#EqualAccess Series Guest Post: Equal Access for Those with Mental Illness

This post is part of The Exponent’s #EqualAccess Series. Disabled voices rarely get a chance to speak for themselves, but this blog series seeks to eliminate the stigma that disabled people are less than, and need a representative to speak on their behalf. This blog series is intended to break stereotypes by gathering the voices of disabled individuals. #DisabilityExperience

By Annie

The image below shows a green door bolted shut and locked with a large padlock.

Kilmainham Gaol door by Aimee Evans Hickman

I returned from serving a mission early due to a struggle with my mental health. My mission president made it very clear to me when I was struggling that I was to follow every rule and no accommodations would be made for me when I was struggling. The weight of those rules made me even more unhappy. With my mental illnesses sleep is a very important tool to help me be more stable, but I wasn’t allowed to go to bed early or late, I couldn’t take naps in the car while my companion drove, all sorts of things. I eventually was sent home, but I think if my mission president had made accommodations for me (I know of some missionaries who were allowed to call parents and take breaks when needed) I might have been able to stay.

My mission president was a former doctor who had treated people with depression and anxiety, but he said and did things and added more rules which made me feel worse. (I was to call him every night, he told me if I went home my family and my ward would be disappointed in me, each conversation we had just made me feel more anxious and ashamed about my mental illness).

When my mission president sent me home he told me he had already contacted my local leaders about me being a temple worker. I had always struggled with the temple as a patron but not nearly as bad as I did as a temple worker. They expect you to be able to participate in ordinances with patrons by the end of your first day. There is no down time or private spaces to go other than the bathroom. When I asked to not be stationed in initatory as I suffer from claustrophobia and because learning the ordinance was too much for me at that time, I was judged and constantly pushed to do it. I did it once and I had to leave because I was having a panic attack from being with four other women in a very small room. I remember crying in a bathroom stall in my temple clothes thinking “I am in what I have been told my whole life is the most peaceful place on Earth and I cannot feel peace, what is wrong with me? If I can’t feel peace here, can I feel peace anywhere?” Very little explanation is given to new temple workers, you are just expected to know you way around and follow all the rules that aren’t well explained. I have chronic knee pain which means sometimes I need to be able to sit, but there is a rule for temple workers that you cannot sit when there are patrons around, and in most positions no chairs are nearby. I would be expected to stand for two hours straight before I could even walk somewhere else. I was scolded by multiple male temple workers who didn’t know me for sitting outside the naming booth when my knee was making it near impossible to continue standing.

I no longer attend as a patron because during the endowment or initiatory you can’t leave and return, which I need to be able to do if I need to ground myself in order to stop an impending panic attack. It’s difficult to explain to people that I have let my temple recommend expire not because I am unworthy but because the temple is not accessible for me. I tell people how anxious I feel there and they tell me that it can’t possibly be the temple or the Church’s fault, it must be something I’m doing wrong because the temple is meant to be peaceful and heavenly. For me it is not. I have even been told that my anxiety must be related to a sin I haven’t repented of that makes me unable to feel the peace of the temple because I am unworthy of it. For a time, I believed that even though there was nothing in my past that needs to be resolved.

As a temple worker I did see many wonderful things being done for those with disabilities. We had special instruction sessions on how to help patrons participate in ordinances no matter what kind of physical disability they had. But I think there is so much to be done in the Church and in the temple with regard to mental and intellectual disabilites. I also think that we need to make service in the Church and the temple accessible to all.

Bio: Annie served a mission in Toronto Canada in 2016, she was born in Utah graduated from BYU. She finds joy and peace in writing, yoga, and spending time with her cats and dog. 

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10 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    Wow, Annie. Thanks for sharing this. I’m sorry your Mission President was so heartless, particularly considering his medical background.

    I had never considered the accessibility of the temple for people with depression and anxiety, but what you’ve said about this makes total sense. I can see that there’s really no accommodation made. That’s really unfortunate.

