Mental illnesses engulf family, friends

Much needs to be done to dispel myths and misconceptions

Among the most painful and often protracted ordeals individuals or families can face is mental illness, Elder Alexander B. Morrison said.

"One of the central characteristics of the cruel constellation of diseases grouped under the general rubric of mental illness is the suffering involved," Elder Morrison, an Emeritus General Authority, declared Sept. 22 during a breakfast meeting in Salt Lake City for the Utah Chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness. "Its intensity scarcely can even be described. It may transcend the pain associated with the most horrific physical disorders. In many instances, it kills because it can no longer be borne."

Elder Morrison, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy given emeritus status in 2000 and a former assistant deputy minister of the Department of National Health and Welfare in Canada, explained that mental illnesses are brain disorders that cause mild to severe disturbances in a person's understanding, thinking and behavior. "If such disturbances are sufficiently severe, and last long enough, they may seriously interfere with the victim's ability to function either as an individual or as a productive member of society."

Mental illness can come in various forms, he continued, including anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, anorexia and bulimia, the latter two involving distorted perceptions of body shapes and weights, and other less-frequently observed disorders. "Although there is much we do not understand about their causation, ultimately all mental illnesses probably involve changes in the functioning of the communication between cells of the brain."

Like eddies in a dark and toxic pond, mental illness extends outward, engulfing family and friends, who, "caught up in the tsunami of suffering, the maelstrom of pain, echo the anguish and torment of the primary victims. Each longs for a day when tears will be dried, solace provided and hope rekindled; a day when torment and despair yield to human compassion and wise treatment, and to a renewed assurance that better days can and will be forthcoming."

Elder Morrison said: "Some of the heaviest burdens borne by sufferers from mental illness and their families are the prejudice, ignorance and misunderstanding which characterize the attitudes of many in society towards the mentally ill. Many victims, and their families, feel, for good reason, that they will be ridiculed, whispered about, even shunned, if they admit to mental illness, and seek help for their disorders."

Speaking of the great economic and social disruption caused by mental illness, Elder Morrison said that a recent study reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry estimated that untreated mental illness costs the U.S. $105 billion in lost productivity each year.

"In addition to the direct costs of receiving care from various health professionals, the costs of medication and of lost wages and productivity must be added other indirect costs, such as the loss of hearth and home, as families are split asunder by the unremitting pressures placed on victims and other family members."

It is also estimated, Elder Morrison explained, that more than 17 million Americans are severely depressed each year, "and nearly two-thirds do not get the help they need. Many depressed persons turn to self-medication, usually with alcohol or other mood-modifying drugs, to try in vain to drown the demons that beset them."

However, there is hope, he emphasized. "Nothing in the recital of this doleful litany of the pain and suffering undergone by those afflicted by mental illness should lead us to the erroneous conclusion that mental illness is untreatable, and that nothing worthwhile can be done for its victims. The reverse is, in fact, true."

Despite the fact that medications are far from perfect and may cause serious unwanted and deleterious side effects, numerous medications are effective against one or more forms of mental illness, he said. "Furthermore, skilled psychologists have available a number of therapeutic regimens which do not require administration of drugs, and which are of great — even curative — value to sufferers from mental illness."

Elder Morrison also emphasized: "Much needs to be done to dispel the myths and misconceptions about mental illness, the prejudice, misunderstanding and social stigma which sadly characterize the attitudes of many … towards those who are mentally ill. These include the false, and destructive notions that all mental illness is caused by sin, and not by disease; that someone, usually the victim, is to blame for mental illness; that all that people with mental illness need is an ecclesiastical blessing; that mentally ill persons just lack willpower; that mentally ill persons are dangerous and should be locked up; that mental illness doesn't strike children and young people; and that whatever the cause mental illness is untreatable and there is no hope for its victims.

"This nonsense — for that is what it is — would be laughable if it were not so destructive and hurtful," Elder Morrison said.

  • Elder Morrison has also directed several international committees in the World Health Organization.

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