Natasha Helfer Parker is a licensed therapist who has counseled the LDS community for 12 years. In 2009, she began a blog called The Mormon Therapist, answering questions from readers from the standpoint of a faithful LDS therapist. We were able to get her to answer a few questions about her site, issues Mormons face, and to get her sound advice.Batman: First of all, tell us a little about yourself.
Natasha: As it says on my site, I am a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have 12 years of experience working with LDS members. I graduated from BYU-Provo with a degree in Psychology and from Friends University-Wichita with my masters in MFT. I am also fluent in Spanish.
Batman: Can you tell us about the purpose of your site, The Mormon Therapist? What made you start it?
Natasha: Being a Latter-day Saint, I understand there are many issues that relate exclusively with members of our church that would be difficult to discuss with therapists not of our faith. It can also be frustrating for those who do not have access to an LDS therapist/counselor geographically close by. Or maybe the LDS therapist one knows is a close friend or someone one’s not comfortable with.
My hope through this blog is to present a venue where anonymous questions can be posted and where relevant information and resources can be shared. I review the questions or comments submitted and answer them in as timely a manner as possible. I want to be upfront, creative, and open to discussing issues that in the LDS community can feel taboo.
In fact, the person who was most influential in getting me to start this blog is a wife of a gay man. Both have been faithful members their entire lives and both are now feeling confused and somewhat abandoned by the church. When she found out about her husband’s secret, she had nowhere to turn that felt safe. She explained to me the frustration of going on the internet and finding nothing she deemed useful or relevant to her, especially being LDS. I know that the purpose of the LDS lifestyle is to offer happiness, strong family relationships, eternal perspective and unlimited blessings. However, it is a reality that the high expectations our religion promotes can often leave members feeling guilty, inept, depressed and frustrated. I want my site to be a safe place to go and get useful and pertinent information in these situations
Batman: That is certainly a tough issue. What are the limitations of offering answers on a site vs. therapy? At what point should someone consider therapy rather than just trying to work through issues on their own?
Natasha: Well, obviously therapy is going to be a much more personal process than getting answers on an “advice column” like mine. The therapist will be able to ask more pertinent questions that will get to the heart of issues more quickly and efficiently. Plus therapy is a give-and-take process with both the therapist and the client participating in a discussion that takes into account things like body language and non-verbal cues I don’t have access to. I just hope my blog can be a place where people can begin to get some answers and then follow that up with more specific treatment if necessary.
As far as when to consider therapy, I wish more people would consider it sooner than later. Problems are easier to solve when they are not yet set into cyclical patterns and when people are less angry, bitter, resentful, and/or hopeless. Just as in the medical field, preventive mental health/relationship care is easier and provides better results than crisis management.
Batman: What are some of the most common questions you get on the site?
Natasha: Many of the questions I receive deal with sexuality. This is not surprising really, seeing as how I am providing an avenue to discuss a very sensitive and personal topic in an anonymous yet open and direct fashion. The second most common questions deal with the issue of how to move forward when a spouse loses their testimony, leaves the church, or is acting in ways that do not follow church teachings.
Batman: Do Mormons have sexual hang-ups?
Natasha: There is a tendency for any religious culture to have “hang-ups” with sex. This is not to say that many religious people don’t have healthy sexual relationships with their spouses, because they do. And we have an advantage in the area of seeing sexuality as a sacred endeavor that is to be treated with the utmost respect. Where I think we falter, is in the education of our children and adolescents. We focus so much on the “not having sex” part during these formative years that sex can become a topic correlated with shame, guilt, embarrassment, etc. It can also be difficult for our youth to know how to discuss anything to do with sexuality, where to go for help, and how to move forward when they have made mistakes in this area. Even minor mistakes can feel or even be treated as major. Then all of a sudden members find themselves married and everything is supposed to magically fall into place. Many times it doesn’t. But nobody is normalizing this and letting couples know that it takes time, patience and a lot of communication to foster a healthy sexual relationship. Now the issues become marital and can spiral into very difficult problems for many couples. This is a very unfortunate process that needs to be addressed more openly within our culture.
Batman: In one of your posts, you talk about the fact that issues tend to recur from generation to generation. How can this knowledge help people?
