinical directions, ed. Jenny Yiend (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 100.
21. “Mental Health,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints,
22. Jana Riess, “Do Mormons leave the Church because they ‘got offended’?,” Flunking Sainthood, Religion News Service, January 27, 2017, Tied for first place was “I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.” This was followed by “The Church’s positions on LGBT issues”; “I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church,” and “I drifted away from Mormonism.” Riess further reports: “In the sample as a whole, the top answer was ‘I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church,’ closely followed by ‘I stopped believing there was one true church.’”
23. “Understand the Facts: Social Anxiety Disorder,” Anxiety and Depression Association of America,
24. Ibid.
25. Colette Hirsch and David M. Clark, “Mental imagery and social phobia,” in Cognition, Emotion and Psychopathology: Theoretical, empirical and clinical directions, ed. Jenny Yiend (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 233.
26. Nazia Ali and Ruchi Nagar, “To Study the effectiveness of occupational therapy intervention in the management of fear of public speaking in school going children aged between 12–17 Years,” The Indian Journal of Occupational Therapy 45, No. 3 (September 2013 – December 2013).
27. “The Surprising Reason Steve Young Didn’t Serve a Mission (and It Has Nothing to Do with Football),” LDS Living, February 24, 2018,
28. Eric Branch, “In new book, ex-49er Steve Young details his battle with anxiety,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2016,
29. Daniel K. Judd, “The Relationship Between Religion, Mental Health, and The Latter day Saints,” BYU Religious Education Review (Winter 2018), 13,
30. Daniel Peterson, “What Difference Does it Make?,” FairMormon Conference, August 2017,, quoting Tyler J. VanderWeele, “Does Religious Participation Contribute to Human Flourishing?” Big Questions Online, January 14, 2017,
31. John Hunsley, Katherine Elliott and Zoe Therrien, “The Efficacy and Effectiveness of Psychological Treatments,” Canadian Psychology 55, no. 3 (September 2013), 161‒76.
32. Sarah R. Braun, Bettina Gregor, and Ulrich S. Tran, “Comparing Bona Fide Psychotherapies of Depression in Adults with Two Meta-Analytical Approaches,” PLoS ONE 8, no. 6 (June 2013),
33. David Burns, “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” (New York: Quill, 1980), 29.
34. “Originally thought to be specific to generalized anxiety disorder, recent research has clearly demonstrated that IU [intolerance of uncertainty] is a broad transdiagnostic dispositional risk factor for the development and maintenance of clinically significant anxiety.” In other words, IU is more fundamental than anxiety; anxiety is built upon IU. R. Nicholas Carleton, “The intolerance of uncertainty construct in the context of anxiety disorders: Theoretical and practical perspectives,” Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics 12, no. 8 (August 2012), 937– 47,
35. Ibid.
36. Rick Nauert, “Social Connections Can Help to Reduce Depression,” PsychCentral,
37. Steve Densley, Jr., “Science Confirms the Blessings of Generosity,” Meridian Magazine, December 19, 2017,
38. Steve Densley, Jr., “Why ‘Count Your Many Blessings’ Isn’t Just a Nice Thing to Say,” Meridian Magazine, November 20, 2017,
39. Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children,” Ensign (November 1986), 17.
40. Medeiros, “Intrusive Worries, Related Behaviors, and Religious Beliefs Among Mormons.”
41. Daniel K. Judd, W. Justin Dyer, and Justin B. Top, “Grace, Legalism, and Mental Health: Examining Direct and Mediating Relationships,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (June 2018), 8,
42. Hunsley, Elliott, and Therrien, “The Efficacy and Effectiveness of Psychological Treatments,” 3.
43. Ibid.
44. Braun, Gregor, and Tran, “Comparing Bona Fide Psychotherapies of Depression in Adults.”
45. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” Ensign (November 2013), 41.

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About Steven T. Densley, Jr.

