Ministering to Latter-day Saints with Emotional Behavioral Disorders


In the first article of 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.

Questions to Ask and Address

Sad depressed man holding face
We can best unite our ward families by simply following the example of the Savior.

Emotional behavioral disorders affect members of all ages. They include autism, attention deficit-hyperactive disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, depression, anxiety, alzheimer’s, and dementia, among many others. Luckily, there’s much more information about each of these conditions now than ever before. It is up to each of us to meet the call to love our neighbors.

Understanding an individual’s disability is the first step toward knowing how to help them. It’s important to help them feel that they are important, contributing members within the ward family.

In his talk “On Being Genuine,” President Uchtdorf said,

If Jesus Christ were to sit down with us and ask for an accounting of our stewardship, I am not sure He would focus much on programs and statistics. What the Savior would want to know is the condition of our heart. He would want to know how we love and minister to those in our care, how we show our love to our spouse and family, and how we lighten their daily load.

This article will address and answer these questions on how to minister to, serve, and teach “the One.”

    • What stigmas, myths, or fears may ward members have about these disorders that may be alleviated?
    • How many needto be aware ofthe 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 member have that will help them develop connections?
    • What activities and opportunities would encourage the well-being of all members involved?

Take Time to Understand an Individual’s Disorder

Researching emotional and behavioral disabilities on a laptop computer
Utilizing Information from good sources is vital to understanding emotional behavioral disabilities

Members in leadership positions need to know and understand basic information about an individual’s disorder in order to know how to serve them. This information can also be used in training others who are involved in serving and teaching the these special members. The bishopric, auxiliary leaders, teachers, and home and visiting teachers should all make sure they’re well-informed.

One source that leaders can turn to is the National Association of Mental Illness, which carries a great deal of information about specific disorders. Go there for details on causes and symptoms, suggestions for treatment, helplines available, and suggestions for living with and dealing with the disorder.

Five Step Strategy for Integration

Visiting Teachers playing ukuleles with a sister of their ward
It is important to identify needs, develop a plan, and follow through with service

1. Identify the Needs of the Individual

Don’t be afraid to approach the individual or their family members with questions. Dr. Bruce Johns PhD and former Bishop from N. Logan, UT, says, “Most people actually appreciate others who try to understand by simply asking and learning about them and their conditions. Inside these people are wonderful spirits. Getting to know them will bless everyone’s lives.”

Auxiliary presidencies and home and visiting teachers are uniquely placed to do so, and will if they have been faithfully exercising their callings. Bishops can’t do everything. Those who minister closely to the individuals are usually in the best position to learn about their needs.

If you don’t know how to begin what may seem like a difficult conversation, turn to the Lord. Pray for the inspiration that only He can provide.

2. Develop and Follow through with a Plan of Action

Always follow-up with those who are offering service, whether they’re in the ward council, bishopric, quorum, or auxiliary presidency.

Once again, utilize the power of prayer to make inspired assignments or adjustments in callings where appropriate. The Lord will put into place those who can best meet the needs of the individual and their family.

When ward or stake disability specialists are available, work with them. Members who are called to positions of service, above all else, need the following attributes: a spirit of love and willingness to learn.

It’s up to the leaders and teachers to “put [their] trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously;” (Doctrine and Covenants 11:12).

3. Learn to Be Adaptable and Patient

If problems with behavior, reverence, personality compatibility, resistance, or fear arise don’t be discouraged! Don’t give up! Simply remember the worth of the individual. Issues can be solved if they are addressed early and with a spirit of compassion.

Consult the 13th Article of Faith for key eternal principles: consistency, organization, routines, praise, understanding, and patience.

Despite our best efforts, there will be times when plans don’t work. Be as flexible as possible, given each circumstance. Remember that the Lord has a divine purpose and plan for each of His children. We all have trials and tests and we all make mistakes. We grow “line upon line-precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30).

Family gardening together
Everyone’s spiritual and personal growth includes action, support, service, guidance and genuine love.

4. Form a Support Group for Them

The spiritual growth of a member with an emotional or behavioral disorder is as important as any other member’s. Note that they may need help outside of the professional help they receive. Members, regardless of their callings, can create a circle of support. These members should:

  • Stay in touch-regularly, not just on Sundays or as home/visiting teachers.
  • Help them get to meetings, or have priesthood holders go to them if it’s not possible for them to attend regular meetings.
  • Encourage progress and activity-no matter how insignificant it may seem—or even when it appears that a person is backsliding a little. Think two steps forward, one step back.
  • Help them apply the principle of repentance when they ask for it. Remember that, while everyone makes mistakes, a person with behavioral disorder is not always “in control.” They may need extra help to make appropriate choices. Bishops, in particular will need to use the guidance of the Holy Ghost in order to help an individual who has made serious mistakes as a result of their disorder.
  • Show friendship by listening and responding appropriately without judgement or criticism.
  • Share your testimony where appropriate.
  • Pray for them, and also who are willing to pray with them.

