Natasha Helfer, aka The Mormon Therapist, has been accused of apostasy and summoned to a disciplinary council in her former stake. The charges are (paraphrasing from Natasha’s statement):
- Support for same sex marriage (correct, but also not grounds for discipline according to stated Church policy)
- Destigmatization of masturbation (correct)
- Stances on sexually explicit materials / pornography as discussed in sex treatment (correct, although possibly misunderstood)
- Critical of Church leaders (requested that leaders educate themselves on these topics to prevent undue harm, in accordance with her professional licensing and training–see her statement I’ve quoted here)
- Accusation that she has encouraged patients to leave the Church (denied)
The gist of this conflict between Natasha’s view of her professional ethical responsibility and the Church’s view of these issues is summed up here, or you can listen to her own words here:
Inappropriate sexual shame harms individuals. When Churches and religious communities reject sexual health principles, supported by decades of research and science, the community suffers. This has tragic and violent ramifications. Violence is either turned inward (self-loathing, substance abuse, mental disorder symptoms, and suicide as just some examples) or turned outward (discrimination, harrassment, sex crimes, and hate crimes). The statistics are dire. The anecdotal evidence coming from just my clinical practice is dire, and I have felt compelled to speak to these issues. I do not believe that educating and speaking publicly about how our communities are being harmed or could be helped is critical. I actually see it as my ethical responsibility.Natasha Helfer in a Zoom statement responding to the disciplinary summons
Her stake president has allowed that statements from patients and other supporters will be accepted as additional evidence, although Zoom participation will not be permitted, and evidence from “members in good standing” will be given more weight. Natasha intends to participate in person. Her council is scheduled for April 18. Her hope is to retain her membership in the Church, and also to advance the cause of sexual and relational health in the Church based on an accurate understanding of current psychological science and practice.
Can an LDS therapist give advice that contradicts current Church teachings that are harmful for that individual patient? When it comes to preventing that harm in the community, do a therapist’s ethical obligation to help the community outweigh the Church’s desire to control the narrative? I posit that there is high tolerance for therapists treating patients behind closed doors according to professional norms, but much lower tolerance for criticisms of cultural norms within the Church and policies that they aren’t yet ready to change.
Neither Pastoral Nor Anti-Psychology
The Mormon Church is not anti-psychology, and it is not uncommon for church leaders to refer members to LDS therapists for personal or marital counseling; this practice is more progressive within the Church, perhaps due to having an unpaid clergy, than in many other conservative faiths. However, the Church’s policy stances and culture are not always primed to lead to positive psychological outcomes, and in some cases are the source of the harm that needs to be remedied through therapy.
Church leaders, as the gatekeepers of therapy referrals, are often tasked with providing pastoral care without professional training, and their instincts can be disastrous when confronting members who are in emotionally fraught or psychologically distressing situations, including external or relational problems like rape, incest, abuse, or harrassment or internal problems like sexual orientation, gender dysphoria, depression, suicidal ideation or actions, compulsion or self-loathing. Questions in worthiness interviews, particularly if they are embellished by a leader’s personal views, can exacerbate feelings of shame and guilt that are more dangerous for some individuals than others. Even in cases of spousal or child abuse, Church policy has always been against leaders recommending divorce as an option. When it comes to recommending therapists, bishops are at best a caring, but flawed filter, one that can add to the distress of the individual if mistakes are made. Bishop referrals are certainly not required for members of the Church who seek therapy, but they are not trained in psychology and may be uneducated about when to refer to a therapist.
Additionally, some leaders are more focused on their role as “judge in Israel” and will apply that filter to conversations where pastoral care is needed, creating undue trauma for individuals. There are many, many examples of victims of sexual assault being treated as if they have a worthiness issue, blaming them for their assault and punishing them, leading to further distress and trauma. This is a byproduct of lack of expertise and skill in handling sexual issues, as well as blind spots of all-male leadership interviews. Abusers have often been protected by leaders who misunderstood or minimized the impacts to victims and instead focused on protecting or remediating those who harmed them (e.g. focusing the victim to forgive their unrepentant attacker).
All this is to say that while the Church broadly desires to work with therapists and to respect psychological science, we are still not very successful at training local leaders to understand the role of therapy and to use it effectively when it appears to challenge their understanding of Mormon cultural norms.
Personal vs. Systemic Reform
There seems to be a libertarian streak in the Church that leads to framing problems in terms of individuals rather than systems. For example, the Church’s anti-racist statements are about individuals choosing to be racist rather than the systems that hold back people of color; culturally, many church members disagree that systemic racism exists, let alone needs to be addressed. In BYU’s report on racism, the observation was made that the admissions team believed that they should not actively seek to recruit more BIPOC representation, but instead needed to be “race-blind” in reviewing applicants, not acknowledging the higher difficulty level for BIPOC applicants that resulted in worse outcomes per applicant than special consideration and/or support would have provided.
In general, psychologists can fly below the radar because what happens in therapy stays in therapy. The Church doesn’t appear to have a problem with that “silent partner” model: 1) Church principles and doctrines work fine for a majority, 2) those in psychological or relational distress can be referred to LDS therapists to resolve issues that could be caused by their being an exception to that “ideal,” 3) we don’t really know what therapists say or advice in private sessions due to confidentiality, and 4) this gives everyone the benefit of being able to deal with the fact that therapists are probably undoing harm and distress caused by the Mormon community and culture without really challenging that culture or the leaders who create it, or at least not forcing church leaders to reckon with it before they are ready.
I don’t think it’s any secret that most LDS therapists would counsel patients in ways that are similar to Natasha’s public statements (if that isn’t something local leaders are aware of, perhaps it’s a contributing factor to her disciplinary council); therefore, the problem for the Church is that her stances are public. She is advocating on behalf of her patients. Her problem is one of prevention rather than cure; it’s OK to cure psychological distress, but not OK to prevent it through education and systemic change. Likewise, it’s OK to treat individuals as broken when the system doesn’t work for them, but not to address the broken system that has contributed to their negative outcomes.
When Diagnosis Creates Dysfunction
If corrective lenses didn’t exist, people who need them would be barred from societal participation that requires the ability to see things. They would be treated as illiterate. They might be stigmatized as lacking intelligence. They would be barred from many employment opportunities. These same harms occured when we (historically) stigmatized learning disabilities like ADHD, left-handedness, or when we apply pseudo-scientific explanations to race or being a woman. All of these have been considered conditions that lessened one’s ability to function credibly in society.
All cultures struggle to accept differences and to make accommodations that create equality. Church culture can be intolerant of different types of families structures, as was recently discussed in the last conference. Accommodation was just announced giving single Church members greater access to leadership roles, increasing their participation and value to the organization, and decreasing the stigma of being single in a Church that prizes marriage and family so much. The Church has made some advances toward accepting LGBT members, although this progress has been slower than society at large (where it happened quite suddenly creating additional pressure as LGBT people felt freer to be open and honest about themselves with family members and in society). Allowing for LGBT church members to have an equal experience in the Church requires normalization and destigmatizing this difference. The stigma is what creates dysfunction in relationships and in individuals. There’s been progress, but not enough to prevent the harms we are seeing consistently among this vulnerable population and their families.
When we diagnose something normal as a dysfunction, it is inherently harmful. Part of the role of therapists, and their ethical obligation, is to help individuals who have been harmed in this way to understand that they are normal, that their traits are not something to be fixed or cured.
An Institutional Learning Curve
Institutions and those who run them have difficulty learning and accepting new information, especially when they have a track record of success based on a time when that information was not necessary. This is particularly true the older we get.
There needs to be some space for leaders (and institutions) to catch up to changes in society while at the same time protecting those within the flock from institutional harm. Taking a page from therapists, we should seek to “first, do no harm,” and we need to extend our understanding of harm to include psychological harm as well as physical harm , relational harm as well as individual trauma.
Are there ways to neutralize the harm to LGBT people (and normal sexual behaviors) in the Church without dramatically altering Church policies? I think so. Here are a few ideas, the first of which was already done (yet imperfectly followed):
- Prohibit asking sexual questions in worthiness interviews beyond “Do you obey the Law of Chastity?”
- Allow women to interview girls and women which would yield big improvements in understanding vs. blaming victims of abuse
- Provide better / additional training to local leaders in when and how to refer to therapists, allowing therapists to handle issues like abuse, marriage counseling, gender dysphoria, LGBT concerns, etc. (rather than minimally trained lay leaders)
- Switch to LGBT affirming terminology within Church culture; quit tolerating LGBT bashing at Church universities and within our congregations and classes
- Greatly increase representation of women to identify some of these huge blind spots for male leaders who tend to understand sexuality from a male perspective
- Engage with trained psychologists to review handbooks, terminology, and leader training gaps; implement their reasonable suggestions.
- Do we really need adult men asking children and teens about masturbation which is a normal part of human sexual development?
- Can we update our understanding of pornography to quit calling things addiction that aren’t?
- Can we find a way to give LGBT people the same dignity and acceptance that we give cisgender Church members? (e.g. allowing public affection between LGBT couples)
- As a matter of principle, can we stop excommunicating people who don’t want to be excommunicated?
