Although mental illness is not necessarily caused by sin, the two can certainly coexist. Just as poor choices and mistakes can cause physical harm—such as illness, injury, or even death in some cases—certain choices we make or the actions of others can affect our mental health and emotional well-being. But for the Latter-day Saint suffering from mental illness, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the guilt caused by sin and the guilt caused by mental illness.
The conversion of Alma the Younger provides a template for the emotional experience of the repentance process: memories of past transgressions and a realization of their seriousness naturally lead to feelings of guilt, remorse, and pain. However, once repentance begins the pain is relieved by the love of the Savior and the healing power of forgiveness. Almost immediately, Alma is strengthened and filled with joy. He dedicates the rest of his life to making restitution and improving himself, eventually becoming the person God wants him to be.
Alma’s conversion shows that while the pain of repentance is intense and painful, it is also temporary and growth-promoting.
Mental illness, too, can be intense and painful, but that pain is unrelenting and is not relieved by repentance. Some mental illnesses can make it extraordinarily difficult to feel Christ’s love or the comfort and companionship of the Holy Ghost. Where Alma the Younger cried out and found anchorage in the Savior, those suffering from mental illness often feel completely abandoned. Progress and joy seem impossible; they are mired in discouragement and despair.
If you are struggling with debilitating guilt and can’t seem to make progress through the usually channels of repentance, prayer, and scripture study, you may want to consider counseling. You may also want to consider counseling if any of the following apply:
• Your guilt is excessive compared to the impact or seriousness of the perceived sin. (With high religious standards and personal expectations, I believe Mormons commonly have trouble distinguishing between mistakes and sins.)
• You feel like you are being divinely punished for something—but you don’t know what.
• You continue to feel distressed or tormented by the past, even after going through the repentance process.
• You find yourself ruminating or reliving the same painful past experiences over and over again.
• You can’t seem to move forward.
• You feel unworthy of God’s (or anyone else’s) love and forgiveness.
• You believe that, no matter what your bishop or anyone else says, the Atonement doesn’t apply to you.
• You feel hopeless and irredeemable.
• You believe that you “deserve” to feel horrible all the time.
• You’ve tried all that church stuff and nothing seems to work.
• Get help immediately if you are entertaining thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Finally, for the outside observer, it is far less important to distinguish the causes of another’s guilt or sadness. President James E. Faust once said, “The older I get, the less judgmental I become.” My experience is that most of God’s children are doing the best with what they’ve got. Whether the one is suffering as a result of individual choices or external or internal circumstances, we have no right to condemn our brothers and sisters. Our job is to bear one another’s burdens, mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. As followers of Christ, we should follow his example and extend the hand of fellowship and love and give charity to all.