5. Find Service Opportunities

Members with emotional and behavioral disorders need opportunities to serve. There are plenty of opportunities available, and many can be made. Members can come together, get creative, and find a need; no matter how simple, that the individual can help meet that need.

Help the individual overcome their fears; many people with disorders have difficulty doing so on their own. On the other side of the spectrum, help other members overcome their own fears about the individual or their struggles.

Service is an essential part of our spiritual growth. When considering service opportunities, you might want to think about activities that can include the entire ward.

Options may include:

  • Ward choir
  • Cannery assignments
  • Temple work excursions
  • Primary activity days
  • Young Men/Young Women camps, treks and youth conferences
  • Service as a home/visiting teacher

These opportunities will enable members with special needs to feel and receive the blessings of serving someone else. Special Family Night activities with other ward members can also help them broaden the spectrum of those they know well in the ward, and can help them feel comfortable with new people and new situations.

Mentors, who serve as role models and friends, are an integral part of a plan to help those with special needs serve effectively. Companions and co-chairs can guide, teach, support, minister, and most importantly, show the individuals that they are sincerely loved!

General Information on Specific Disorders

Along with general descriptions of some of the more common disorders, you will find in this section some age appropriate suggestions for dealing with these disorders.

We’ve also included ideas for activities and service opportunities, links to a few nationally recognized organizations and their official websites, and some professional, gospel-centered sources.

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome

Spectrum disorders, such as autism, have a wide range symptoms, skill levels, socialization, and communication abilities on the part of the individual.

These individuals generally have difficulties which affect their social interactions as well as their abilities to and interpreting emotions, senses, surroundings, and even inanimate objects. Secondary learning issues are common.

Positive classroom settings and structured activities are crucial to helping persons with these issues adapt and function appropriately.

Primary teachers and music leaders are key people who can help children with autism learn to relate to others, make connections in learning scripture stories and concepts, and adapt to change in their environments by providing consistency in action and expectations for a child.

Primary children learn at church
Everyone needs: safety, order, structure, boundaries and consistent love to learn by example

Karen (names changed), whose son Taylor was found hiding behind a foyer sofa after bolting from primary, found this to be true. The noise and chaos had become too overwhelming for him to deal with. A lack of consistency set his progress back by months simply because he didn’t feel safe.

Karen says,

These special children need to feel safe. They need order, structure, boundaries and consistent love shown through tolerance, reverence, and an example of discipline. These things are key to them having successful life skill development church settings.

Discipline can be an important part of this structure and boundaries. “Discipline is not a ‘bad’ word,” she adds. “It’s training and teaching, just as the disciples followed Christ. These children need to learn by example.”

The inclusion of adults who have never developed social skills can be difficult. But it’s never too late to develop friendships.

Callings which utilize a person’s interests and strengths will help them build crucial coping mechanisms. They also help the individual and those around them recognize their value by allowing them to utilize their inherent talents which may have otherwise been overlooked.

Many people with Asperger’s syndrome are highly intelligent and have much to offer to any ward, and yet they still need the examples and support of others in order to let their light shine.

Attention Deficit-Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

The presence of ADD and ADHD spans all age groups. Individuals may have have trouble maintaining focus, and they often have difficulty controlling their behavior. For example, they may be very impulsive.

Inattention causes them to bounce from one activity to another. Because of this, they become easily bored. They may have difficulty completing assignments, processing information, or follow directions. Both children and adults may find it difficult to sit through an entire Sacrament meeting let alone a shorter class lesson.

They are also known to lose things frequently like keys, misplace scriptures, clothing etc., often making it difficult for them to be on time to meetings.

Hyperactivity can make the person with ADHD fidgety and talkative. They often have difficulty sitting still through any quiet activity such as story time or talks. Holding a toy or object may help teens and adults focus. A variety of special Sunday-only quiet toys that can be played with during sacrament meeting and primary may be helpful for the child with ADHD or ADD.

For teachers who find their classroom time constantly interrupted, ignoring the “bad” behavior and rewarding the “good” can help restore order, although visuals and media sources from the ward library is also very effective.

Impulsivity may make them impatient, blurt out inappropriate comments act out with unrestrained emotion and disregard for the consequences of their actions. Setting clear, simple classroom rules and following structure patterns can help minimize distracting behavior by allowing the individual to know what he or she can expect and look forward to.

Little girl singing the hymns
Participatory activities like music help maintain focus and reverence for those with ADHD.

Music can play an important role in helping with both hyperactivity, focus, and impulse control. Primary music leaders can utilize their choice of song to help encourage reverence or participation, depending.

Eating Disorders (Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia, and Binge-Eating Disorder)

Eating disorders stem from biological, genetic, behavioral, social, and psychological causes. Note that teens and young adults are especially prone to develop eating disorders.

It takes familial, professional, and communal support to address these disorders. Because our culture is very social, Latter-day Saints often include food as a major component into our ward activities, but if the food becomes the main focus, it may keep a member suffering from one of these disorders from participating or even attending.

Our belief in the Word of Wisdom can assist in developing a strong, spiritual sense self. However, sheer belief is not enough to cure anyone of their eating disorder. These individuals need professional help. If members require residential treatment help at any point, they should not be excluded from activities upon their return.