Steve Densley, Jr. is a Utah attorney (JD, Brigham Young University). He graduated with University Honors from BYU with a combined BA/MA in public policy and political science. He has published articles in the Utah Bar Journal, the Journal of Law and Family Studies, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Faith and Scholarship, and Meridian Magazine. He currently serves as executive vice president of The Interpreter Foundation. He was the executive vice president of FairMormon from 2013–15, a recipient of the John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award, and was a producer of FairMormon’s podcast when it twice won the People’s Choice Award for Best Podcast in the Religion & Spirituality category. He has served as an elders quorum president, high councilor, young men’s president, gospel doctrine teacher, and is currently the 1st counselor in his ward’s bishopric. He and his wife Heather have four children and one grandchild.

About Geret Giles

Geret Giles is a psychologist in private practice since 1995. He has a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Brigham Young University and a PhD in Counseling Psychology from Pennsylvania State University. He treats couples, families, individuals, adolescents, and children for issues such as depression, anxiety, and relationship issues. For the past 15 years Dr. Giles has also worked with Utah’s Division of Human Services to provide forensic evaluations when questions arise as to the competence and mental state of criminal defendants. He is married to the former Kelley Clements. Together they have four children—three of whom are married—and three grandchildren. Their youngest is currently serving an LDS mission in Brazil. Geret and his wife are getting used to being “empty nesters” and are finding the transition more delightful than they expected.

40 thoughts on “Barriers to Belief: Mental Distress and Disaffection from the Church

  1. Pingback: Barriers to Belief: Mental Distress and Disaffection from the Church - Steven T. Densley, Jr. - The Mormonist

  2. I think that there is indeed a large number of people leaving the Church and yes, mental issues are likely part of them.

    But the Lord is winnowing His church, and separating the wheat and the tares, too. The first 100 years of the Church, we were a peculiar people, what with the polygamy and gathering and unique doctrines. It took guts to join the Church back then; a step outside of the culture. From WWII to probably the 90’s, the Church was the epitome of mainstream–socially conservative like a very large portion of society. We were more the harmless sect that fundamentally is part of America–a few odd beliefs, perhaps, but who doesn’t have a few odd things, right?

    Now we are rapidly moving out of the mainstream, along with traditional Christianity in general. The collapse of Christianity in general, as the article points out, is remarkable. The Church is resisting better than most, but we still feel it. It’s no longer the default to be a faithful Christian, nor is it admired anymore by society. We are now in Sodom and Gomorrah; and have to decide whether we will be faithful Lot in the middle of it. Many are falling away–the foolish virgins who failed to put oil in their lamp.

    This is definitely not new, of course–Alma had a great apostatizing as well; and King Benjamin’s remarkable efforts did not last long. The Nephites and the Jews notoriously fell away often.

    The good news is that the Spirit of the Lord still works on people, and lots are looking for a Church that offers profound connections with the Savior, and the opportunity to serve Him as a foot soldier. We stand with outstretched arms to welcome those who still seek Him.

    The people with mental issues, like all others, should be treated with compassion.

  3. Excellent article. I find that many of my patients who are in the midst of depression, stress or anxiety often try to change external circumstances hoping that this will make them feel better. They feel bad; they suffer; they don’t “feel right”. So they start changing things – even things that used to bring them joy and they know they really shouldn’t change. They have an affair, they divorce their spouse, they leave their dream job, they move to another state, they change their diet, or their exercise regimen. They get a tattoo. They take out a loan they can’t afford and buy a Harley. They go off on their mother or best friend and tell them how awful they are and give them a laundry list of insults and offenses. And they leave their religion, church and friends. All in an attempt to feel better.

    And, of course, all this just makes it worse. So one of the best things we can do for people who are having depression, etc. is remind them that while they work on their depression or stress, they shouldn’t make any major life changes while they are in the midst of these diseases and problems because it usually isn’t any of these external things that are the problem. And then when they are doing better, they will find joy in their family and church just like they did before their illness/problem.