Psychologists pick up the pieces when things go wrong; as a result, their focus is on how to resolve problems, not happy talk about what’s going well. Within psychology, there is “normal” psychology, as well as “abnormal” psychology. In prior decades, homosexuality and gender dysphoria were considered “abnormal” and treated as things to be overcome and changed. If you treat psychology that is normal behavior as if it’s abnormal, then you will create pathologies and distress that cause adverse outcomes. Someone who would otherwise be mentally healthy will instead be distressed. Relationships that could have been functional will become dysfunctional.
In the current situation, the Church’s sexual ethics are at conflict with society at large and our current understanding of mental and sexual health (creating more freedoms for LGBT people, and more sexual health and education in general, plus less tolerance for abusive relationships). As Jung put it, “That which we resist, persists!” The more we focus on sex, the more we create sexual dysfunction in the membership and marriages. While that may be great job security for therapists, including Natasha, it would be better to prevent psychological problems where we can, to allow members and families to flourish in the gospel.
Church policies (just like social policies) do constantly evolve with greater understanding; I’ve seen it happen many times throughout my 53 years! I’m sure the real experts could help with these improvements if only we would let them and not push them out.
- Is it reasonable to expect the Church to allow experts to contradict Church policy publicly in their fields of expertise when it is for ethical reasons?
- Can these harms be avoided or are they the byproduct of forces larger than Church culture? Should the Church alter its stances to avoid harming Church members? How much and how soon? What would you recommend be changed?
- Is it sufficient for therapists to treat individuals who have been harmed or are they obligated to attempt to also prevent needless systemic harm?
- Does Church discipline aimed to squelch “apostasy” inevitably backfire (Streisand effect), or is it effective because “insiders” are protected from challenging ideas even though “outsiders” see it as a negative reflection on the Church (e.g. hurts conversions and growth, but helps retention)?
 Reputable psychologists would call conversion therapy psychologically abusive, even if physically abusive practices are avoided (e.g. electric shock therapy). The Church’s opposition to it seems to rely on physical harms more than psychological harms.
Where is Ammon Bundy? Still going to the temple?
When someone(a church) shows you who they are, believe them.
An important point on Mormons and psychology is that some influential GAs, Boyd K. Packer for example, really didn’t trust or believe in social or behavioral sciences. For example, here’s a Conference talk where Packer lamented,
“We seem to be developing an epidemic of “counselitis” which drains spiritual strength from the Church”
and made clear that having a bishop send a person to get counseling was a last resort. The talk is from 1978, so it’s not recent, but as is so often a problem in the Church, when past ideas are just discarded rather than ever being refuted, people who love them will carefully keep them alive, convinced that they’re the real truth that the current Church is only trying to hide.
Link to the talk: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1978/04/solving-emotional-problems-in-the-lords-own-way?lang=eng
Ziff, I have wondered whether BKP’s 1978 talk may have been partly motivated by his becoming aware (purely hypothetical on my part) that in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).
On the other hand, the mere fact that it was once there and now is not is enough for some to conclude that psychology/psychiatry is historically unreliable. That’s to say nothing about the recovered [false] memory debacle of the 80s and 90s that was sponsored by “therapists,” commonly bought into by Church members and leaders, and eventually debunked by psychologists — without, however, being able to wipe the theory of recovered memory out of popular thought. Then there’s the LDS marriage counselor who advised a friend in front of his wife that he should tell her to “get her sh___ together and get out”, usurping a decision-making role rather than helping the parties decide individually and together what they would do with their relationship.
This is not to say that psychology and therapists are more unreliable than shifting Church teachings or Church leadership roulette, but only that there is also some danger of therapist roulette — sometimes with consequences as damaging as any resulting from bishop roulette. The great difference is that the individual or couple has some choice in therapist and none in bishop. Despite the possibility of making a bad choice of therapist, as to the issues on which I’ve read some of Natasha’s publications, to the extent of my limited observation, going to a therapist and leaving religious leaders out of it seems a safer choice. I’ve seen and heard of entirely too much misplaced self-confidence in church leaders “spiritual” promptings and “gift of discernment.” I hope that “gift” works better in some cases than in those I’ve thought troublesome.
I think Church leaders pay lip service to the value of therapists but are still very skeptics and wary of the social sciences. Dallin Oaks’ “Truth and the Plan” talk given in 2018 is a good example of this. Any social science opinion that contradicts their teachings on gender and sexuality or whatever else (but primarily that) is not going to go over well with them.
I do agree that one must be very careful in selecting the right therapist – and I think any good therapist would agree / but I think my version of right is probably different from the Q15’s.
I hope this brings more attention to Natasha. Whether or not you agree with everything she says, she says a lot of valuable things that can help us overcome a very unhealthy view of human sexuality.
Might some high-level church leaders’ distrust of mental health experts be reflected in the calling of an attorney as general primary president? We can applaud the call of a successful career woman to this position. At the same time, could it be more appropriate to have an expert with professional knowledge that includes study of child development, healthy relationships, emotion regulation, physical and learning disabilities, and other topics relevant to the nurturing of young children serve in this position?
The recent conference talk by the outgoing general primary president, Joy Jones, while well-meaning, had within it stories and anecdotes that might concern child development and parenting experts. It is possible that young parents hearing her talk will gravitate to authoritarian rather than authoritative models of parenting after hearing her story of drill sergeants as she related it to her experience as a parent and expressed concerns about how we keep our children in the church.
The church turns to experts for issues regarding finances and legal matters. Including experts in subjects that relate to mental wellbeing will only benefit members and the institution as a whole, in the long run.
Listening to experts such as Natasha Helfer can, as you point out, prevent many needless problems.
Your piece is about how the Church deals with psychology and therapy generally but the focus really needs to be on how the Church deals with sex specifically. I could make the case that they are just making up the rules as they go and that these rules are usually just a reflection of the most conservative Christian thought on sex at the time. And as time goes on, the Church slowly changes. So Ms. Helfer Park may be in trouble today but likely would not be in trouble in 20 years for saying what she has said.
For some reason, Christian churches, including the COJCOLDS, are obsessed with sex. And yet, a person can be a true Christian disciple of Christ even if he/she violates the sex “rules” the Church imposes on membership. Here’s the thing: if you believe that extramarital sex is second only to murder in the eyes of God, you’re going to behave the way the Church behaves. That’s what Ms. Helfer Park has to deal with.
Excellent post. LDS leaders have more or less made peace with historians and the field of history. Maybe in a decade or two they will come around to making peace with therapists/psychiatrists and the field of psychology. It’s a little strange being in a church that is forty years behind the times. It’s like driving a forty-year-old car (not like a restored Mustang or Camaro, just an old old car). People just look at you and wonder what your problem is.
As for church courts and excommunications — did I say four decades behind the times? Maybe I meant four centuries.
@Josh H amen. Someone could do a very interesting post on the Church’s obsession with sex. A case could be made that we are a sex cult.
“Violence is either turned inward (self-loathing, substance abuse, mental disorder symptoms, and suicide as just some examples)…”
Just an FYI, the scars on my hands have finally healed from when I took drastic measures to stop masturbating, in case anyone wants to dispute this.
I’m not one to share this normally with anyone but I will since it validates her point.
This is a great, thoughtful post. The consequences Natasha is facing are both absurd and unfair but, sadly, unsurprising. The church, despite its ties to polygamy and its supposedly “enlightened” view of the body (its role in the afterlife, etc.), is one of the religious institutions that does the most egregious harm when it comes to associating sexuality, particularly anything labeled “deviant” sexuality, with shame and with sin (“next to murder” is what many TBMs still believe). This, as Natasha herself points out, does demonstrable and long-lasting harm to members of the church, especially our youth. The real harm, I think, comes from a combination of factors: You’ve got church leaders who, despite the fact that they say they “aren’t experts” in a lot of fields, nonetheless seem to think that their “inspired” views are more legitimate and “true” than the views of experts in said fields, which is simply nonsensical. And then you’ve also got a long history of shaming and guilting people about many things, but especially about sex/sexuality/sexual identity. In her role, Natasha has obviously encountered a number of people dealing with these things and it’s clear, whether y0u buy into every point she makes, those experiences have clearly indicated to her the harm of some LDS beliefs, especially those regarding sexuality.
To answer a couple of the questions you pose, no, I don’t think you can really expect the church to stop doing harm unless it actually does significantly alter its policies. IMHO, the law of chastity is a means of social control, not a means of encouraging spiritual health. And the ideas surrounding it are just as harmful; everything from avoiding masturbation to avoiding (and repenting of) any form of sexual contact, not to mention tamping down permanently any urges that aren’t strictly heterosexual, means that the law of chastity does more harm than good. It needs to be eliminated, both from the temple recommend interview and from church policy in general.
I view church discipline in much the same way. I think that it does have a negative effect, though it does also strengthen the testimony of some folks regarding church authority, etc. But a lot of my progressive Mormon friends (and even some conservative ones) think that such disciplinary action is really outmoded and unhelpful. It certainly does tend to generate negative publicity for the church; not so much because of the discipline itself, but because most folks who are excommunicated or disfellowshipped for telling the truth and for advocating for others make the church look even more behind the times and less relevant than the church manages to do by itself.
Incidents and practices like these make me edge further out the door, in part because it’s just another example of how I think the church actually harms a fair amount of its members more than it helps (or wants to help) them.
