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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Helping the Struggling Brethren

by Kevin Shafer:

Recently, men’s mental health has received substantial research and popular media attention. These reports emphasize that men seek help less often for their problems than women, have few close friends, and tend to externalize their problems through anger, substance abuse, and other problem behaviors. Men often feel they can’t share their problems with others because they are constricted by hyper-masculine norms that tell men they have to be self-reliant and confident in themselves. Not surprisingly, such attitudes hurt men, their families, and the people they most care about.

Although I have no data to support my claim, I think that the men of the Church are doing worse than the average American male when it comes to psychological well-being and lack of help-seeking. In addition to masculine norms, which are seemingly pervasive within church culture, LDS men often face several norms which reduce help-seeking and increase stress, in my view. For one, men are often viewed as the servers, often because of priesthood responsibilities, and rarely the served. Second, LDS culture and interpretations of doctrine tell men that they are to be leaders and American conceptions of leadership exude strength and reliability. Weakness and personal struggle are rarely seen as leadership attributes in our culture. Third, messaging about self-reliance has the potential to be harmful. Fourth, we assume that because someone is in church weekly, performs a calling, etc. that they are "doing fine," and thus, can be somewhat ignored for other concerns. Finally, cultural attitudes about mental health are not particularly healthy within the church. Although I believe that Elder Holland’s October 2013 General Conference address will go a long way to change these unhealthy perceptions of poor mental health, many Mormons still believe that increased prayer, fasting, and faith can cure such ailments. Although I have no doubt that these activities can improve mental health, they rarely cure depression, anxiety, and more serious mental health issues. Obviously, there are many other contributing factors that block help-seeking in LDS men, but these four highlight some of the barriers which exist within church culture.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the challenges of LDS men—and how to help them. My feelings are those of a 33 year-old married father of three (my kids are ages 5, 3, and 1) at the beginning of his career, a challenging time for many men. My wife’s work is currently as a stay-at-home mother, which comes with the many challenges of raising three children aged 5 and under, including the total lack of adult communication during the day and supervising individuals who rarely listen (and can’t be fired), even more rarely help themselves, and are pretty bad at cleaning up (on the plus side, they are pretty adorable, fun, and cool). Although I completely trust my wife, burdening her with my problems seems like I’m minimizing her problems and challenges. It seems unfair for her to shoulder these challenges. Of course, I think many men, particularly in the LDS Church, do exactly this—which raises questions about its effect on women and children, not to mention the total lack of support for the single Brethren of the Church.

My modest (and likely flawed) proposal to combat this problem is a real investment in home teaching and increased solidarity within our quorums. Obviously, these are not unique solutions—but how wonderful would home teaching be and how high would the home teaching numbers be if we saw it not only as a support for the families we teach, but also for the men—giving them access to friendship, counsel, and Priesthood. We emphasize the critical need for Priesthood in the lives of women and children, but place less emphasis on it for men. Yet, I’m convinced that men need the Priesthood as much as anyone else! There are many times that we need comfort or council that can only come through a Priesthood Blessing. Living in Utah, I’ve noticed that many men rely upon family members—but some men in Utah and many men elsewhere are nowhere near family. I’m convinced that such an experience will be unifying for our quorums and really emphasize what home teaching is really about. It’s my 2014 goal to be more like the home teacher I’m describing, someone who cares for the whole family and someone who can be a friend to brethren whenever they are struggling.

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Kevin Shafer, or the guest child formerly known as Cougar Buckeye, is currently a resident of Springville, Utah after growing up in Columbus, Ohio. He is a convert to the Church, having joined in his PhD program at Ohio State. Today, he is a professor of social work at BYU where his convert status and lack of degrees from said institution adds just a hint of diversity. In contrast to his own family history, he thinks that his wife’s ancestors may have missed the April 6, 1830 church meeting, but were definitely there on the 13th. He and his wife and three beautiful, rambunctious, and zesty children. He thinks the best part of MMM is the relatively easy peer review process, which stands in contrast to his professional life. Twitter: @ShaferSW.
 photo Line-625_zpse3e49f32.gif Image credit: Marina Caprara (used with permission).

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