  4. Thanks for this wonderful article! I’m a therapist and it was interesting to see the basic and fundamental principles of CBT be discussed in a gospel context. I actually have OCD and have noticed that when I have had my darker spiritual times the OCD was often more intense and pronounced. This is definitely a good area we as a church can be more aware of and more sensitive too.

  5. As someone who suffers from social agoraphobia caused by C-PTSD, who has a very hard time going to church and all other social functions and indeed going out in public in genera’; I have to state that I do not consider myself inactive. I live the gospel, my testimony of it has been tried by fire and has come out a very strong and refined thing.

    While I do wish I could partake of the sacrament more often, and have my desire to attend the Temple more overcome my anxiety over it, it has not affected how I believe and exercise my faith. Indeed I find myself agreeing with Vance that people in the faith crisis are likely experiencing the effects of winnowing.

    While I do not doubt that there can be a connection between mental health issues and faith crisis, to me, it would be only part of a march larger picture. I think a lot of people are more likely to use it as an excuse more than it being an actual contributor to their faith crisis. At most I only see it exacerbating other issues, rather than being a root cause.

    While I do believe that mental health is still something society in general, the church included, need to continue to understand and be understanding of; I also think we need to be careful about allowing it to be used as an excuse for apostasy.

    • Great insight, thanks for sharing. Its important to remember that a persons apparent absence from time to time is not an indication of their faithfulness or lack of faith. As the saying goes, “you can be active in the church but inactive with God.”

  6. As someone who experienced many of the symptoms described while suffering from a chemical imbalance due to a pituitary tumor, I can say that going through a faith crisis while not having 100% mental health is not something I wish on my worst enemy. I can get into specifics if anyone would be interested, but I would strongly recommend that everyone going through a faith crisis go see a professional therapist to get the help they need in diagnosing any mental issues that could be excaberating the pain and leading to unhealthy habits and patterns. Even if you are not suffering from mental health issues, a therapist is still highly valuable during a faith crisis/transformation/transition no matter what ends up being your relationship with the church.

  7. I was disappointed in the article. You merely state that there is a possibility that mental illness causes people to leave the church but do not provide any proof whatsoever that this is what is going on, other than your speculation. Of course it is a possibility that mental illness could cause someone to leave any organization, however remote, just like almost anything is a possibility. Where is the research showing that mental illness is the cause? Is it just your review of some stories people have said online? Is that it?

    I could easily turn this on it’s head and say that mental illness is what causes people to remain in the church despite the evidence. There must be some mentally ill persons that cannot leave, even though they know it isn’t what it claims to be. It is entirely possible that these cannot face the gauntlet of disapproval of family and friends if they choose to leave because the costs will be too high for their unstable mental state to handle effectively. So, they remain. These might very well be the persons in the foyer, facing their demons of separation anxiety, unable to walk out the door out of fear of the repercussions to their marriage or family relations …
    How do I know this? (I am guessing like you are) Additionally, we all know that there is pressure to stay in the boat and certainly there is a possibility that this pressure causes some individuals to experience undo stress and anxiety, essentially forcing these individuals to remain in an organization that they do not think is what it claims to be.

    Why even write this article? What is the point? It seems this article is to provide yet another excuse for the member to use when the member sees yet another person leave. Please add the mental illness possibility to offense and sin. However, do not deal with seer stones, flaming swords or other reasons people no longer buy what the church is selling.

    • Darn it, Exiled, I loved your post until the last paragraph which contains thrown stones! The paragraph implies, I think, that there is a fault line in the Faith, and the Church needs to somehow cop to it. With respect to your reflect, I think those things and most others like it are boogeymen.