I think another question is what message does this situation send to other LDS therapists and their patients? As you mentioned, it is likely many of those therapists are counseling their patients in a similar way. Does using their training and experience to help others now put them also at risk for excommunication unless they are willing to edit that to what local leaders deem acceptable? Do they need to worry about an LDS patient tattling to the Stake President?
Natasha Parker helped me realize the church system was at fault, not me. My boss groomed me as a teen, giving gifts and controlling me, coercing me into situations I did not recognize as manipulative, which culminated in him giving me a drink which sent the room spinning. I was helpless to stop the rape which I was told was my fault by everyone.
I cannot begin to describe the hell I’ve endured for decades, believing that I-a child- was at fault. I liked boys my own age, not his age. I never asked for that to happen. Because I believed (told) it was my fault, I did not believe I could be worthy or wanted by my own age group. Horrible abuse continued. Who fails to recognize this kind of thing? Bishops who are focused on an act rather than the circumstances.
Rather than given help, I was accused, shamed, became suicidal, I believed every awful insult the Miravle of Forgiveness threw at me, I was withheld from attending BYU, my youth temple recommend taken away, forced to continually meet with the bishop to make sure I wasn’t repeating my sins and tell him which repentance scripture I had studied that week, and I was deemed unworthy to take the sacrament for an entire year. What do you think that does to a young person??
Because of that awful blame heaped on me for years and how it has affected nearly every scrupulous decision of mine to never fall out of favor with the Lord, I want to see mercy extended to kids who do “slip up,” and I want to see the church change their approach drastically as you’ve
Natasha, I hope you carry on and keep up the good work.
Hawkgrrrl, since you agree with Natasha, and have basically reiterated her arguments in your post, do you feel any fear for your church membership?
Many years ago I was diagnosed with depression, and started a regimen of CBT/talk therapy that was working fairly well for me. I found a highly regarded psychologist through a mutual friend and he and I seemed to have a good rapport. At some point I talked to my bishop to ask for a release from my stressful calling, so that I could focus on self care. I happened to tell him I was getting treated for depression by a non-LDS psychologist. I will never forget the horrified look on his face that appeared at that moment. I reminded him that my therapist was reputable and distinguished, and a devout Christian to boot (though his practice was completely non-religious). My bishop proceeded to warn me about the danger of non-LDS mental health practitioners, and referred me to his “go-to guy”, an LDS MFT who was about a 2-hour drive away and wouldn’t have taken my insurance anyway (for reference, this was in the eastern U.S., where Mormon therapists are few and far between). He said, “I want you to be healthy, but its important to talk to a therapist who understands OUR values”, without elaborating on what those values actually are. This agenda of steering me away from secular mental health therapy completely overshadowed the kindness and compassion my bishop was demonstrating up to that point. It was baffling to me, especially being in the emotionally vulnerable place I was in back then, when I just needed some spiritual guidance and validation from him. I kept on going to my non-LDS psychologist, which was productive, while my trust in Church authority began to erode, contributing to a faith crisis soon after. I eventually heard from other members of the ward and stake who had sought counseling for various reasons and had similar frustrating experiences.
I believe there is a deep, rarely-spoken distrust among Church leaders against the mainstream mental health community–fear that secular therapists will intentionally or unintentionally “counsel” a client right out of church activity. They seem unwilling to acknowledge the fact that the Church (or at least the culture of the Church) is for some people the most toxic part of their lives, and that voluntarily removing themselves from it for the sake of their own health is an honorable act. So now there has arisen a cottage industry of LDS therapists who target their practice at LDS clients, while seeking to be the “go-to” therapist for every bishop in their respective area, often peddling treatment strategies for things like porn addiction (which is not in the DSM, by the way). The rise of essential oils, unlicensed pseudo-therapists (so-called “life coaches”) and Utah’s network of controversial “troubled teen” treatment facilities are all outgrowths of this institutional distrust. And in some cases, the bishops try act as therapists themselves, which is a well-documented recipe for disaster.
So, whilst I don’t think that the church addresses teenage sexual development particularly well, I have been concerned with the lax attitudes towards pornography I have frequently heard and seen expressed Natasha and others on podcasts and in blogs, where it is seemingly laughed off as though any concerns are ridiculous. Because there is no doubt that the prevalence of extreme forms of pornography is having a detrimental effect on today’s young people, presenting unrealistic images of sexual relationships, and fuelling abuse and rape culture, because of the expectations it sets up. It has been making headlines on the bbc for quite a few years now. Most recently:
It’s clear there is a problem to be tackled. There’s an argument to be made about whether the church is approaching it in the right way. But the pornography available to our youth is not harmless or without consequence either.
@Hedgehog I am not sure what podcasts and blogs you’re referring to. I agree that Natasha has a much more permissive and chill view of pornography than what we’ve come to expect at Church, and I also agree that there are real problems arising from pornography. My take on what I’ve heard from Natasha is that she is focusing on underlying causes of compulsive behavior (pornography may be a compulsive behavior) and trying to treat those, but believes (as I do) that shame fuels the compulsive behavior and so is totally counter-productive. She is not pro-pornography. She is anti-shame.
And I think she would encourage really open conversations with kids about unrealistic expectations, rape culture, etc. – which I actually think our allergy to talking about sex openly at Church prevents us from doing, so our kids may be harder hit by pornography because of their lack of education and their sense of shame than other kids.
In any event – the real question is not whether you agree with Natasha but whether you believe she should face a membership council because the research-based practices she uses and discusses publicly might not hit our high chastity bar. I think it’s totally fine to debate her approach. I think it’s alarming to call her into a council over it.
Does anyone wonder whether the scrutiny is connected to this?
Bishop Bill: In short, no, I don’t worry about that, mostly because I am a complete and total nobody with no credentials in this area, and therefore not a threat. Me having an opinion about this is like me having an opinion about cooked onions. But, OTOH I recognize that there is plenty of random injustice in the world and the Church, and is it possible? Yes, it’s possible that someone could come after me on whatever grounds they deem I’ve trespassed. I like to think of myself as a less-informed, less-articulate Walter Cronkite (to paraphrase wise friend Rick Bennett). I just want to talk about what’s happening. I don’t make the news. And if anyone wants to come by and disagree with me, good for them!
Hedgehog: This is actually a very valid point, IMO. The stance on pornography has changed dramatically during my lifetime (hey, so has the stance on global warming!), and it does mean it’s not some black & white issue–addressing the underlying compulsions feels like a valid approach to me vs. making things “forbidden” (which attracts people to them). I suspect God knows that, else why would he have forbidden the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good & evil when he secretly knew they needed to eat it. (Just a fun theory for you–it’s a story about reverse psychology!) I do think Elisa is on the right track with how Natasha approaches this, although I’m not fully versed in her approach.
I know there are skeptics in the Church about mental health. When my second went to therapy for depression, a well-meaning but bullying ward member offered to “go talk some sense into” them, which was kind of horrifying to contemplate. One of my BYU roommates was a psych major, and we were very close. I proofed her papers, and we had many long talks. She also did therapy with one of her profs. My assessment of the Church’s stance is based on that insight into the Psych dept at BYU in the mid-80s. I know that wasn’t universally positive, progressive or credible, but it certainly seemed to be the case in her experience, and yet I can state pretty clearly that advice was individualized and might contradict what we say to the masses about these fraught topics. As it should be!
Short note of clarification. Natasha divorced from her husband (Parker, not Park) and now goes by her maiden name Helfer.
First of all – I am a strong advocate for therapy and have been seeing a Buddhist therapist for 5 years. I am also aware that therapists often have their own agendas. Often these issues ( addiction, abuse, sexual dysfunction, faith struggles) are the very reason they became therapists. Just because one has training does not mean they cannot be projecting their own agenda on a client or get caught into a transference/counter transference situation.
I do believe the threat of excommunication is pretty harsh penalty and I agree with her views on a number of issues. I wonder how much is about her actual practice rather than her being considered “The Mormon Therapist.” Private counseling practice, between a therapist and client is vastly different than public advocacy/advice giving under the name “Mormon…” One is personal, the other can be seen as speaking for the church. I can see where that could be problematic. When I served on such councils, one focus is on “the good name of the church.”
Personally, I tend to get more cynical when the details of any disciplinary action are presented to the public by the accused. While it may be unjustified, it does demonstrate the idea that such councils are not sacred. It can also can become a soapbox issue to gain a wider audience outside of the LDS clientele.
Immer: “Do they need to worry about an LDS patient tattling to the Stake President?” I think that probably happens a lot already, TBH, especially in certain scenarios. For example, couple goes in for marriage counseling. Wife is angry about him looking at porn and wants the therapist to back her up / side with her. Therapist tries to neutralize the situation and deal with underlying issues. Wife is mad that she doesn’t have the ally she expected and claims the therapist is dispensing advice against Church teachings. Voila! I would be absolutely shocked if this is not a common occurence.
Yes, LDS patients DO tattle to Stake Presidents, and like you, I think it is a common occurrence. The one instance that I have personal knowledge of involved a Church member who went to see an excellent psychologist at LDS family services. The Church member completely misunderstood what the psychologist was saying; he interpreted the psychologist’s statement that pornography was a common problem among Church members as an endorsement of pornography, and complained to his Stake President. The Stake President, without bothering to fact-check the assertion, raised a stink. Fits your supposition pretty closely.
