From the Backlist: Thoughts on Disciplinary Council for Natasha Helfer
Risa: As a fellow mental health professional I’m exceedingly alarmed that a Stake President would take it upon himself to discipline a mental health therapist practicing within ethical guidelines using research-based evidence and modalities to deliver best practices to their clients. Ecclesiastical authorities need to stay out of the bedrooms of its members and allow them to “govern themselves” as the Prophet Joseph Smith once said. In my work as a therapist in Utah I see a large clientele who identify as LDS and LGBTQ+ and let me tell you, they are suffering. Every day for me is a fight to keep some of them alive. If this Stake President really believes he represents the views of Jesus Christ he would do everything in his power to love and protect the clients Natasha serves. One of the 6 core values identified by the National Association of Social Workers is to practice with competence. It is not up to a Stake President, with absolutely no background in mental health, to decide if an LDS-identified therapist is practicing with competence. Ecclesiastical authorities should not be playing thought police and interfering in the careers of its members just because they disagree with them. This disciplinary council should be a stark warning to every LDS therapist that they could be persecuted next if their Bishop or Stake President doesn’t like what they tell clients in confidential sessions and settings.
April Young Bennett: This case raises important questions. Do you want your healthcare providers to base their professional opinions on the literature of their field, or on the dictates of the health care provider’s former ecclesiastical leader from a couple years back? Should the church listen to health care professionals and use their input to inform policies that relate to their area of expertise, or should they excommunicate them for expressing their opinions?
If we continue to kick people out of the church for expressing their opinions, we will be left with a church composed only of people who agree with each other and people who pretend to agree: a fake Zion where everyone appears to be in harmony, but the problems that keep so many others out of the church persist. Church leaders will need to develop the humility necessary to hear people respectfully disagree with them without using their power to punish people into silence, or they will lose access to one of their best tools: suggestions about how to improve its policies and teachings from people with different perspectives than their own.
ElleK: Church leaders have given several talks in General Conference over the past few years that stress the importance of every member, the value in diversity of thought and politics and viewpoints, and that one need not have a traditional or strong testimony to be welcome and included. Actions like calling in Sister Helfer for church discipline as a result of her good faith professional actions and personal opinions make it clear that these talks are nothing but lip service and the church is still deeply invested in culling those it perceives as threats due to their lack of conformity. This is particularly devastating to me personally as people like Natasha are those who keep me connected to the church. If there is no room for her, then how can there be room for someone like me who shares a similar worldview?
Caroline: I find myself aghast by this church court for a mental health professional who is dispensing professional advice in line with the best practices of her field. The church needs members who are mental health experts who can provide important perspectives that church leaders cannot. This excommunication will have a chilling effect on thousands of LDS professional therapists, and it may also cause members who badly need expert advice to distrust professionals and not seek help.
Church leaders need to do better than this. This short-sighted, small-visioned court will do far more harm than good. It makes our faith tradition look narrow, weak, and parochial. But making space for members to hold various perspectives on social issues and personal behaviors, especially ones in line with professional best practices, makes our tradition stronger and more robust. And if our leaders insist on homogeneity of viewpoints and approaches, at the cost of people’s membership if they disagree, this tradition will weaken. We will bleed even more young people than we already are.
AdelaHope: I have so much respect for the critiques that have been made about the dangers of withdrawing membership from a mental health professional for following the best practices of her profession, and I share those concerns. As a person who has remained in the Church despite my own grave concerns, I feel I must voice another warning.
I am very worried about the message this sends to people who have reason to wonder if they or their children are safe in the church. I want the Church officers over this to understand what it means to people who, coming out of a pandemic and a year away, may not have decided yet if they will be resuming church activity. To have her former Stake President, a man with business ties to her soon-to-be-ex-husband, call this membership council two years after she has moved from his stake, feels, at best, improper. To have the Church allow it to proceed will diminish faith and trust in the church and it’s systems. Sometimes it feels like the Church is designed to only protect itself; the membership needs to see the Church step in and fix local mistakes of this magnitude. I predict that if Salt Lake does NOT step in, there will be sizable repercussions from this instance of broken trust; membership councils must be done carefully, with circumspection and propriety.
A membership council for her was always going to be a messy, controversial proposition; it should never have been done like this. The best the Church can do now is show the membership that there is a fail-safe for when local leaders make big, stupid mistakes.
Libby: I’m just morally opposed to excommunicating someone for doing her job.
Tirza: As someone who’s personally benefited from seeing a Mormon therapist, it’s distressing to see Natasha Helfer disciplined for following professional best practices. I’m concerned about the message this will send to other mental health practitioners and those seeking their help. The LDS community needs practitioners who understand both sound therapeutic principles and the unique complexities of Mormonism. And these therapists need the freedom to care for their patients without interference or repercussion from their faith leaders.
In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul uses the imagery of a body – explaining that we are all the body of Christ and each individual a member or part of that body. Verse 26 says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Every part of the body is important. While the head may hold the command center, the information it receives from the nervous system is vital. If something is going wrong, it’s important for the brain to know. We shouldn’t be excommunicating those in the community who are sending signals of pain. We need to listen to them instead of violently cutting them off.
Nancy Ross: I’m devastated that this is happening again, that the church is again punishing someone who has brought messages of healing to many who have been hurt. Isn’t that what the church is supposed to do?
EmilyCC: This isn’t a one-off. Women in our community who stand up for themselves and others are labelled “apostates.” The fact that Natasha is being labelled such because she is upholding her profession’s best practices is another expression of the insidious nature of Mormon patriarchy.