      Just an example, which I posted before and you bring up here: the Seer Stone. I don’t know why anyone need be thrown by the stone. Moses was given a burning bush for gosh sakes. What if Joseph Smith was given an ignited tumble weed? What if a talking horse? It’s none of our business, I think, how the Lord chooses to reveal his sacred things. It’s a classic error we make: our ways should be God’s ways; God’s ways must agree with my intellect. But He disagrees, saying in Isaiah 55: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

      I think the denial of this one crucial God-uttered statement by the Roman gods of liberal academia, is what characterizes the basis of the thought disease of progressivism. And you know, we are almost not even allowed to speak of it, for when we do, we are liable to be hand-slapped, moderated, labeled non-inclusive, unloving, not civil, (see Ralph Hancock’s “Love Wins, Charity Loses”).

      Cheers to you, person of thrown stone!

      • Just remember that only the mediocre are always at their best. I enjoyed the article and sre much validity in many of the comments. Looking for a silver bullet to explain behavior best represented as a broad bell shaped curve is a futile search for the correct windmill.

    • Exiled, you apprently both failed to read the article and have never mental health issues, specifically depression and anxiety. I can tell by how your posts describes how potential mental health issues can keep someone in the church. My guess is that there are cases of that, but not in the way you describe. As I stated above, people who are going through faith crises/transitions need to be seeing professional psychiatrists no matter where that journey takes them.

      • I read the article and there aren’t any studies, or anything other than conjecture, showing that people who leave are suffering from mental illness. Perhaps it happens. Utah has a high rate of mental illness so I am sure that there are some who leave and also suffer from mental illness. Also, I am sure that there are those who suffer from mental illness and remain. Perhaps the article should be about merely dealing with those who have mental illness instead of guessing that this is a cause for some to leave?

  8. Well, at the risk of oversimplifying, but also as one who has had his own share of emotional and mental difficulties, including what my psychiatrists have called a psychotic break and PTSD, and also as one who holds a degree in behavioral science, my observation over the years (now 77) is that departure from the church starts with an act or activity that either quickly or slowly drives the Spirit away from one’s own spirit, and before one is aware, one starts to look for ways to excuse that action, rather than repent. And voila, goodbye church! Pretty simple, really. Thus the Savior’s admonition to “watch and pray always, lest ye enter into temptation.” So far, it has worked for me. So far.

  9. This articles draws on a modern day populist message of shifting accountability of agency to those things ‘outside of our control.’

    The discussion around metal health is certainly welcome and necessary. I would have liked to see the authors define the difference between mental illness and mental health (mental distress), as these are often incorrectly used synonymously. A person can have a mental illness and have good mental health through appropriate treatment. Likewise, a person can have no mental illness yet have poor mental health (for ‘divers’ reasons).
    Similarly, the reality is that there are many causes to mental distress. Sometimes ‘mental distress’ is actually because of sin – although certainly not always. Sometimes it is also perhaps driven by a misunderstanding to church teaching and a understanding of the doctrine of Grace.

    It seems to me that regardless of mental illness / poor mental health, individual responses remain as unpredictable as any other demography or grouped people. While not dismissing unique challenges of the mind, Alma 62:41 teaches that people can have the same experience (mental health challenges/mental illness certainly included) and respond differently because of the way they ‘choose’ to respond.

    Stephen R Covey made famous the saying “there is a space between stimulus and response, that space is choice.” In any discussion concerning LDS disaffection we cannot ignore agency as a prime factor.

    I sense the article is trying to highlight that there is a need for greater compassion for people with ‘mental distress’ and I agree. However, I believe a blanket call for compassion towards all people is most appropriate. Perhaps there have been members of the church over the years that have taken fundamental approaches to how a person can heal (say your prayers, read your scriptures and all will be well) and have not been the brightest ‘lower lights’ they could have been. I think Elder Hollands General Conference talk “Like a broken vessel” covers this well. The key note I got from his teachings was that even though yes, he had depression, he chose to continue to press forward and not take the opportunity to hobble away from the church on a crutch.