Couple more thoughts: yes, pornography is a problem, but precise definitions are elusive. Potter Stewart, an Associate Justice on the SCOTUS during the 1950s-1980s, made a famous crack that he couldn’t define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. (Stewart was aligned with the then-liberal majority, and generally came down of the side of free speech, when pornography cases reached the SC.)
If we obsess about sex—which we as a Church and people unfortunately do—then we have less energy to deal with Christ’s commandments to love God and our neighbor. Elizabeth Smart, after her terrible experiences, observed that the Church’s “purity culture” made her healing from her ordeal more difficult. The Law of Chastity is important. Faith, hope, and charity are even more important. If you want to make a Church member cringe, just refer them to Paul’s praise of the harlot Rahab in the Book of Hebrews; he says that her faith saved her.
Lastly, I have actually known many licensed LDS psychologists and therapists who also served as Bishops—down-to-earth and humane men, the lot of them. I have also known several Bishops and SPs who actively loathe mental health professionals generally.
In addition to the five charges leveled against Natasha Helfer, I believe there is another reason this council is being convened, which is that Helfer implicitly challenges the authority structure of the church by participating in podcasts, gatherings, and Internet forums that do not toe the party line of the church.
Specifically, some of the activies of concern may be:
– participating in many a Mormon Stories podcasts with persona non grata John Dehlin
– organizing and/or leading gatherings for couples in mixed faith marriages
– founding the Mormon Mental Health Association
As such, Helfer has established herself as an leader with authority that does not derive from the church, which is what I think really irks church leadership.
If she had said all the same things in the privacy of her office, I’m confident that this membership (née disciplinary) council would not be convened.
Regarding this: “ Is it sufficient for therapists to treat individuals who have been harmed or are they obligated to attempt to also prevent needless systemic harm?”
Seeing as we should be anxiously engaged in good causes, we all have our agency to determine which causes we fight for. While some therapists may choose to focus on individual patients, it is completely unreasonable to expect all therapists to be silent about the systems that cause harm.
Gilgamesh, of course therapists have agendas, biases and such. They are human after all. But they are licensed, screened, regulated and held to professional standards of conduct.
LDS bishops and stake presidents, however, do not have nearly the level of regulation or safeguards. They don’t even have to pass a basic background check (I had to get one just to be a chaperone on my child’s last field trip). And they have a great deal of latitude to pursue their own agendas and hobby horses unimpeded, while projecting their own insecurities. For example, a bishop can decide that he needs to privately grill all the teenagers in his ward about their masturbation/porn habits, despite being an accountant/orthodontist/plumber and in no way qualified to do so; maybe he struggled with it as a teen and is determined to eradicate the practice among youth in his ward. Or, a vindictive stake president could decide to launch disciplinary action against one of his members because he feels threatened by her frank public discussions of human sexuality, despite the fact that she is qualified and licensed in that area. And yes, both of these scenarios represent gross abuses of authority, among other things. Local LDS leaders don’t have accountability or checks on their power the way licensed therapists do, and thus have a far greater potential to do damage.
I am in full support of Natasha – my daughter’s experience is similar to that of Traumatized above.
When the moment is right to reveal my broken shelf to my wife, I hope we have a foundation that is built on more than just the gospel, i.e. physical and emotional. We were only engaged for three months because I was a frustrated 25 yr old BYU graduate who wanted to do what the culture told me.
And we had only met three months prior to getting engaged.
The statement that “the Church’s policy stances and culture are not always primed to lead to positive psychological outcomes, and in some cases are the source of the harm that needs to be remedied through therapy.” seems to me to be a significant understatement – particularly when you’re talking about sex and LGBT issues. In fact, I believe that the Church’s policy stances and culture surrounding sex can be extremely psychologically damaging. And for LGBT kids it can be deadly.
My understanding is that the Church is basically threatening to excommunicate Natasha Helfer for public positions she has taken on healthy sexuality, and for advice she has given to her patients that is contrary to the Church’s doctrine.
If true, this is a very slippery slope the church are embarking on.
Is the church’s position that all health professionals should disregard their medical and psychological training, ignore the latest clinical research, and only give advice that is consistent with church doctrine? Even if its harmful?
Should counselors refuse to counsel kids who are struggling with “same sex attraction” and may commit suicide?
Does the church plan to start monitoring the advice given by the thousands of other LDS counselors and psychologists to make sure their advice is consistent with church doctrine?
Does the church plan to start monitoring the advice that OBGYNs give their patients about contraception, abortion or other personal medical matters?
Does the church plan to monitor the investment advice that stock brokers give to make sure they don’t recommend investing in cigarette or alcohol related companies?
Where will it end?
@gilgamesh, I hear you on being skeptical when people go public with this stuff. That’s my initial reaction also. But I think it’s important that they do. I don’t think the Church should get a free pass on punishing people for what they say. I think it’s perfectly fine to shine a light on that. Secrecy breeds corruption and injustice, and we have a history in our church is misusing “sacred” to keep secrets that shouldn’t be kept.
An Ann Lamont quote I read recently comes to mind: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Gilgamesh: I would agree with you if she were seeking notoriety, but she isn’t and she wants to retain her membership. What I think is important about her public requests for materials is that the way to judge a therapist is by the testimony of her patients. Has she helped people or not? Having said that, there are many people saying “Oh, his mind is totally made up. This is just theater.” I really hope that is not the case. What I’d like to imagine is that he misunderstands her therapy approach based on a non-expert viewpoint and has mistakenly concluded she’s an enemy of the Church when she is not.
I’d be interested to see Elder Alexander Morrison’s take and judgment on this. He was one of the gentlest men I have ever known, and I still remember the impression I had from him : after his release, he gave a lecture on the intersection of law and mental health at BYU Law School that I snuck into as an undergrad to just a handful of us and then stayed after for a long one and one conversation with me. His sublime ‘Valley of Sorrow: A Layman’s Guide to Understanding Mental Illness for Latter-day Saints’ has been my go to on approaching with compassion and understanding my wife and my own’s issues over the years. I think we should do a year of Sunday School out of that book , and it would have a greater impact on the lives of the Saints in this day and age then another round of the Old Testament.
For what it’s worth, in case Sister NHP reads this, the current Handbook mentions “masturbation” a single time–only to state that a membership council is not held for the “actions” listed “below,” of which masturbation is one. The other “actions” are inactivity, not fulfilling Church duties, not paying tithing, sins of omission, not complying with the Word of Wisdom, and use of pornography (except child porn or intensive or compulsive use that caused significant harm to mariage or family.) (Handbook, 22.214.171.124.)
By contrast, the Handbook requires a membership council for: Incest, child pornography, plural marriage, and sexual predatory behavior. The Handbook also says a membership council “may be necessary” for: Adultery, fornication, and same-sex relations; Cohabitation, civil unions and partnerships, and same-sex marriage; and Intensive or compulsive use of pornography that has caused significant harm to a member’s marriage or family. Nowhere in this list of sexual immorality offenses is masturbation.
Of course, NHP is not arraigned on charges of masturbation, but on charges of apostasy, where her expression of her professional views on masturbation forms one count of apostasy. “Apostasy” is addressed in the Handbook at 126.96.36.199, The relevant part appears to be: “As used here, apostasy refers to a member engaging in any of the following: [bullet point 1] -“Repeatedly acting in clear and deliberate public opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies, or its leaders.”
In order to impose discipline on Sister NHP justly, the council should be made to establish that it is official, current church doctrine that masturbation is sinful such that NHP’s profession counseling on that issue contradicts that doctrine. I recommend contesting this. Masturbation was expressly condemned in some old, outdated manuals. And there are euphemistic implications against it in church youth manuals such as For Strenght of Youth. (See p. 36, where it says: “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.” 2011.) But it is not condemned in the Standard Works or in the Handbook. It hasn’t been condemned in Conference in many years. And it isn’t a specific temple recommend question.
If there isn’t scriptural or Handbook authority against masturbation, and the Q15 isn’t currently preaching it, it’s hard to see how it’s doctrine. Do not let the council simply assume that it is current, official church doctrine that masturbation is always sinful. Make them prove it with documents. You can’t be guilty of apostasy for challenging something that is not doctrine.
If the council insists the sinfulness of masturbation is doctrine, make them clearly define the standard for “doctrine” that they are applying, and also ask them to declare whether masturbation is always sinful or whether there are times when it is not sinful–and ask how a member can know that.
I would bring documents with me on these issues and have them placed into the record in case you need to appeal.
P.S. random thought: why are BYU professors allowed in their professional capacity to teach a 3.4 billion year old earth, age of homo sapiens = 100,000-300,000 years old, evolution, etc., without danger of membership council?
Stake President Stephen M. Daley should be brought to a disciplinary council for exercising unrighteous dominion, abusing priesthood authority, wasting church resources, and for causing hurt to Sister Natasha Helfer.
If President Stephen M. Daley can bring inquisition outside of his jurisdiction (being from another stake), what prevents me from calling my Stake President in order to complain against him for abusing Sister Helfer?
