General Conference has once again come and gone, providing us with ample talks to read and reread, analyze, and discuss. It was an interesting General Conference—one that I loved a lot more than others in recent years—but also shockingly lacking female voices (only one female speaker in the 4 general sessions). Still, the talks were excellent and I thought I’d start off discussing one that specifically mentioned mental illness.
Our Songs and Stories
Of course, this talk was “Songs Sung and Unsung” by Elder Jeffery R. Holland. I say “of course” because Elder Holland is historically one of the only and few apostles and General Authorities of the Church to openly address mental illness in General Conference.
In his talk, Elder Holland makes frequent use of the analogy of a choir, reinforcing the idea that all voices are welcome in the choir of the Gospel and the Church. God wants us all to participate and values each of us. To me, Elder Holland was reminding us that we each have our own particular story to tell. We are each unique, and our experiences, trials, and struggles make our stories valuable and important. If we do not tell our story and live our personal experience, who else will? It is our privilege and responsibility. There is no one better to tell our story than ourselves.
Elder Holland brought in mental health challenges when he stated, “I also find it hard to sing sunny, bouncy lyrics when so many around us suffer from mental and emotional illness or other debilitating health limitations. Unfortunately, these burdens sometimes persist despite the valiant efforts of many kinds of caregivers, including family members. I pray we will not let these children of God suffer in silence and that we will be endowed with His capacity to hear the songs they cannot now sing.”
I appreciate his use of the word debilitating. Mental illnesses are and can be debilitating. They can literally rob of us the life we had been, could be, or want to be living. As he said, they also persist. They aren’t to be shrugged off or simply gotten over with a good attitude.
Suffering in Silence
His prayer here, that “we will not let these children of God suffer in silence,” is one that I think will take a lot of work and effort on the part of all of us to answer. Many of us with mental illness do not openly share or publicize our struggles. We don’t do it for multiple reasons, some of which are deeply personal and others which are simply practical. I cannot judge those who choose not to make their mental illnesses known. It is a personal decision. But I would also hope that people do not feel that they must hide their mental illness because of stigma and fear of what others will think of them. I know, of course, that this is often a huge reason people do not share their struggles, and that is why I chose to be open and advocate for change in how mental illnesses are perceived and understood.
People shouldn’t feel that they have to suffer in silence out of fear of what others will think or say about them. I think that is what Elder Holland is praying for as well—compassion, understanding, patience, and charity for each of us—both that we can receive these things and give them to others.
Be Brave in Being Different
Elder Holland reminds us that “it is by divine design that not all voices in God’s choir are the same.” Further, and something that I think it is important to note, he said “When we disparage our uniqueness or try to conform to fictitious stereotypes—stereotypes driven by an insatiable consumer culture and idealized beyond any possible realization by social media—we lose the richness of tone and timbre that God intended when He created a world of diversity.”
We are different, and we are meant to be different. We are not all meant to look or act alike, even in the Church. There is no one correct way to be a follower of Christ or to be a Mormon or any other member of a group with which you identify. Be who you are. That’s what is most important. Sing your song. Don’t allow what you think you are supposed to be like govern and change who you are.
Elder Holland’s talk is a valuable read. While sometimes the choir metaphor can feel a bit overdrawn, it is a good reminder that the Lord planned for differences and still needs and wants to hear each of our voices.
We all matter. We all have a song to sing and a story to tell and experience.