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Beyond Coping: A New Approach to Mental Health Healing

Learn how asking the right questions can lead to transformative change and hope in mental health healing. This article explores the intersection of faith and mental wellness and how God can help us heal beyond coping.

Within the last year, I have grappled with intense anxiety, even to the point of experiencing several panic attacks throughout each week. One particularly challenging night, my husband Blake lovingly suggested I try an unorthodox remedy: an ice bath. Despite my many reservations, I decided to give it a shot. The ice bath was simultaneously awful and amazing. However, what felt more important was the thought process I experienced. As I sat in the freezing water, crying and feeling angry toward God, I asked, “Why can’t you just take this away?” In that moment, a gentle peace filled my heart, and a simple yet profound response came to me: “You’re asking the wrong question.” This article delves into the transformative journey that followed.

Conceptualizing Our Own Experience

With mental illness on the rise, phrases like “I can’t just pray away my depression” or “I did not choose to feel this way” are increasingly common, reflecting a struggle with mental health and spiritual practice. People may feel betrayed when religious actions do not seem to alleviate their mental distress. This leads to a faulty assumption that God operates like a vending machine, providing relief in exchange for piety. However, this mindset proves inadequate.

Some then adopt a medical model, viewing their mental health issues as pathologies. Jacob Hess observed that, for these individuals, the focus becomes managing and coping rather than seeking deeper healing. While initially comforting, this model can limit hope and change. Caught between “praying our struggles away” and “I have a disease,” many find themselves grappling with a mix of environmental and genetic factors to explain their experiences.

Pose questions in a way that allows for an answer.

Yet, there may be another option that offers hope while acknowledging the realities of mental distress. Dr. Edwin Gantt and colleagues suggest that some questions seemingly without answers may be rooted in the wrong premise. Through my own experience, I came to recognize this profound concept that is further illustrated by asking the right questions.

Asking Not Amiss

The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi emphasizes this point, “Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss.” We often categorize questions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and church leaders advise against asking questions with known answers. What does that look like, then, when we question things like career or mental health that typically depend on the context of our lives?

Perhaps, asking ‘not amiss’ means posing questions in a way that allows for an answer. During trials, if we merely ask God to remove our difficulties, we may limit His ability to respond. This approach assumes a closed positionality and that Heavenly Father should work according to our timeline. The question “Can you take this away?” is restrictive, suggesting that if He doesn’t remove the problem or provide an answer, He is not listening or lacks power.

However, seeking help in more engaging ways can lead to better, more insightful personal revelation. By asking genuine, open questions, we involve ourselves in the process of change and create space for divine guidance.

The Atonement of Jesus Christ and Mental Health 

In discussing mental health, Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reminds us that we live in a fallen world where our pursuit of godliness is tested. A Savior, the Redeemer, was promised to lift us triumphantly over those tests and trials through our faith. He states, “It is only an appreciation of this divine love that will make our own lesser suffering first bearable, then understandable, and finally redemptive.”

We can mistakenly treat Christ’s atonement and divine love like a magic pill to fix our circumstances or as an ultimate coping skill. Although Christ does provide support, the atonement is significantly more than that. The late Bruce R. McConkie, also an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ, notes, “The atonement of Christ is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the gospel, and it is the least understood.” By asking closed-ended questions, we limit our understanding and healing. We can miss that the Atonement is a powerful process of engagement and change.

The Atonement, or ‘at-one-ment,’ allows us to be ‘at one’ with Jesus Christ. In other languages, reconciliation—meaning “to sit with”—is used to describe it. Instead of viewing the Atonement as something we use, we should see it as an intentional collaboration with Christ. Rather than asking for a trial to be removed, we can seek His peace, strength, and guidance.

Christ strengthens and directs us as we act. He “sits with us,” granting strength, wisdom, and love as we invite Him into our lives. However, our agency allows us to choose whether to turn to Him. Some things, even within the context of mental illness, are up to us.

Mental Health and Moral Agency

Agency is central to the faith of members of the Church of Jesus Christ. In their doctrine, Satan was cast down to preserve our agentic nature. However, when discussing agency and mental health, many mistakenly equate it to ‘choice.’ Insinuating that someone in despair ‘chose’ their feelings is not entirely accurate and can be unintentionally hurtful. Agency extends beyond choice, especially in the context of mental health, encompassing a holistic ‘way-of-being’ in the world. Dr. Edwin Gantt and Dr. Jeffrey Thayne state that “human action is always agentic,” even as we engage with prior events, meanings, and relationships.

One way to understand agency is by comparing it to functional fitness, which includes everyday physical activities that promote overall health. Sometimes we engage in these activities consciously, while other times, we do so unconsciously. When experiencing pain, it often results from long-term misuse of the body before pain manifests. Addressing symptoms is important, but finding the root causes is also essential for true healing.

Agency extends beyond choice.

Likewise, when facing emotional distress, we can reflect on our engagement with the world before reaching a critical threshold. Our thoughts, actions, behaviors, and habits contribute to our mental well-being, often before noticeable issues arise. Acknowledging these engagements does not negate the individual’s distress, but by retracing our steps, engaging with Christ’s Atonement, and recognizing our moral agency, we can ask the right questions that empower us to enact real change and improve our experience.

Asking Different Questions and Changing Our Own Experience

During my husband Blake’s time on BYU’s hockey team, I often found myself sending up pleas for a miracle breakaway goal to win close games like any sports fan in a tight game. Yet, I didn’t pray for them to have productive practices, to form team cohesion, or to spend more time working on their umbrella power play, which sorely needed the work. Similarly, we might ask a loving God for help during our own figurative third periods instead of asking for his help with the life choices leading to those moments. By focusing on the symptoms, we may overlook the opportunity to engage with Heavenly Father in all aspects of our lives.

God invites us to pray for the capability of a championship performance rather than relying on last-minute miracles, even if I fully believe He is capable of performing them. Suffering can teach us valuable life lessons. What if we prayed to see our experiences more clearly, for Christ to ‘sit with us,’ to recognize our contributions to our situation, or to find the right people to help us? These open-ended questions allow God to guide us more effectively.

Elder Holland said in a BYU devotional: “As you labor to know him, and to know that he knows you … you will indeed find that ‘he shall give his angel charge concerning thee and in their hands, they shall bear thee up’ (Matthew 4:6). It may not come quickly … But there is purpose in the time it takes.”

Mental distress is complex and personal. Finding different ways to engage with our experiences doesn’t negate their reality. We can experience hope and change through Christ if we allow His love and healing into our lives. Healing may take time, but trusting in Him will lead to greater light and knowledge as we seek the right questions to ask our Heavenly Father, who is always eager to help us on our journey.

About the author

Brianna Holmes

Brianna Holmes graduated with a degree in Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling and is currently a practicing counselor in Utah. Her area of interest is how professionals can focus on the agentic nature of human beings in therapeutic practices. She and her husband are parents to four beautiful children.
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