Recall that after the death of Joseph Smith, our matriarch, Emma Smith, was a thorn in Brigham Young’s side. She often spoke out against church leadership and its corruption. Her voice was tolerated.
Women, and more particularly “Mothers,” are protected by the Lord. The Lord’s command to watch over widows and children–the essense of religion–is turned upside down when we bring trial against a Mother.
Sister Helfer, I am so sorry for the idiocy of the Derby, Kansas leadership, they ought to know better. I hope they apologize and make it right. You are loved, supported, and we need you.
In reply to thechair and others: While LDS church courts have the form of a legal proceeding — where specific charges are stated, where relevant evidence is presented, and where a fair finder of fact determines whether or not the accused did or did not do what was charged — that is not the essence of what is really going on, at least in “apostasy” trials. In actual practice: (1) the charges are general and vague, which makes it almost impossible for an accused to present a defense because the person doesn’t even know what they are being accused of doing until meeting with the bishop or SP; (2) it’s not clear that the bishop or SP has a clear idea of what constitutes valid or relevant “evidence,” and how do you even determine relevance when there is no specific charge; and (3) as a judge or finder of fact, the bishop or SP isn’t weighing facts or evidence in light of a specific charge, they’re just mulling over their own feelings, insecurities, and loyalties.
So, to put it bluntly, most LDS “apostasy” trials are a sham. It’s a set of procedures the Handbook tells local leaders to execute in order to excommunicate someone who they think deserves excommunication. It’s not a fair proceeding guided by clear statutes and evidence and a fair judge. So pointing out to a bishop or SP in an “apostasy” trial that they don’t really understand the doctrine and haven’t presented any evidence is pointless.
In a similar vein, in terms of personal ethics, bishops and SPs vary across a spectrum from “do the right thing” at one end and “do what you’re told or what you think you are *supposed* to do” at the other, with (let’s be honest) most LDS bishops leaning toward the “do what you’re told” end of the spectrum. Just another flaw in a flawed system.
Dave B., I’m guessing that when you wrote “pointless” you meant not likely successful in changing or influencing the result. I can imagine possible points in presenting such evidence and arguments even without hope of changing the result. Did I guess right as to your meaning?
Wondering, yes that is an accurate summary of what I was getting at.
Great post and great points. I have generally liked what I’ve heard from Natasha and it sounds like she is being treated unfairly. I would venture to say that it’s not so much what she’s said but how she’s said it. People who have been very public about trying to change Church approaches and advocating for change/reform have frequently gotten themselves in hot water (Sam Young, Kate Kelly, Bill Reel, etc.). Natasha has done workshops with John Dehlin and been on the speaking circuit with people the Church sees as threatening, which I think is also part of the issue. My guess is that other Mormon sex therapists would be on the same page with her on 99% of issues but they are not going to be facing similar issues because they take a softer tone and are probably perceived as less “in your face” and more encouraging of people to stay.
When I first heard Sister Helfer’s video, as she talked about how the Church might choose to police a therapist’s beliefs/counsels/practices/etc., I was reminded of the old Kip Eliason incident from the ’80s. Quoting from Malan and Bullough’s “Historical Development of New Masturbation Attitudes in Mormon Culture” article published in the journal Sexuality and Culture (Fall 2009, Vol 9, No. 4, pp 80-127). “In the 1980s, LDS Psychiatrist Cantril Nielsen found himself caught between his conflicting religious and professional oaths. Nielsen paid a sizable wrongful death malpractice settlement in the masturbation-shame suicide of 16-year-old Kip Eliason. The lawsuit alleged that Nielsen violated professional standards of psychiatric care by prescribing that his patient should follow his Mormon bishop’s advice to abstain from masturbation in order to be “worthy,” rather than basing treatment on empirical medical evidence required by medical ethics. Medical experts in the case verified the empirical evidence that masturbation is not only harmless, but that masturbation abstinence has a documented history of suicidal risk.” — (retrieved from archive.org Apr. 2021). I am concerned that the Church feels a need to police professionals who, in their professional capacity, may give counsel that is perceived to run counter to official Church teachings.
I expect that part of the discussion in the membership council will be about public versus private. Where Sister Helfer was often very public in her disagreements with the Church, they will focus on the public nature of her opposition to the Church. Once again, I am reminded of Pres. Oaks at the Be One celebration talking about not receiving a testimony of the priesthood and temple ban but determining to be loyal. I think many (most?) orthodox members of the Church interpret “loyalty” to mean “public silence” on an issue. I can’t help but wonder, though, how much of the “why did it take until ’78?” part of the temple and priesthood ban question was because members like then “brother” Oaks chose to be silent about their lack of testimony, their concerns, and so on related to that particular subject. Are there things in the Church’s current set of teachings that the Church appears to be clinging to only because members who don’t have a testimony of those teachings are afraid to give public voice to their lack of spiritual confirmation because of questions of loyalty?
@felixfabulous I imagine you’re right – I’ve heard similar teachings from Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, for example, but she’s much more nuanced in her approach even though she speaks publicly quite a bit. Of course, that makes it all the more ridiculous. It’s the old “you can privately support gay marriage but you can’t express it” (thanks Christofferson). That is super unhealthy (asking people to lead double lives) and also just kind of yucky – the brethren being so up-in-arms at a person (especially a woman) who would dare contradict them publicly. Gross.
@McShorty, my sample is probably skewed, but in answer to your question:
“Are there things in the Church’s current set of teachings that the Church appears to be clinging to only because members who don’t have a testimony of those teachings are afraid to give public voice to their lack of spiritual confirmation because of questions of loyalty?”
*Many* of my active friends and family, including people in ward and stake leadership positions, believe we should permit gay marriage and ordain women (or at the very least make huge changes in the way we give women decisionmaking authority & visibility within the Church to put them on more equal footing for men). The vast majority of them only express these views privately in close company.
I am a clinical social worker. I believe that if Natasha receives a punishment by the church for practicing in a way that is aligned with the code of conduct for clinicians based on our accredited organizations, then those organizations should reconsider accrediting programs at BYU. I question whether the church’s current position on LGBTQ+ students at BYU is not already in direct conflict with the positions of the National Association of Social Work. I wonder if it is appropriate for BYU to have an MSW program. I believe the same questions can be brought up about other clinical programs at BYU such as psychology or nursing. If as a clinician, I cannot promote best practices in my field without fear of being brought into a disciplinary council, how can my field be assured that LDS clinicians will comply with best practices? I think an LDS clinician could be viewed as a risky hire, if the messaging is that we privilege the church over the best interests of the people we serve. I think this is a bigger conversation that should be escalated to the national level and focused not on alignment with church membership, but clinical alignment with evidenced based practices. I am not sure Natasha’s stake president realizes how big of a conversation this might need to be.
Governing Myself: I suspect that if Pres. Daley understood what a huge can of worms this opens, he would have quietly set that can back on the shelf and moved on. Given all the downstream hypotheticals you list, the Church would be wise to recommend the same to him.
There needs to be an allowance (within the Church) for individuals to practice according to their professional ethics in good faith. There’s been a huge (alarming, if you ask me) push to expand religious freedom to allow individuals to recuse themselves from requirements of their jobs on the grounds of religious objection in the public sphere. Many Church leaders, including Oaks, are in this camp and see it as an imperative to privilege individual religious conscience over the rights of marginalized groups (by no means restricted to Mormons–Evangelicals are even more into this broad application of privileging religious beliefs).
This situation is the direct flip side of that thinking. While Oaks et al would certainly fight for a therapist to have the right to engage in practices that are not sanctioned by current psychology or to refuse to affirm LGBT clients, etc., will they also fight for the right of an individual to follow their professional ethics rather than the religious viewpoints they (Oaks, etc) are trying to advance? A lot rides on that answer, and I’m not convinced that it cuts both ways for them. If not, then it reveals that these cries for “religious freedom” are really just one-sided. Their (religious) conscience matters; others’ (secular / professional) conscience does not get the same respect or protection. Correlating the manuals isn’t enough. We have to squelch disagreement wherever it presents.
It’s a tough boundary to navigate and hard to navigate until the line has been crossed. It’s much like a person going in for a TR interview. There are different types of people. One personality would ask permission and talk through any questions or “iffiness” on some of the questions. Another personality type would maybe unorthodox in belief or practice but cruise through the interview flying under the radar. Another personality type would use the interview to challenge the authority figure, pointing out flaws in the questions or policies. My guess is that most bishops and stake presidents would welcome the first personality type and talk through issues, giving guidance where they saw fit and giving or denying permission. They probably would not be as thrilled with the fly under the radar personality type but would give some begrudging acceptance that it’s their decision. The last type of interview would likely not go well and the person would be seen as a troublemaker and agitator, although they are probably living more authentically than the person who flies under the radar. If they keep pushing and challenging in Sunday School or other church meetings, they would likely either be talked to and told to stop or made very uncomfortable. The fly under the radar person would likely be left alone.
I would guess the Church sees Natasha as an agitator and other folks as maybe not being 100% what they want out there, but flying under the radar and being positive enough that they are OK.
Any discussion of addiction ought to include some definitions and accurate descriptions of what it is, rather than just grievance stories, as paradigmatically sufficent maps of the territory. Here I draw on, among others, Patrick Carnes, Milton Magness, Marsha Means, and Donald Hilton.
