Don’t mentally ill people just lack willpower?

Judging by the number of New Year’s resolutions that are discarded by February 1st each year, I doubt that people with mental illness are the only ones who struggle with willpower.

But is simply exercising willpower the solution to mental illness?

From the outside, it’s so easy to look at a person and their problems and say things like, “Why don’t you just pull yourself together?” or “Just get over it.” Such responses are both invalidating and unhelpful. It’s like telling a drowning person, “It’s easy. Just swim out of there.” The underlying message is, “You shouldn’t feel/think/be that way. You have free will. Use it. And if you can’t handle it on your own, there’s something wrong with you.”

Can you think of a more discouraging and uncompassionate response?

In a faith that places such emphasis on moral agency, Mormons may tend to presume that people have greater agency than they actually have. While we certainly have the agency to act and make choices, the range of that agency is limited by such things as biology, physical laws, societal laws, others’ actions, individual knowledge, skills, and power, and so forth. We do not get to choose everything that comes to us, and even in similar circumstances, some people may have (or be aware of) choices that others do not.

Addressing this myth, Elder Alexander B. Morrison writes, “That fact is that seriously mentally ill persons simply cannot, through an exercise of will, get out of the predicament they are in.” If it were possible, they would certainly do it, wouldn’t they? Given the option, wouldn’t everyone choose not to be drowning in depression, paralyzed by anxiety, or tormented by unwanted thoughts? But the fact of the matter is that there are many things we cannot change with willpower alone. At one point the Savior asked, “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature?” (Matt 6:27). The answer is, of course, no one.

Fortunately, the ability to cope effectively with mental illness does not depend on willpower alone. There is help and support available. With counseling or other support, people can develop effective coping skills, strong support networks, healthy boundaries, and more realistic and positive ways of thinking. Some might find value in self-understanding or finding meaning in their struggles, or may gain stability with a combination of medication and counseling.

Those acquainted with individuals or families affected by mental illness can counteract myths about mental illness by increasing our knowledge, understanding, and compassion for those who struggle—thereby giving them the lifeline they need rather than the criticism they don’t.

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