    I feel great compassion for those suffering with mental distress, and also all peoples with all the different challenges in mortality. I find comfort knowing we will not be tested above that which we can manage.

    I reject the premise which to me is ignoring the impacts of sin and the reality of individual agency, by suggesting uncontrollable mental distress causes people to leave the church – as I know of many that have experienced such and stayed the course.

  10. Xander, I just loved your post. I also suffer from similar conditions that you do. I take a depression med. I survived a violent childhood, (maybe). But your beautifully true and clear words about our truer problem, the root cause of separation from God, is incisive and refreshing.

    I have a difficult relation with scholarship. I dislike the tendency to use tsunamis of wordplay that may not illuminate at all, but may make one wonder what was the point of the treatise. This article makes me wonder, as one other commenter mentioned, what is the apex thought here? There was, I think, a mention of the Church at the very end; is that a blurred finger-pointing? I don’t favor word-soaked narrative that seeks to impress rather than to bless. David Belasco said, “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my business card, you don’t have a clear idea.” Sometimes less is more.

    I am going to stop commenting; I think I’ve overstayed welcome here.

  11. It occurred to me that if we are discussing mental illness and the gospel then I would like to know how to tell the difference between a mental issue and someone being possessed by an evil spirit that needs casting out. Seems possession has essentially disappeared as a doctrine lately.

  12. Believe in Holy Spirit and must build strong Spiritual relationships with God. The church as the body of Christ made up of believers in Jesus Christ, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

  13. Examining exMormons alongside mental illness establishes a caste system among part-member families where those who “stay in the boat” are the supremacy and the lowest caste consists of those who chose a different path. As an exMormon, I take umbrage with this Mormon supremacy-caste system, which features so prominently in LDS discourse of late (see Elder Renlund’s recent boat fireside, Elder Corbridge’s devotional yesterday, and now this post).

    ExMormons’ faith transition should not be studied with regards to mental illness (or worse, as playing Elder Renlund’s game of whack-a-mole), any more than active Mormons should be considered alongside mental illness for believing in angels, gold Bibles, or a polyandrous prophet. This juxtaposition of mental illness and belief/doubting demonizes former Mormons, just as Elder Renlund and other recent talks implicitly demonized exMormons while ostensibly seeking to strengthen doubters. This article also conveniently hints at a plausible reason for Mormonism’s embarrassingly high suicide rates: faithlessness.

    I won’t be listing my reasons for leaving Mormonism here, but will suffice by saying: mental illness had nothing to do with it, and neither did “doubts.” I was an active temple-worthy stake seminary teacher the day I resigned my LDS membership. I’m a returned missionary, I taught at the MTC, and I’m a former BYU-Idaho religion faculty and Interpreter editor. So you can trust me when I say: almost all of the exMormons I know are very mentally healthy. I hang out with 108,000+ of them almost daily on the exMormon subreddit, and we have very robust and delightful discussions. We minister to one another. I find more support for women there than I ever did in my own LDS branches.

    Folks writing about exMormons take note: Footnotes affixed to ad hominem attacks do not transfigure them into credible assertions. I invite active Mormons to become acquainted with exMormons without any agenda (we can smell those a mile away—most of us are RMs, remember!) and without any desire to debate or reconvert us. We don’t want to be studied, labeled, or ministered to. Don’t research and write articles about us as if we were objects—try looking at us as people. We are dealing with a lot of loss after loved ones scorned or even disowned us for our faith transitions, for example.

    Well might exMormons say as did Shylock in the Merchant of Venice:

    Hath not [an ExMormon] eyes? hath not [an ExMormon] hands, organs,
    dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
    the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
    to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
    warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
    a [Mormon] is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
    if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
    us, do we not die?
    –Act 3, Scene I

    • Respectfully, Jenny, I simply cannot take you seriously when you say “I hang out with 108,000+ of [ex-Mormons] almost daily on the exMormon subreddit, and we have very robust and delightful discussions.”

