Mental health continues to be difficult for many people to understand. We seem to grasp physical ailments; bruises and cuts and headaches are pains we all have experienced. More serious health troubles—diabetes, cancer, or the physical pain associated with a broken arm or surgery—are still in the realm of the tactile and thus are fairly easy to grasp conceptually, even by those who have not gone through any such trauma. But when it comes to the realm of mental illnesses—bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or even more common ailments like dysthymia—we may find ourselves scratching our heads. What is the nature of mental disorders? Are they considered diseases? Or are they the byproduct of poor choices?
This is not to say that the general population is any better off, but most Latter-day Saints have very little direct understanding of mental illness. Many feel confused by mental health in general, and that confusion certainly does not get any better when they attempt to understand specific disorders. Their knowledge of mental illness usually ends at the rudimentary level of “I have heard a few things about it.” Predictably, such informal understanding helps to promulgate inaccuracies and myths, which obviously are not helpful to those who are suffering or looking for answers.
Home teachers, visiting teachers, and even bishops and stake presidents are not immune to a certain amount of confusion on the subject. How will a bishop, for example, counsel a young woman struggling with an eating disorder when he has no knowledge on the subject? He may give invaluable spiritual advice, but with no frame of reference, he is unlikely to point her in a direction that can directly address her problem.