In all addictions, whether chemical or behavioral, the damage involves the enlargement of the dopamine receptors in the mid-brain, which produces increased craving, and a corresponding shrinking of the areas of the cerebral cortex associated with weighing risks and benefits in any action. Bluntly speaking, addiction involves actual brain damage. That damage affects cravings and the capacity to weigh consequences in a way that Alcoholics Anonymous pioneers accurately labeled as “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” Pelting the symptoms of that damage with disapproval or indulgence, excommunication or enabling, shaming or celebration does nothing to address the fact of the damage. All addiction involves the presence of a physiological basis for the combination of craving and impeded judgment. One potent argument against describing sexual behavior as addictive, one that I personally used for to long to my detriment, is that sexuality is natural, whereas drug and alcohol addictions involve putting foreign substances in the body. This overlooks the importance of naturally occurring chemicals in the brain, such as the endorphins, (which are natural opiates chemically resembling heroin and morphine), serotonin, and dopamine.
As Donald Hilton explains, “In the brainstem, a chemical called dopamine is produced in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which has been found to be important in the brain’s pleasure and reward system. When activated by a pleasurable stimulus, the VTA causes dopamine to be released in an area of the thalamus called the nucleus accumbens. Other chemicals such as the brain’s natural opioids, the endorphins, also stimulate the nucleus accumbens. It may be that dopamine is more important in wanting pleasure, whereas the endorphins are more important in liking pleasure. These pathways are important because without them we would not value appropriate pleasures. An area of the cerebral cortex called the frontal lobe helps control the amount and context of the pleasure. It also helps us weigh the benefits and risks of a pleasurable stimulus. For instance, uncontrolled eating may be pleasurable, but it is unhealthy. Unrestrained sexuality may be pleasurable, but it destroys relationships and spiritual power and insight. It is the frontal lobe that tells us to judge these risks and benefits.”
“When we overuse pleasure centers, the cells that produce dopamine are overworked, and in what may be a defensive reaction, the brain decreases the amount of dopamine available for use and also causes shrinkage in the cells that produce the dopamine and in the frontal control areas. Paradoxically, the pleasure cells in the nucleus accumbens may actually enlarge in the addicted state because they have less dopamine available for pleasure and are seeking to extract every possible molecule. These physical changes in the brain have been called long-term potentiation and long-term depression. Thus, in addiction, normal pleasures are not enough to alleviate the craving for dopamine, and this craving in the newly reset pleasure thermostat in the brain is likely key in the desire to relapse. The shrinkage in the frontal control areas also contributes to the compulsivity and impulsivity seen in addiction. Interestingly, as neurosurgeons, we see these same characteristics in frontal lobe shrinkage from traumatic brain injury, and this has been recognized by addiction scientists. Sexual addiction obviously involves other neurotransmitters, two of which may be oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is important in bonding and increases trust in humans, and vasopressin may be important in sexual bonding, particularly in males.”
So sex addiction not only involves behavior but potent drugs that the addict carries in their own body. In Hope and Freedom for Sex Addicts and their Partners, Dr. Milton Magness reports that crack cocaine addicts have consistently reported that recovery from sex addiction is much harder to manage than recovery from drug addiction. I knew a person who had managed a year of sobriety from his alcohol and narcotics addictions, but at that point, couldn’t manage a week of sobriety from sex. (He did manage recovery later.) The addictive behavior–in whatever form–is not an end in itself but a means to access that internal drug supply.
As Magness explains, “[T]he sexual high comes from the neurochemical release that is found in the compulsive sexual behavior. Even if the addict finds a partner whose appetites are similar to his own, continued sex with the same person over a period of time results in more normalized neurochemical levels. What some call the ‘adrenaline rush’ or more accurately an increased level of dopamine, cortizol, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters diminishes. The lower level of chemical reinforcement does not satisfy the addiction.”
An excellent video Pleasure Unwoven: The Science of Addiction explains that in addiction neural pathways get hijacked, so that the part of the brain that is concerned with survival, eating, breathing, and fight or flight, gets tricked in treating the object of addiction as necessary for survival, as a need to obtain at all costs, rather than a desire that can be negotiated with in terms of risks and benefits. At the same time the part of the brain that should be weighing costs and benefits actually shrinks. Addiction involves brain damage. And the last thing a person with an addiction needs to be told is, “There is nothing wrong with you. You just need to be true to yourself. It’s other people, society, whomever, that are to blame for any negative consequences for your choices.”
It turns out that the treatment for addiction directly addresses the brain damage that defines addiction. A period of sobriety, helped along by accountability and boundaries, lets the brain heal. It takes 90 days to start, and over a year and a half at least, properly done, to complete. And consistent boundaries and accountability to maintain. And the personal work, the “searching and fearless moral inventory” and “dismantling the grievance story” helps change a person’s thinking, so that at the same time the compulsions being healed, the excessive desire masquerading as essential needs are being treated, so also a person’s impared judgement is being healed. That is addiction recovery involves the sacrifice of a broken heart, healing improper desires, and a contrite spirit, healing impaired thinking. The disease model is organ + damage = symptoms. If you only treat the symptoms, say by either shaming or enabling the compulsive behavior, the damage remains. So the symptoms re-emerge, and the person feels helpless to change. “This is just the way I am. Beyond repentance.” Addiction recovery directly addresses the damage. As a consequence, with recovery, the compulsiveness and the impared thinking are healed. And with the change, a person realizes that they are not defined by the object of their addiction, that while they did, their addiction was coloring their perception and thinking, and wearing them like a mask.
A key aspect of any addiction is shame, and John Bradshaw’s classic recovery work, Healing the Shame that Binds you explains. There are two kinds of shame, toxic shame, in which a person believes that they are defective, and that no one who knows them as they really are could love them, and healthy shame, in which a person realizes that they are human, and therefore have limits and make mistakes, and need boundaries. Addiction recovery heals toxic shame. The open honesty and sharing, especially at the beginning, when other people confess their own actions, offering that vulnerability, shows by example, that even people who have done worse things, can not only be loved, but can change. The whole point of the honesty and confession, and self examination is to release the burden of shame, rather than inflict it. Notice that Alma 36 involves a personal life review, not only equivalent to a near death experience, but also to the fourth step in addiction recovery. And notice the difference for Laman and Lemuel, who also saw an angel, but who instead of looking to their own sins, turned to fear and resentment and grievance for self justification. They are very realistic characters. Carnes observes that heroes face their fears, including be fully known, sins and weaknesses included, whereas villains avoid that by nurturing their grievances.
Any discussion of sex addiction also ought to acknowledge the importance the addict’s partner in all of this, who is much more invested and affected than the church. For example, the church is not at risk of STDs or divorce or financial ruin when a member misbehaves. One of the books I always recommend to couples I worked with in addiction recovery is Marsha Means’s and Barbara Stefans’s, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse. They makes the case that for partners, the response to discovering the betrayals is trauma. So they need to be treated for trauma, rather than assumed to be codependent. Codependents seek control, but the traumatized need safety. And their book carefully lays out the path to safety, the way to heal from their trauma, and to be able to trust.
Now there are lots of therapists out there, some of whom do not accept the existence of sexual addiction. Others do. I had one therapist tell me, “If you don’t want a fat wife, get a skinny one.” I got other therapists. One said, “12 step groups are for people with worse problems” than mine. He meant well, but, I think now, he was wrong. Some years back I had an exchange on the Mormon Therapist’s blog about the signifiance of language, whether one is pathologized as a sex addict, or whether one can actually be diagnosed and truely helped by that knowledge.
I’ve done recovery myself, and seen and helped many other people over several decades, including many years with a calling in the LDS Addiction Recovery Program. If addiction were not a real thing, there would be nothing to change, nothing to see, nothing to report, nothing to celebrate. But I have experienced the changes and seen them, and seen many individuals, couples, and families find healing and lasting joy that was not easy to obtain but worth it. Patrick Carnes distinguishes levels of committment. I wish things were different. I want things to be different. I will try to make things different. I will do whatever it takes for things to be different. Only the last makes for lasting change, but at the very least, all four of those levels involve looking first at the beams in one’s own eye. “Then shall ye see clearly.”
Kevin Christensen, I’m glad you found something that worked for you. In my experience with the LDS Addiction Recovery Program, we’ve done a good job of getting a lot of people who struggle with very normal bad habits to say that their lives are broken and unmanageable. For some people, a sex addiction can lead to just that, ruined careers, marriages, friendships, etc. But, in my experience, most people there are viewing porn a couple times a month or year and proclaiming that they have an addiction and are broken. I don’t think that’s healthy. I think the perception of brokedness and shame that comes from it is much more harmful than the indulgence in the behavior. The conditioning for spouses that viewing pornography is adultery is also extremely damaging and leads to things like forcing a partner to move out, separation and the threat of divorce for something that may not be ideal, but is usually not as harmful of a behavior as we’ve been conditioned to believe. My recovery and healing in my marriage came in accepting the status quo, moving on and never looking back.
@governingmyself, I am close to people who did BYU’s MSW and they themselves don’t think it should be accredited based on the way it handled human sexuality.
@Angela, totally agree.