  2. Anon says:

    My first anxiety attack was during my own endowment session and the temple has rarely been a place of peace or tranquility for me since. This just to say, I feel your pain.

  3. Heather says:

    I can’t imagine how frustrating this must have been! The ignorance surrounding mental health is shameful. Thank you for revisiting some obviously painful memories.

  4. Lonicera says:

    My son attended college and went to as many institute classes as he could. After he was diagnosed with bipolar, the institute director called my husband and asked him to tell my son not to go to institute anymore.

  5. I am so sorry your mission president didn’t grant you reasonable accommodations! A flexible sleep schedule, for example, seems like a very simple thing to accommodate.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    Reading this was like a light bulb for me. I thought I was primarily angry about certain policies, when I stopped attending. But, as I have tentatively returned two years later, I watch how my anxiety sky-rockets at the Church activities I can attend, often followed by periods of self-loathing and not feeling good-enough. Today, I can only go to weekly Church because the woman I work with in Nursery is a safe person for me to say, “I can’t come this week” or “I am so overwhelmed when x happens. Can you help me find a solution?” A person who loves me as me and is not afraid of my illness has been key to me feeling comfortable enough to naming what I need.

  7. Rebecca says:

    I remember once being in the middle of initiatories and just sobbing. It was a full-blown panic attack, I just didn’t know that at the time. The temple worker in the last booth of the initiatory touched me on the shoulder and said, “Isn’t it beautiful?” I responded pretty forcefully, “No. It’s not.” I burst out of the curtains, threw the names on the counter and went to the bride’s room near by to try to calm down. I know the temple worker was doing her best to connect with me, but her assumption that I was crying because I was overcome with spirituality added insult to injury. There were countless other things she could have said that would have been more helpful, even if she didn’t know what was going on. I told the story to my mom a few years later when she was a temple worker and she said that they were told never really to say anything to patrons other than to answer questions, direct them where to go, or say, “Thank you for coming today.” There are so many reasons for that instruction.

  8. Melinda says:

    Thanks for your story, Annie. It helps so much to hear other stories like yours.

    I had an anxiety attack the last time I went to the temple, which must be about 3 years ago now. I had a revelation at the same time, an insight about myself that helped my emotional recovery. I’d been trying so hard to do everything right and follow every rule. I went to the temple, hoping for a pat on the back — you know, an acknowledgment that I was doing everything right. Instead, I got a gentle spirit whisper: “you’re doing it again. you’re trying too hard to be good enough. you don’t have to do that.” I was so panicked that my coping mechanism had been spotted by God and disapproved of that I burst into tears and left. I cried for two days, calmed down, let my temple recommend expire and haven’t been back since.

    The part nobody in the Church understands is that quitting the effort to be good enough was actually a step forward for me in my relationship with God. He doesn’t expect me to torment myself into an anxiety attack trying to do everything. He’s totally fine with the fact that I don’t even want a temple recommend. I don’t have to try to be good enough.

    So while that temple experience was traumatic, it also helped me move forward on my own path. God wasn’t disapproving of my perfectionism; he was showing me that it was hurting me, and I shouldn’t try so hard. He loves me the way I am, issues and all.

  9. DT says:

    Thank you! I no longer attend the temple to maintain my mental health because I was tired of not being seen for what I really needed. There is no peace for me in the temple and accepting that has helped me make peace with how I engage with holiness.

  10. Em says:

    I wish that mental illness “counted” as a disability worthy of accommodation. I frequently tell people who are floundering that it is okay to ask to be released from a calling, or to not accept one. The idea that you have to accept all requests is so damaging and absurd, and as I’ve become more aware of my own problems it has become easier to advocate for myself and give myself permission to limit participation in the ways that make sense for me. Sitting in Sacrament Meeting has been an ever-escalating anxiety place for me because I obsess about the possibility of a mass shooting and am constantly strategizing how I could escape with my children.

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