      I, too, have observed the ex-Mormon subreddit. For a while now. And I simply cannot for the life of me imagine how you can seriously call the kind of things that go down there “robust and delightful.”

      I have personally been on the receiving end of attack threads on that subreddit. Threads that have personally attacked me, have questioned my honesty and mental health, and have speculated about my personal life (including my sexuality and my family life).

      I have read threads of ex-Mormons there consulting on how to best deceive spouses, family, bishops, and others whom they hold in the worst kind of contempt and often demeaningly dismiss as “TBMs” and other spiteful epithets.

      I have read threads of ex-Mormons viciously mocking “TBM” Church members during fast and testimony meeting or other Church meetings, or mocking “TBM” co-workers, or “TBM” family, or “TBM” classmates.

      I have read threads of ex-Mormons boasting about profaning the temple with antics like sneaking booze into the temple and taking pictures of themselves in the bathroom drinking such. I have read threads celebrating Mike Norton, who has made it his personal crusade to violate the sanctity of the temple and worshipers’ privacy by secretly recording the Endowment ceremony and other private religious acts.

      I have read threads of ex-Mormons mocking “apologists” as either witless dupes who are too stupid to realize they are being taken for a ride, or conspiring mercenaries who are in it for the money and the personal gain.

      And then let’s talk about the kinds of calumnies the denizens of the ex-Mormon subreddit heaps on the heads of Church leaders: racist, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, greedy, uncaring, opportunistic, elitist, leaders of a cult, responsible for brainwashing, abusers, conspirators, etc., etc.

      So if your plea to humanize ex-Mormons includes an appeal to the ex-Mormon subreddit as an example of the virtues of being an ex-Mormon on said subreddit, then I simply cannot take your plea seriously at all.

      I’m sorry for any emotional or mental anguish you may have experienced in leaving the Church. But that anguish does not justify the utterly reprehensible behavior I see coming from the ex-Mormon subreddit. If you and other ex-Mormons want remaining Church members to afford you the goodwill and humanity you are calling for, the first step is to be morally consistent and renounce the worst of everything about being an ex-Mormon that the ex-Mormon subreddit has come to represent.

      • “People leave the Church for a variety of reasons.“

        “We have come to understand that many factors contribute to disaffection from the Church”

        “Unfortunately, believers can sometimes dismiss the doubter’s pain. ”

        “Along with social, historical, doctrinal, spiritual, and intellectual factors…”

        “It can come as a surprise to those who have assumed that people leave only because they were sinning to hear all variety of reasons why people have left. ”

        The article actually seems to be painting ExMormons in general in a much different light than you claim.

      • How do you even find inspiration in joining any society, discussion, etc. that elevates disaffection as a virtue and denigrates honest believers? Faith is a choice, testimony is a gift; if you have neither, why would you choose to celebrate that fact and mock others who hold them dear? Find some healthy and productive outlet for your skills and talents; find another group with things to share that are uplifting. These sites do not ‘help’ anyone although they claim to be support for others who lose their faith; they only create more ‘shared’ bad feelings and resentments.

    • Jenny, I think the tone of the article is a little confusing (see my previous post – e.g. there is no definition of what ‘mental distress’ is) and perhaps it has confused you too.

      I don’t believe the article suggests that a person like yourself ‘must’ have left the church because of mental ‘distress’. Clearly that is not the case for many, many people. (I expect that the exmormon mental ‘distress’ levels are not materially different to any other group of people).

      I believe the authors intent was to create a discussion on how mental ‘distress’ can impact some peoples engagement with their faith (surely you can at least accept the possibilities of this concept?) – but it could also rightly be extended to exploring the impact mental distress can have on a persons employment, family life, engagement within their community etc. All these are reasonable concepts to explore. Yet, because this website is focused on things of a religious nature, the emphasis is on the impact of faith – at least with this paper.