Angela C: I agree with you. This stake president and other church members are likely not a part of the big conversations happening within the mental health field and may not realize the response that can occur if given the right attention. Full disclosure: I would agree with the intense backlash that may happen. A really great example of this occurred in Texas in October 2020 when the Behavioral Health Licensing Board stripped protections from discrimination for LGBTQ+ folks and the disability community. The backlash was fierce from both NASW, disability organizations, and advocates. This board backpedaled fast. It was clear they were not prepared for the response on a national level and did not have a clearly articulated position (I don’t believe there is one). They were met by folks who are working around the clock to increase inclusion and access. This is a silly place for the church to find itself in. It may have worked to go after mental health providers in the past. Perhaps, John Dehlin is an example where the psychology community didn’t respond. However, the church may not be so lucky moving forward and it’s hard to know when something will go viral.
I cannot agree with your points more.
The outcome of this situation will be important for every clinician in the church. Your point about challenging BYU’s professional program accreditations is relevant; the outcome of this case could call their accreditations into question.
I respect Ms Helfer’s willingness to speak up even when it comes at great personal cost. The experiences mentioned in comments above attest to the importance of her work and advocacy.
At this point it is enough for the church to leave her membership intact. She is owed a deep and sincere apology. She is owed restitution.
All professionals within the church are owed a binding assurance from the church that their membership will not be called into question when they are practicing according to the carefully-thought-out ethics of their professions.
You are right, Governing Myself. Individuals in search of professional services may steer clear of religious professionals if those professionals must surrender evidence-based practices to those mandated by their religious leaders.
This is a serious turning point. Are we willing to go with evidence-based practice or will we choose indiscriminate orthodoxy above all else? Will we prioritize those in need of nurturing and the professionals who serve them?
* At this point it is NOT enough for the church to leave her membership intact.
Apologies that I did not catch that omission of the word “not.”
I am with Rockwell and felixfabulous in that the main “sin” is talking publicly contrary to church leaders. I grew up with “obedience is the first commandment” (can’t find that in the scriptures though). I think more specifically in the church is that you can’t call out the leaders in just about any way or you will get pushback. From what I have heard of other therapists such as Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, she says many of the same things and even admits the terrible outcomes from church teachings and culture, but she seems to always be focusing on an individual and commenting on their specific issues and how to deal with them. A few times now Natasha Helfer has in very public venues said clearly between the lines in her words that the leaders need to change because they are wrong. Both are wonderful therapists and they are both helping the LDS community get better. But grabbing a mic and raising your hand increases the chance of lightening striking you. I think it is inevitable that the SP will have a “Oh my, what hornets nest did I just kick?” moment, but is it before or after he gives the verdict to Sister Helfer? I sure hope it is before.
The risk to BYU and LDS therapists’ reputations and ability to practice should prompt our favorite law firm to advise the Church to stand down. If I were a Church lawyer I would absolutely tell the Church to stay out of this.
What are they so afraid of? If they’re so right about human sexuality let them teach their message as they see fit and make their case as to why Helfer is wrong. Then people can decide for themselves who to listen to. Punishing her just makes it look like they’re afraid and they have a track record of punishing people for speaking truths that they aren’t yet ready to admit. The truth can stand on its own without punishing people who contradict it.
I think @Travis has the right point. Why is a stake president in Kansas holding this when she lives in Utah? The Church or at least her local SP can easily shoot this one down and say “Jurisdiction”. They could also claim a conflict of interest based on this line in the new article:
“Helfer said she doesn’t know why the leaders of her congregation in Kansas would bring these issues to her now. She believes there is a possible conflict of interest in the disciplinary process. Helfer, who is going through a divorce, said that the stake president, Daley, who is an executive at Koch Industries, is also her husband’s former boss.”
Andy, SP Daley is “just following orders” from the Brethren in SLC.
All I can say is you can fairly feel the clock ticking down to another intellectual, emotional, spiritual and public disaster.
It’s all become so predictable at this point. It’s just a shame that such a wonderful person trying to prevent and repair the damage and pain in individuals’ and families’ lives is caught in the tide this time.
Do they even pause to notice in the COB that it’s always good people trying to support others that they fixate on and attempt to rub out?
Masturbation is healthy and normal. My life changed for the better when I accepted that. Letting go of shame and letting nature take its course changed my outlook and helped me gain a positive attitude. I remember in my mid-20s attending an “addiction recovery” program by the church, by someone who was actually called on a mission to run it. It was incredibly ill-informed and toxic, causing men who were already beating themselves up over small things to feel justified feeling excessive shame. I went to two classes and realized I had had enough. There are people out there who have real sexual problems and incredible lack of self-control, Matt Gaetz comes to mind. Those who masturbate regularly in private do not inherently have a problem with sex or self-control. By causing individuals to feel excessive shame for normal feelings and behavior, the church does a disservice to those who have real problems. This move to discipline Natasha Helfer is disgraceful.
Travis and Andy both brought up the issue of jurisdiction and the fact that Helfer now lives in a new ward.
Rightly or wrongly, the stake president in Kansas has “jurisdiction”, if such a thing exists at all. Back when Kate Kelly was undergoing her disciplinary action I learned that when someone’s records are being transferred the former leadership has the right to keep the records and block the transfer, particularly if disciplinary action is in progress. I don’t like it, but I can see the motivation behind this policy, which prevents people from evading the disciplinary process by changing their residence.
In a Mormon Stories interview, Helfer explained that since moving out of state, her new leadership has been unable to get her records transferred, so the former SP is still here SP, according to church policy, and has jurisdiction. I’m only saying this is within the bounds of policy, not that it is fair or justifiable.
It is rather alarming to me that after publicly and prolifically doing and saying the same things for so many years, she is only facing the council now. Nothing has really changed except her residence, as far as I know. It seems like some system in church offices flagged attempt to move records as something that shouldn’t happen, triggering the action by the stake president. This is, of course, very speculative on my part. But it’s weird that it happened for both Kate Kelly and Natasha Helfer
Rockwell, The Strengthening the Church Members Committee (SCMC) strikes again.
The SP is apparently her ex-husband’s former boss which appears like a potential conflict of interest, if so, but as we all know, conflict of interest never stopped a disciplinary council in the Church before, and I doubt it will now. https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/04/16/mormon-sex-therapist-expulsion-lds/
Over 200 LDS therapists have signed a letter urging the SP to reconsider as this puts the Church at odds with the mental health profession.
This is appalling!
Does anyone know how much control Salt Lake has over charges at the stake level? I assume their involvement varies based on the public profile of the matter. It’s hard to imagine that the Q15 would agree (unanimously, right?) to stir this particular pot. Is SP Daley acting mostly as a lone wolf?
tomirvine, I see you’ve weighed in on this. How do you know Salt Lake is involved? Have you been involved in disciplinary councils where that was the case? Again, I’d actually be very surprised to hear it came from them.
Relatedly, can anyone quote/paraphrase the jurisdictional rules for disciplinary councils? Lawyer here, so don’t be ginger with the jargon . . .
Thanks retroactively on jurisdiction, Rockwell. Didn’t realize she had moved so recently
This is an instance where leaders are needed.
I wish the church had them.
A strong person to step up and shout, “this is wrong!”
But the church doesn’t have leaders. It has managers, and they manage to:
– screw a lot of things up,
– think they know best and are the ultimate authority in all things,
– unjustly judge others,
– misinterpret the gospel,
– believe they are gospel,
– create rules just because they can,
– condemn those who recognize the limitations of these managers,
– place science and the expertise of others beneath their limited knowledge and wrongly interpreted
– think very highly of themselves – something required of managers worldwide.
And this is a shame because while they have power, their growth is limited.
And worse, these managers limit the growth of their true-blue-dyed-in-the-wool followers.
@billypossum, per what I remember from the Mormon Stories interview, she moved more than an year ago, but the records were blocked from being transferred in any case and in the interim there have been multiple communications and miscommunications that I won’t try to detail.
Ok, the jaw dropping reveal from the Mormon Stories interview is about an hour and a half in when she describes how her summons to the disciplinary counsel was hand delivered ON EASTER MORNING. I just couldn’t believe it. Could this be a mistake? Only if the SP didn’t know when it was going to be delivered and the person delivering didn’t know what was in the envelope, in which case it is still gross mismanagement and completely devoid of any thought or care. It reminds me of when Jeremy Runnels’ court of love was scheduled to be on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. At least that one got rescheduled.
Just one more reason why excommunication has no place in a 21st century church.
I think the church is in conflict with its role and purpose. When it stops being fundamentally a corporate body and starts being a religious one with its focus on aiding people on there journey to salvation and stop the Calvinistic ‘ brutality ‘ which is embedded in Mormon particularly Western US mormon Culture
Imagine if not for the internet these would all be “rumors”. Members would be told to get information from “trusted sources”.
How many other things happened from 1820- until the onset of the internet that the church buried?
Our prophets have historically made some terrible mistakes, not the least of which is the teachings of Presidents Kimball and Packer regarding sexuality which turned out to be wrong. The impact of their mistakes has been devastating to many members and their families. My own Ward had three men who went through the Church’s reparative therapy program and were told to marry women and start families. When these men couldn’t fake it any longer and left, the spouse and children’s lives were also upended. I’m certain there are many more stories like these. But apparently the brethren have learned little because they’re now determined to add a therapist to the group of experts they’ve already excommunicated for speaking the truth. My heart hurts when I think about what they feel justified in doing to Ms. Helfer in the name of God. I’m so sorry for the anguish she must be feeling.
