With this fourth and final article in this series, we hope to provide another resource to help ward members better serve individuals with special needs. Individuals with disabilities and disorders can be vital, contributing members. And remember that by ministering to “the One,” we serve all.
Mental disorders can be challenging to deal with, as professional help may not be available to or wanted by an individual—and even if it is, many disorders are overlooked or even misdiagnosed. As a result, many people with these conditions often ‘fall through the cracks’, especially when church leaders and general membership don’t quite know how to deal with either the conditions or the individuals themselves.
In my interview with Dr. Bruce Johns, PhD, he stated, “They are not just their disorders! They have the same sides to personalities as ‘normal people,’ and there are more similarities than differences. Disorders are not diseases. Those who suffer from disorders are real thinking and feeling people.”
But before we can help them, it is imperative that we remember these basic truths: mental disorders are not diseases, nor are they a result of sin. Those who suffer from them cannot just ‘shake’ them off, ‘toughen up,’ or ‘grow up and get over it.’ Moreover, mental disorders are much more common than people realize, and their effects reach beyond the individual, so keep their families in mind as you seek to serve them.
Questions to Ask and Address
There are several questions to ask as we seek to serve these individuals:
- What stigmas, myths, or fears may ward members have about these disorders that may be alleviated?
- How many need to be aware of the individual’s more personal information, and how many need only know the basic facts in order to provide effective assistance?
- How can understanding the various aspects of a disorder help to meet the needs of the member?
- What interests do the members have that will help them develop connections?
- What activities and opportunities would encourage the well-being of all members involved?
Here are some sources to consider as you seek answers to these questions:
- Family members
- Professional websites
- Church family services
- The individuals themselves
Leaders, teachers, and ward members should also remember to include prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they serve. Learn to listen!
Welcoming Members into the Ward
Now that we’ve addressed some of the basic questions, here are five tips on how to welcome these members into the ward.
- Form a Plan of Action
“Be honest enough to ask directly—What can I do? How can I help? What do you need?” Dr. Bruce Johns (Logan)
Keeping in mind the answers to those basic questions, get together with those who are most directly involved and form a specific plan to incorporate individuals with special needs into the ward.
If appropriate, invite the individual to be a part of that plan, although caution is advised: friendships within the ward should feel natural. Making the individual feel as if he or she is part of some elaborate “scheme” won’t encourage trust.
- Incorporate, Activate, and Befriend
Visiting and home teachers are perhaps the most vital of those who can make a difference in the lives of people with mental disorders. If they truly embrace their roles with a desire to serve their teachees with Christ-like love, they may even find themselves forming eternal bonds of brother and sisterhood.
As a home or visiting teacher, you can do several things to actively support individuals with any of these disorders:
- Stay in regular contact, above and beyond monthly visits.
- Help them get to meetings regularly, or go to them if they cannot leave home.
- Encourage any and all progress and activity—no matter how slight or insignificant it may seem.
- Show fellowship and friendship by listening and responding appropriately; without judgment or criticism.
- Pray for and with them, and share personal testimonies to help them through difficult times.
That said, certain disorders like phobias and anxiety may cause extreme fear that keeps the individual from seeking out fellowship or attending normal social church functions. In these cases, visiting and home teachers become vital lifelines for contact, support, and friendship.
- Provide Opportunities for Service and Spiritual Growth
Co-chair callings can be well suited to those with mental disorders. Many need the solid, dependable presence of an individual who is a stabilizing influence and a good example of one who lives gospel principles.
Auxiliary and quorum leaders, ward councils, and teachers should all be creative in finding ways for those within their groups to be of service. Everyone who is willing should have the opportunity to grow by serving.
- Research Varying Disorders
Each ward and/or stake should call a Disability Specialist. That way there is always information and training available for other ward members!
Another great source for basic information includes the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), or www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions. There are also local and state support groups and offices nationwide, and LDS Family Services can also be of help for members and their families.
In addition to these sources, we’ve provided a basic guide to some of the more common mental disabilities.