      I find the authors approach and intent genuine, yet the execution probably missed the mark. I agree with you there are at times negative attitudes from LDS towards those that leave the faith (who, I agree, leave for a myriad of reasons) and there is no place for this and such behavior is not taught by the Church.

      This behavior is human nature, unfortunately, and this is evidenced by the fact that it is also common from some that leave the church to attack those that chose to remain in the faith, which is equally inappropriate. We can have a debate without mocking a persons decision to leave a faith, and also without mocking (deliberately out of context) the particulars of a faith (i.e I reject your comment re Elder Renlund and the Mormonism suicide rate comment, which seems to be isolated to a specific region within a specific country – not the global church.)

      Perhaps things are a little more difficult for those that leave the Church in places like Utah and Idaho (again, talking cultural, not Church doctrine or teaching), yet my church experience in Australia is nothing like you describe. Most of my friends are not members of the church, and my relationships with those few I know that have left the church over the years remains as it always has – one of mutual love and respect.

      All the best.

  14. Many of the people leaving the church, are in fact people, that have been given the message that the church doesn’t want you. I’m speaking specifically of the families of LGBT members. When forced to choose between church and family, most choose to stay with family. It’s not a mental illness, sinning, loss of the spirit, it’s just finally getting the message that you are not wanted here.

    • Please provide an example of where the church teaches that it doesn’t want a person or that families of LGBT members have to choose between church and family?

      I don’t find this a fair statement.

  15. Thank you for your call to recognize the reality of mental illness and to charitably reach out to those grappling with mental illness. Where I once had a rather simplistic view of both mental illness and disaffection with the Church, life has taught me some intense lessons about the realities and complexities of both issues.

    It’s easy to write off people that make us uncomfortable, as do some with mental illness and as do some who leave the Church we find so fulfilling. But when you dearly love some of these people, they’re not so easy to casually dismiss.

    At any rate, Christlike charity is always the right approach, even when those we love don’t change their behavior to what we believe is best for them. As noted in the article, our exercise of charity can include many personal and ecclesiastical efforts, but it can also involve professional help. We should always follow the Savior’s pattern in seeking to heal, even as he healed many who turned from him thereafter. We do this because it’s the right thing to do, not because it produces the short-term desired result.

    What people do in this life matters in the eternal scheme. But the Lord’s timeline far exceeds the bounds of this life and judgment belongs to him. Only he knows the inner demons that accompany some of his children. His judgment of these souls will be both just and merciful.

    • Scott its good to see your simplistic view of mental illness has changed over the years. This is the case for the entire, at least western, world. Its important to distinguish the difference between the cultural attitudes of mortals and church teaching and doctrine, as these often get confused to be one and the same.

      I would call for great love and compassion for all people, those with mental illness/poor mental health (definition here is important) and those suffering from the many other challenges life brings. We all need to be gentle with each other – and hopefully this extends to those not of our faith (or not longer) towards us too.

  16. Children of LGBT parents have to wait until they’re 18 to get baptized and can only do so after they renounced their parent’s relationship.

    • Yah, Bob. How rare it is to see a church that has the strength and authenticity to take God’s commandments and principles seriously, but at the same time to consider so carefully the welfare of people.

      Thinking a little further, the ‘why’ of the mentioned policy becomes clear: If children of same-sex couples were babtized into the Faith, there would be potential for poignant emotional-psychological conflict for all, and certainty especially for the child. It is actually a selfless, thoughtful policy. It protects and blesses, not punishes.

      God bless you, brother of yearn and concern, of bountiful assertion, of strong song, sure sound, watchman with word, dog with excellent bark!

    • I am not sure what this comment has to do in context with the article?

      ‘Renouncing’ the parents ‘relationship’ (the relationship, not parents as children of God) is from a ‘doctrinal’ standpoint, which makes perfect sense if they wish to be part of a faith that teaches this practice is sinful.