Natasha: Yes, in fact the scriptures talk about this at length. I sometimes get resistance regarding “talking about the past.” Many people don’t want to revisit painful or difficult memories. Many don’t want to feel like they are blaming all of their problems on their parents or their chidhood environment. I understand these concerns. However, I try to explain that the main purpose of “talking about the past” is to: figure out what patterns, rules, family structure, and emotional communication (both negative and positive) were role modeled in the family of origin.
Whether we like it or not, we are all subject to and highly affected by the families we grew up in. Statistics continually support this. And these influences will and do inevitable affect the families we are now forming ourselves. So it is important to do some generational work in order to recognize negative patterns we do not want to repeat, recognize positive strengths we do want to incorporate, and if there has been trauma, it is important to give voice to those memories so that they have less influence on our future. The “past” work is only beneficial when it moves us toward the present and future.
Batman: Do you feel that your work ever puts you at odds with any members of the church? Are there some who resist your counsel based on their perceptions of the church’s stance?
Natasha: Anytime religious beliefs are involved there are going to be differences of opinions and/or different interpretations. This is just a normal part of being part of this human family. And this does come into play within my work. Although my intention is never to cause offense, I am sure that there are members who find my counsel or my opinions contrary to theirs. This is perfectly normal and I welcome discussion and challenges. I believe this is what is so important to have happen, as long as we can have these discussions in a Christlike way that elicits respect and common courtesy.
Batman: You talk about the effects of guilt and shame on the site. Do Mormons suffer from unhealthy guilt?
Natasha: Yes, unfortunately many times we do. Guilt and shame are interesting topics because there are times when it is appropriate to have these feelings and there are times when it is not. Or even more confusing, it can be appropriate to have these feelings, but not at the intensity we attribute them. And this can be a difficult process to sift through.
I think it is important to remember that guilt has a purpose as a tool from God – it reminds us when we are doing or contemplating doing something wrong to get back on the right path. There are some legitimate things to feel bad about. However, it’s purpose is not to throw us into the depths of depression or low self-worth. Because when we get to the point of feeling unnecessarily bad about ourselves, it can be very difficult to gather the energy needed to get back on the path previously mentioned.
Feelings of guilt can legitimately come from the “pricking” of the spirit. They can also come from environmental forces that we have been subject to and taught from (i.e. the culture we were raised in, the family we were raised in, the way in which our religion was taught to us, etc.). It is difficult, yet imperative, that we all strive to clarify these sources of guilt for ourselves through self-awareness, study, prayer and questioning. Therapy can be useful towards this end. It is also imperative that when dealing with guilt, sin, shame, etc., we always have at the forefront of our minds that we have a saviour Jesus Christ who loves us, has atoned for us, and wants us to succeed. He does not want us to use guilt as a wallowing place. Only as a quick state of being to get us headed in a better, healthier, and happier direction.
Batman: Well, that is certainly a lot to think about. One last question. What general advice would you give church members to strengthen families and individuals’ mental health?
Natasha: Education and Communication! Being willing to learn about and be open to the latest psychological research and medical advancements in addition to church teachings are pivotal to many issues such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, marital and/or parental distress, etc., etc. Being willing to communicate: talk openly about issues that may feel taboo or uncomfortable and then be willing to listen is pivotal for any spousal or parental relationship. If we can’t talk about our problems in a respectful, safe environment, we will be less able to solve the issues we are faced with. Managing our own anxieties many times is important to this process. My hope would be that we can approach our relationships with ourselves and with our loved ones in a way that follows Christ’s example of unconditional love and understanding.
Batman: Thanks to Natasha, The Mormon Therapist, for answering our questions and for providing such a great service to members with the issues we all face from time to time.
I encourage everyone to visit the site (link above) and browse through some of the frank questions and answers that are of interest to you.
For our readers, what do you think of some of these topics we’ve discussed:
- the role of faith in marriage and the implications of one partner’s loss of faith to the marriage
- sexual hang-ups that are so common to religious people
- shame and guilt; that it is sometimes necessary and positive, but can be damaging if we wallow in it
- the influence of past mistakes and family on our current behavior patterns
- overcoming our own anxieties as parents and addressing things openly with our kids
How do you feel about therapy in general and advice columns? Discuss.