The Doctor Is IN: An Interview with The Mormon Therapist

John Dehlin Mormon 23 Comments

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.

Comments

comments

Comments 23

  1. Thanks for doing this interview Batman and Natasha. I have read her site a little and find it to be a good place for people to talk about things anonymously they may not normally be comfortable with.

    Regarding the topics, even when two spouses are members, they may have different approaches to faith. For example, my wife often does not want to take on my existential crises, because it’s just not an issue for her. Also, she is a LOT more driven by duty and responsibility when it comes to church issues, and I am more driven by belief and making sure what I feel is what I’m doing. Most of the time we don’t have a problem, but there can be conflict.

    Re: sexual hang-ups, this is, I think, the best aspect of Natasha’s blog – obviously she can’t do any therapy via blog comments, but just the act of being there to take questions by people who otherwise probably wouldn’t talk about it at all is a great thing, imo.

    Obviously I’m in the pro-therapy camp. It is unfortunate that some scoff at the idea, but it can be very helpful for all kinds of issues, even just plain personal growth for someone who isn’t struggling with any big issue.

  2. Great interview, thank you.

    I know that for me, excessive guilt has definitely played a role in my life, and is, in some ways, responsible for the path that has led me from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. I doubt I am in unique in this regard.

    Sexual hang-ups are also a big deal, at least for me. I think it has taken about 7 years of marriage to overcome some of these challenges. Although, at this point, I have swung in the other direction. That is, I fail to understand why God cares so much about sexual issues, especially in light of the numerous methods for preventing the problems associated with fornication.

    I think it is very sad that faith plays such an important role in marital distress and can lead to divorce. In my opinion, we do a great disservice to our children by emphasizing common beliefs and faith, and temple marriage. Why don’t we give the same emphasis to love? I mention this because when differences in faith lead to divorce, I am convinced that the couple got married for the wrong reasons. A marriage based on Christ-like love, or charity, would not suffer from this problem IMHO.

    I am definitely pro-therapy, although I must confess I feel some resistance to engaging in it myself (whether I need it or not). I’m not sure why this is.

  3. My question to Natasha, or any other LDS therapist (Adam, perhaps you can answer), would be this:

    What do you do if the psychological solution or advice conflicts with the church?

    For example, does the church and psychology disagree on masturbation, premarital sexual relations, etc.?

    If they do contradict one another, which do you side with as a therapist, the text books or the gospel?

  4. JMB,

    I think there is definitely a common feeling of “I don’t need therapy” among many people who probably could benefit from it. Luckily, I think that type of feeling is fading with time. But you are not the only one who has that type of feeling.

  5. What do you do if the psychological solution or advice conflicts with the church?
    I have not yet run into this problem, as I always try to work within the client’s worldview and what their core values are. Hypothetically, if we discovered together that something that is very important to them is in conflict with the church, it would be unethical for me to try to manipulate or persuade them otherwise. Their autonomy always comes first, and I feel bound by that just being in a therapeutic relationship.

    For example, does the church and psychology disagree on masturbation, premarital sexual relations, etc.?
    Regarding masturbation, I think the church and my therapeutic view are not in that much conflict. I definitely think that compulsive behaviors can cause a lot of problems, and I would work at it from that angle. As far as complete abstinence goes, I would only work with the client towards that goal if that is what they TRULY believed was in line with their core values.
    Re: premarital sex, while I don’t think all premarital sex is the same, generally I don’t think it’s a good idea, and this is not just based on church teachings. However, I would never impose my values on a client, and I fully admit that if a couple is sexually active while they are engaged there may be some benefits that celibate couples do not have. Again, what is the value of the client?

    If they do contradict one another, which do you side with as a therapist, the text books or the gospel?
    As I said, I would side with the client’s core values and goals, with the exception of (in some cases) extreme psychopathology.

  6. @Dexter
    Yes, I agree with what you’re saying. The really strange thing for me is that my mom has had clinical depression all her life. She has seen psychiatrist after psychiatrist and been in the hospital, etc. etc. On the one hand I think I would be more inclined to see therapy as a useful thing given how much I love my mom and how much it has helped her. OTOH, I think there may be some underlying psychological stigma in place where I believe that by seeing a therapist I am somehow admitting I have the same problems my mom does, which, were obviously painful for me in childhood.

    In reality, I really do think therapy is extremely important, and I greatly respect those who make it a profession. I have a dear friend who is a social worker and I know the emotional pain associated with counseling others. How it is these individuals manage to disassociate that pain from their own lives is a mystery to me.

    To Natasha, thank you for your great service you render to those in need!

  7. Excellent. I think that is the correct answer.

    Do you find any bias towards religion in the psychological field? Are there any prominent views that very religious therapists (no matter what religion) may tend to lead towards counsel that coincides with their religion. And I’m not saying any would do this consciously, but are there any antagonists to religion in general for fear that it will lead to therapists allowing their ingrained beliefs to affect the patient?

  8. If you don’t mind, I will continue to take a stab at some of these questions, as Natasha said she will answer them on her site (it seems she gets a lot of them there).