Bi-Polar/Manic Depressive Disorder
Bipolar disorder affects both men and women, and generally appears in someone’s early to mid-twenties. This mental illness causes swinging energy levels and thoughts as well as extreme shifts in mood. These shifts are generally referred to as mania and depression, although there are many different stages that exist between the extremes.
These individuals are often at risk for dangerous behaviors, many of which may not always be in accord with church teachings and doctrine. Compassion, love, and direction is essential for presiding church leaders, especially considering individuals may not realize the negative consequences of their behavior.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline personality disorder is characterized by severe, unstable emotions. These individuals will usually also suffer from negative self-image and difficult personal relationships, both of which can trigger self-destructive behaviors. Strong peer groups and reliable mentors can be helpful additions to professional treatment.
Those who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder experience repetitious, irrational thoughts and urges. These urges often translate into actions that can take over their lives to an extent that makes no sense to themselves or others. Regardless, they are unable to stop them on their own.
Many times these actions come as an attempt to relieve stress. Unfortunately, continuation only creates more problems. ‘Hoarding disorder’ is an example of this.
Medication and psycho-therapy can be helpful in relieving symptoms. However, the disorder cannot be cured; only managed. Patience, tolerance, and love are key to helping those who suffer with these symptoms feel more in control. Extra effort may be needed to help those individuals who act out on impulses that make others uncomfortable. If you’re trying to help, remember that there is no conscious sin taking place, and all efforts to control behaviors should be supported and applauded.
Anxiety Disorders (Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety and Phobias)
Anxiety disorders each have their own unique symptoms, but with one commonality: extreme and excessive fear that often makes itself manifest in non-threatening situations.
These intense levels of fear may cause panic attacks, which can cause intense physical symptoms that can be mistaken for serious medical conditions. Individuals with an anxiety disorder will often avoid situations that trigger these panic attacks. There may be many of these situations, and for this reason, this particular disorder can consume a person’s life. Treatment may take months, even years of baby steps.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Symptoms of this disorder may not show up until months or years after the event has occurred. When they do, however, these ongoing psychological symptoms can cause damage to the brain’s response system, especially when individuals are hyper-vigilant in avoiding triggers which cause them to experience ‘flashbacks.’
There are many treatments available to individuals with PTSD. In addition to professional help, priesthood blessings can help restore a feeling of peace that only the Comforter can provide.
Schizophrenia and Other Delusion Disorders
These disorders affect a person’s ability to make rational decisions and to relate with others. People with schizophrenia may experience hallucinations, although an earlier symptom to watch for is isolation.
Anti-psychotic drugs have been known to help, as have managing techniques and psycho-therapy. Love and a sense of humor can ease everyone through episodes when a person is delusional. Insisting that a person ‘shape up’ or ‘snap out of it’ will not.
Dealing with the Traumatic Effects of Suicide
There is, perhaps, nothing more devastating emotionally or spiritually than the suicide of a loved one. The questions that circulate can haunt surviving family members for a lifetime.
You can find help through the support of loving members of a ward, professional counseling, and priesthood blessings. Know, too, that Heavenly Father and His son, Jesus Christ never fail in their love for us.
The Savior’s Example
During the Savior’s ministry, He ‘cast out devils’, and ‘unclean spirits’—as the people of that era often referred to mental illnesses. He did not fear. Rather, He addressed each individual’s needs and healed them. We find such examples in Matthew 8 and 9, and in Mark 5. If we are to follow in His footsteps, we must, likewise, let go of fear and replace it with love.
Just as the Savior healed during his ministry, we too can heal—although healing comes in many forms; a ‘human angel,’ can heal, as can a guardian, mentor, teacher, friend, or a fellow member of the church. Healing can come from those who serve with compassion and acceptance for ‘the One,’ as He did.
No matter what illnesses we or our families, friends or other ward members may face, there is one scripture that each of us should take to heart.
“Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27).
Click here to read “Ministering to Latter-day Saints with Emotional Behavioral Disorders.”