Natasha’s SP is a Public relations/marketing guy. And, when one is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. He likely sees her national work as negative PR/marketing for the church and the message is to him, the most important thing. Nothing else matters. You’re either on message or against it, period. And he likely feels protective of the church and miraculously in place as the KS SP best suited to handle a national PR problem, because he’s a big corporate PR guy who guest speaks at BYU Marriott, and is God’s man in the stake at that time.
The problem is that he should be seeing is pastoral , charitable, role first. He ought to be her best advocate and protector. If SL has a “national” problem with her message, he should have let SL handle it. But, he doesn’t work for SL’s PR department. There’s such a conflict of interest with our lay ministry in today’s era when these types of problems are just tire fires with gasoline. It must have been so much simplistic when Joseph started everything and the ministers were just farmers or craftsmen.
Even as I wrote this, I bet the verdict is over. I hope she appeals to the FP and that accreditors. I also hope accreditors such as the CSWE (social work), AACNE (nursing), and all other allied health programs’ accreditors are going to scrutinize the hell outta this.
Pressure on UT’s statehood stopped polygamy. Pressure to BYU’s sports programs helped the church to finally change it’s blacks and the PH stance. It’s highly possible that those accreditors are the only ones who have the leverage to make a difference. Certainly the rank and file members don’t, current clinicians don’t. They might be our only hope.
Mortimer, you make a lot of sense, but what would pressure on accreditation stop, exactly? Excommunications of mental health professionals? The Church’s treatment of mental health and psychology seems like much more of a nebulous issue than the others. (Or, rather, an issue with a nebulous solution).
I suppose by now people know that the stake wouldn’t even let Natasha or her witnesses attend their “court” last night.
I hope she bills them for the travel from UT to KS that they pointlessly forced on her. I hope she bills them for her professional time.
What kind of neanderthals are they that they think they have any right to ask her to surrender her personal property for their convenience and protection of their egos while they shove her out the door? There is sweet nothing about the way the stake conducted themselves that was decent or pastoral and I’m certain the damage they did they did as much to themselves and the church as to Natasha.
How many more resignations will follow?
What?! They barred her from attending and defending herself?! Unrighteous cowards. Those sort of actions have nothing to do with the order of heaven they purport to believe in. Utterly sickening. I’m not sure I can handle much more of this.
To be clear, they didn’t refuse her admission outright. The “price” of admission was surrendering her phone. As she had her defense notes on the phone and as a matter of personal empowerment she refused to hand it over. She had already signed a confidentiality agreement giving up any right to recording.
In consequence of her insisting on retaining her personal property they barred her.
A trusting bunch, apparently.
Thanks for the details, Alice. I haven’t had time to watch her post-video yet.
They also declined to let her witnesses in to use the restroom or make a statement. I’m not sure of there was a reason given.
She’s received the letter. She’s excommunicated. …to no one’s surprise. And the church is embarrassed once again.
Thanks for the update, Lois. So disappointing. Such a loss.
Alice, not Lois. Sorry. Not sure how that happened. Must have been my blind fury. Still haven’t calmed down.
And there was a great hush upon the land as nary a church leader dared admit that this situation was handled poorly for fear of breaking ranks or the church losing face in any way. Repentance, after all, is for individuals, not for organizations.
Excellent post and comments. Two adjacent thoughts:
I have two nieces that went into social work. As they we evaluating their options, they learned that BYU-trained social workers have difficulty getting jobs outside of Utah because of the religious bias built into the program. One then went to U of U and the other to UVU.
One of our sons needed some therapy after his two brothers died (he was between them in age). Already swamped with massive medical bills, we accepted the bishop’s offer to pay for LDS Social Services counseling – picking up what our insurance didn’t cover. Stick with through the story to see how the bishop played into this.
Part of what we had to agree to – in writing – was that the bishop could discuss the therapy with the counselor. Well – I took my son and after a few visits she wanted to talk with me. When I was in there she told me the she had diagnosed my grief-stricken wife (to whom she had never spoken) with a serious mental disorder and that it would get never get better and I should consider divorce.
I did some research and learned that the therapist had a side business holding seminars to help LDS folks decide if they should divorce and then support them through and after the process. She had even written a book on it.
We felt this was a serious 0verstep and reported her to the proper oversite board. They did an investigation. As part of that we were able to review her files related to son. The bishop’s comments and judgements concerning my wife were atrocious. From his seat on the stand, he thought that she was “overly affectionate with her children”. So seven kids on the pew and she puts her arm around the wiggly ones next to her (one with Down syndrom and autism that usually needed to sit on a lap to comfort and contain him. And that’s overly affectionate. There were other equally thick-headed comments.
Ultimately, it didn’t rise to the level of disciplinary action for the therapist. But never again would I use LDS social services unless I was paying the full bill to keep the bishop out of the picture.
BeenThere: Holy cow, that’s one terrible story. I am speechless.
One aspect of this that has gone through my mind is a science versus religion (or science versus morality, if you prefer) angle.
With a degree in biology and amateur interest in geology, astronomy, and cosmology, I have seen many discussions over the years about these sciences versus religion/scripture. Interestingly, some of these discussions are among the most contentious that I see in Mormonism and Christianity. But, we can tolerate these disagreements — even when heated — because, at the end of the day, there is little of moral significance to those kinds of questions. Special creation or evolution, old earth or young earth, Kolob theorom or not, global flood or local flood or whatever don’t really impact behaviors that I choose to believe are moral or immoral. The Church has issued various official statements that basically come down to leave science to scientists and religion to religionists and they can both speak “truth” within their respective spheres.
Sexuality. on the other hand, is seen by us and many other Christians as very morally significant. So, when the science/psychology around sexuality leads someone like Natasha to believe (and vocally preach) differently than what the Church teaches, it is harder to simply issue a restraining order that science and religion should stay apart (for the Simpsons fans out there). Sexology is going to speak into a space that we consider morally significant. When psychologists draw negative correlations between Church teachings and sexual/mental health, it is going to put pressure on related morality questions. When someone like Natasha chews incessantly at those pressure points, something is going to give, because the moral significance we assign to these questions will pressure us to choose one way or the other. The whole thing gets complicated when the scientists don’t all agree on how to interpret their data (this came up in Dr. Finlaysen-Fife’s interview with the Mormonland podcast this week) and when religionists don’t all agree on the morality questions (I have observed that the question of whether masturbation is a sin or not can be among the most contentious in both Mormonism and broader Christianity).
As one who has long followed Natasha’s blog (her “Official Stance on Masturbation” post was part of a turning point for me on these issues when it was first published), I am not necessarily surprised by the events of the last couple of weeks. But I don’t think it is as easy in these cases to separate science and religion/morality as it is for me in biology or geology or astronomy. Sexology is exploring something that we consider morally significant, and that cannot be as easily compartmentalized.
The church’s hyper focus on masturbation is ridiculous.
I know an LDS member who was fired from his job, working for a private corporation in Los Angeles, for accessing porn on his computer after work hours.( I do believe porn can be somewhat addicting for some people).
Though I don’t know enough to say I agree with all Natasha has done in her professional life, I have no doubt she has helped people who are struggling.
The church can be very damaging to those who don’t fit in the “one size fits all” approach.
Authoritarians can find the church a very comfortable place.
“An in-depth look at every individual excommunicated by Jesus Christ in scripture” by Jana Riess, on Religion News Service
In order to maintain my professional qualification in the UK as a counsellor I cannot disclose anything to third parties without a clients permission except in case of danger to self or others. I remain baffled as to how others appear to consider this acceptable behaviour , but I imagine that they do not subscribe to what I would consider to be the recognised professional body. But perhaps that’s why I very rarely see LDS clients.
I try to quietly get on with doing what I can without asking anybody’s permission as I would if I were a surgeon or a postman. I campaign politically.
@MrShorty, good point.
In Utah County at least, apparently masks are also an issue where science and morality interrelate. (You can’t see through the screen, but I’m eyerolling here.)
How much influence did Dr. Wendy Watson Nelson have on Natasha Helfer’s excommunication? Implicit or explicit.
This is obliquely related, links to relevant information.
Gilgamesh, Elisa, Angela C on going public with disciplinary-council details: somewhere buried in a Mormon Matters podcast (don’t remember which episode, sorry), Claudia Bushman notes that it is appropriate to keep sin-driven councils private. However, she then makes a crucial point: it is harmful and downright unethical for the Church to maintain secrecy in actions for heresy (what we call “apostasy), because the members at large need to know exactly where the line is drawn so they don’t inadvertently cross it. She makes the point that no other major denomination follows our policy of keeping these matters secret, nor our policies on heresy so murky. I, too, am a Ph.D. historian (focusing on early modern and medieval Europe), and my considered opinion based on comparative examples is that the Church’s approach to heresy is not compassionate: it is an authoritarian technique for wielding fear-based control. Sister Bushman is absolutely right: these councils need to be wide open so that everyone knows exactly where they stand.
Oh, Dave B.’s comment above is also appropos.