      There has been much commentary from the leaders of the Church around the reasoning for this policy, yet the out of context sound bites keep being repeated.

  17. I’m not quite sure what, precisely some of these “Ex-Mormons” expect–that Christ’s church is duty bound to let them tear it apart from the inside, as it were? Yes, the Church welcomes all who want to repent and be converted, and many, many Ex-Mormons who are good people are just fine. But then there are the Sherems, the Korihors, the snakes in the grass, the Simon Magus’ and so forth.

    Why, exactly, should Christ’s church welcome emissaries of Satan? And yes, that is exactly what some Ex Mormons are: emissaries of Satan. The Lord’s prophets have always spoken truth, and put it bluntly. Some wicked take the truth as hard; the Labans and Lemuels–and never forget, they thought they were the righteous ones. So did the Pharisee’s and Sadducees that put our Lord to death: just like many of the virulent Ex-Mormons wish to do to us. We have no call to allow them to do so.

    The Lord’s path is the strait and narrow one; and those people in the great and spacious building should be shunned, for our own salvation’s sake. Do not allow them or their mocking, or even their honeyed words, to distract us, or the least of those among us.

    Again, many leave the Church and go on, and perhaps may well come back some day. Those should be welcomed with open arms.

    And many there be who, like Laman and Lemuel, or like Korihor, leave and seek to destroy the faith of those who remain. Those should be actively resisted. The Lord had words like “whited seplechure” and “hypocrite” for them in His day; and I’m sure they didn’t like hearing it either. The wicked take the truth to be hard, and sometimes things must be said–if only to protect the righteous from being deceived.

  18. One area where the Church has always lost members is older divorced males. One reason, is that unlike a lot of other Churches, the LDS Church really has no organized program for divorce recovery. These have been shown to speed recovery, and importantly, help them avoid moral problems which is actually a normal response for emotionally damaged persons that have undergone trauma. I often wonder if the Church doesn’t want to talk about divorce because they think that it will somehow increase divorces? Next to the death of a spouse, divorce is the next most traumatic experience, and in the LDS community is often worse because it often involves the dissolution of a temple marriage.

  19. I’m thankful for this article. For years I’ve suffered from stress and even panic associated with social anxiety, and it’s only in recent years I discovered therapies and self-talk that works. Sometimes I would be tempted to blame church members and think I was all alone in not being able to fully participate the way I wanted. Sometimes I wanted to ask how it was so easy for them, but so hard for me. But I was too ashamed to admit how stressed I was.When my active, social son confided the same stress to me, I knew it was the same hereditary trait I’d seen in differing ways in my family and realized that the gospel had been a saving factor for both of us and something the others did not have. The gospel told us we were good enough, even when we didn’t feel it from our own thoughts. I am thankful for my faith and my son’s faith, and realize now I can admit it and I’m not alone.

  20. Is this available in audio or video format somewhere? If not, it needs to be.

    “The spoken word is now as powerful as the written word”.
    – Jordan B. Peterson

  21. I have seen two family members suffer periods of acute social anxiety about being out in public and in large gatherings, which obviously makes church attendance difficult. It was not something that arose from any lack of faith. It was a handicap to attending school and working as well.

    Many people are still in the mode of thinking that mental and emotional illnesses are not real, like physical ones. One of these family members had to withdraw from BYU at one point, but one of his instructors refused to let him do so without penalizing his grade, because, she said, her uncle was a psychologist who said mental illnesses were just a failure of character and self control. We spoke to the BYU legal department, who got the instructor straightened out, but such ignorance about the reality of mental disabilities beyond our conscious control is still perpetuated among people who think positive thinking and mustering faith can easily remove such obstacles. I think people in that mindset do not appreciate the real nature of turning to the Savior in complete surrender, admitting that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves, and having faith that he has fully inhabited our own sufferings and overcome them on our behalf. That understanding about the nature of the Atonement is one of the plain and precious things restored through the Book of Mormon.

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