Inclusion in normal activities where food could become an issue should be handled with discretion and sensitivity. Anyone with self-esteem issues already has a difficult time feeling like they’re a worthwhile part of a group. Be sensitive, but be inclusive and loving as well.

Woman praying at the side of a couch


Depression is not the same as feeling blue or unhappy. It is a very real and very serious reality for many people, and can happen at any stage of life. There exists a variety of causes, some of which may be events, and others a chemical imbalance.

Men, women, seniors, teens, and children all experience this disorder differently. There are a few things beyond clinical treatment with which ward members can assist in. Ward activities, regular visits, and friendship can also lift someone up, and family-oriented activities (group family home evenings), meditation, faith building exercises lessons (scripture study groups or family history work), and opportunities for prayer both individually and in groups can also bring members together.

Faithful home teachers are vital when priesthood blessings are needed.

Symptoms to watch for include withdrawal from and apathy for things that once interested the individual.

Anxiety Disorders

While there can be many varieties of anxiety disorders, they share one major factor: fear, fear that persists even in situations that are seemingly non-threatening.

Emotional and physical symptoms can range from panic attacks to phobias. These symptoms affect a person’s ability to feel comfortable in social situations like church, limiting their ability to participate in meetings or activities.

Learning to overcome the symptoms of anxiety is often a very slow process. A circle of support here, consistent treatment, and ward-wide patience and love are crucial. For example, go the extra mile as a home or visiting teacher.

Memory Loss Issues (e.g. Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Traumatic Brain Injury)

Memory loss issues can create long-term emotional, physical, and behavioral issues that can involve whole families. Caretakers will often be in need of service and compassion.

Individuals who have traumatic brain injuries can experience symptoms that affect life on a daily, social, intellectual, behavioral, and spiritual basis. Exercise patience with all, and especially those who struggle with self-control. Be sensitive to the person’s ability to communicate, focus, and form relationships in the ward and with their family.

Two Boys rake leaves
Service connects spirits and promotes well-being for all involved

For individuals diagnosed with disorders like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, the ward family can be of invaluable support to them and their families. Members may be of assistance by visiting regularly, allowing the person to feel a sense of unity, and to give caretakers much needed breaks and rest.

Priesthood holders can deliver the sacrament under the Bishop’s direction, and the Relief Society can organize compassionate services as needed. Primary and Young Men/Young Women organizations can provide service hours of cleaning, visiting, yard care, grocery deliveries, etc. Taking short drives or walks, if the person is comfortable, can be a great bonding experience.

Music is known to have a profound effect in the lives of those suffering from Alzheimer’s in all stages of the disease. Music’s power forms connections that cannot happen in any other way. It can calm or stimulate the soul, where needed.

Primary children and the youth of a ward can serve by visiting and singing songs that a person may remember. Other members may be able to read and or listen to music with the individual, or play an instrument to provide an enjoyable or even spiritual experience. Though the mind may be “lost,” the spirit is still there.

“These disorders are not a matter of weakness,” Dr. Johns states. “It’s not a matter of being able to ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ or pretend the problem doesn’t exist.”

As members, we need to remove the fear and stigmas previously and erroneously attached to these conditions. People are not their disease or their disorder.

Jesus defends woman taken in adultery
Choose to see and acknowledge the ‘Good Part’ in all things.

The Savior’s Ministry and Example

Our Savior, Jesus Christ, served and ministered to “the One” on many occasions. An example of His ministry to an individual who may have suffered from a disorder or some kind can be found in Matthew 17:14-18.

You can find another example in Luke 10:38-42, when Martha’s anxiousness caused her to be “careful and troubled about many things.” Her anxiousness may have been of a simple nature, or more complex one. We don’t know. What we do know is that Christ showed concern and compassion for her.

We can choose to see the “good part” in another. A person’s disorder does not define who they are; it is simply part of their experience, a test that they must pass through in this life. Surely, their disabilities are ours too, if we adhere to the principal that we, “bear one another’s burdens.”

We can choose to see someone for their talents as well. For example, we can see someone for being musically talented rather than that person who can’t make it on time to a meeting. We can see a “disruptive” child for their loving nature and their desire to learn everything. We can love the elderly brother who can’t remember your name, but smiles every time he sees you and tells you that “he is glad to meet you”—again. We can choose to acknowledge the sister who carries a dark cloud of gloom with her, but is willing to fulfill a cannery assignment or bring a food to a funeral.

All members, whether they have special needs or not, have one thing in common: they, like all of us, need to feel wanted, needed and appreciated.

Click here to read “Ministering to Latter-day Saints with Physical Challenges and Disabilities.”

Bonus link: How having a dog at home can help with mental illness.

Athena now works and lives on an old family farm homestead in northern Utah, after working in the public school system, for non-profit organizations, and in the fashion industry. She enjoys western living after having lived and moved 25 times around the Inter-mountain West. She loves writing, art, gardening and thrift shopping. She adores all her kids-the 'Grands' and four-legged variety.