    Re: bias – I have not run into much anti-religion so far, but I got my master’s at a religion-based university (not BYU) so all points of view were welcome. A post I wrote a while back on how we approach the faith of others actually came from a therapy textbook. http://mormonmatters.org/2009/03/23/how-do-you-interpret-anothers-faith/
    I think rejectionists would be on the most shaky ground ethically, for they may end up working against a client’s wishes. A constructionist or pluralist would be the best, imho. For exclusivists, the therapist needs to have done a LOT of self-examination regarding their interpersonal and therapeutic style, and make sure they are not even inadvertently guiding someone towards their own particular viewpoints.

    As for religious therapists, I’m sure there are some that heavily involve their own religious values, but I imagine they would more likely be pastors or the like. Regardless, any professional counselor or therapist MUST disclose ahead of time in writing regarding their faith or values IF those values are going to be a part of the therapeutic process. This is especially important if the therapist is a rejectionist or exclusivist.

  9. Once again, it’s great to frequent this website. Thanks for letting us know about The Mormon Therapist site.

  10. Great interview and very thoughtful and insightful answers.

    Based on Natasha’s years of experience with recurring problems in the LDS community, I’d love to see a summary “Do’s and Don’ts” list for the recurring problem areas. For example, a summarized “Do’s and Don’ts” list regarding teaching children about modesty, chastity, and sexuality, or “Do’s and Don’ts” about how to react to your spouse developing different theological beliefs. Something like this would be a tremendous resource for members and leaders alike; I completely agree with her that we need to apply modern psychology hand-in-hand with our religious beliefs.

  11. “when differences in faith lead to divorce, I am convinced that the couple got married for the wrong reasons” I agree (and LOTS of people do get married for the wrong reasons). I would also say that couples who divorce over personal changes that arise during the course of the marriage lack the resilience and maturity to support one another. Natasha points out on the site that divorce can be a “fantasy” whenever the chips are down.

    Natasha was “taken to task” a bit on the site by someone with a more toe-the-line view about masturbation. That seems inevitable in a web site (vs. actual therapy) as there are “protectors of the orthodoxy” who like to correct any Mormons who stray out of line according to their strict interpretation. I thought Natasha handled it well and non-defensively.

  12. Agreed, she handles those things very well.

    I was also amused by the commenter who compared talking with one’s friends about sex to apostasy. Well, more than amused. It was hilarious.

  13. my wife often does not want to take on my existential crises, because it’s just not an issue for her

    I’ve noticed that for people who just don’t get an existential crisis, the whole concept seems overwrought. Those going through them need to have patience with those who do not.

    The site is interesting.

    As for BYU, some of the people there are excellent, some are clueless. Pretty much the same for any group of therapists. I was dealing with therapists on a professional basis (Child Advocacy Center board, Community Dispute Resolution group) and they felt I was doing better with life than they were at the one time I really felt therapy could help. Since then I’ve not been as inclined to seek therapy.

    The site was interesting, though I found myself wondering if the people she deals with think of anything besides sex 😉

  14. Thanks, Nick, for pointing that out to us. We all are more enlightened now that we know that. 🙂

    A serious thanks for bringing this site to our attention. Those who do what Natasha does get my heartfelt thanks – even though I also know some therapists who need therapy more than those who see them.

  15. Nick, have you watched Arrested Development? Tobias refers to himself as the world’s first analysist and therapist, although he combines those two words on his business card. I’ll leave it at that, lol.

  16. What an incredibly useful conversation.I worked as a therapist for 15 years and saw few members,although I had trained with a view to being helpful within the church community.

    I seemed to spend a lot of time being an apologist for my profession,and encountered a lot of hostility from leadership(not all of it conscious).

    I often had private conversations along these lines,but never managed to create a more public forum,at least in part due to a sense that I was rocking the boat,I was unable to persuade those in authority,with some notable exceptions,of the usefulness or benevolence of therapy.I think it was viewed at the time as in oppositon to church authority.I just kept my head down in the end and did the work,but I knew this was troubling to many.Unfortunately my fears were born out and my recommend withheld at one point.Unconscious forces are powerful things,but we’re all human I guess. It was a very painful process.

    I’m not sure if I will return to this work when I’m well-I think I may have spent more than enough time than is healthy thinking about what is going on for me and others.I do remember some transcendantly beautiful human contact though,and wish those of you on the journey a joyful walk.

  17. I had a doctor tell me that from his experience, LDS therapists are aweful. Of course, that is just his experience and certainly a huge generalization, but I have noticed some lack of respect for the church’s LDS family services. The generalizations I have heard are that they are not really qualified, yet are referred by bishops for couples to go to see first.

    I don’t know much about LDS family services, but has anyone else found that stereotype to be common in other places…that they aren’t that qualified but bishops know about it so they send LDS couples there?

    I was shocked when my doctor friend had such a negative opinion about it. I’m sure there are many that are really good and qualified, and I wonder if they feel that generalization about LDS therapists as well.

  18. Heber13 – I have heard similar complaints – not “awful” per se, but not the most qualified in seeing couples – and one of the times I heard this it was from an LDS couples therapist! – He thought it was because a lot of the LDS family services people are social workers (a great degree regardless) and do all kinds of things, and don’t really specialize in working with couples. If I am ever a bishop, I will think twice about just referring a couple in the ward, and make sure the therapist I am referring them to is well qualified and experienced.

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