Do bishops need to be recovering addicts?

by: shenpa warrior

July 19, 2011

Or rather, do therapists who work with veterans need military experience?

Just over 6000 soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Around 6,500 veterans commit suicide every year.

There is also a shortage of mental health services for these veterans. Many therapists have not had military experience, losing valuable street cred with some of their clients. There seems to be an attitude that if you have not been through similar experiences, you can’t help someone. From the LA Times:

A new attempt to fill the gap is coming from the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, which this fall is launching a military specialization track for its doctorate of clinical psychology program. Joe Troiani, a faculty member and Navy veteran who created the track, said the school hopes to prepare students for the specific psychological problems that stem from military service. They will take such classes as the psychology of terrorism, and psychology of combat and conflict.

But some vets scoff at the idea of learning about the horrors of war in the classroom.

“You’re dealing with a whole different mindset with a soldier,” said Tim Miller, 30, of Chicago, a veteran of the Iraq war who is now studying to be a clinical psychologist at Argosy University. “You can’t just wrap your head around that from reading a book.”

I agree you can NOT get everything from a book, but is it necessary to have experienced the same things as a client or patient (or a friend or ward member) in order to help them heal? Does a physical therapist need to have had a major knee injury in order to help a patient recover from an ACL injury? Does a substance abuse counselor need to be a recovering addict?

I would argue that while having some similar experiences can be helpful initially in building rapport, it ultimately does little for creating change. Marriage counselors need to be experts in choreographing change in a relationship – they don’t need to be married per se. Orthopedic surgeons need to be experts at their job, not have experience being operated on themselves.

At the same time, does this contradict the idea that Christ can heal souls because he has descended below all things, and experienced everyone’s suffering? What does that mean?

Perhaps there is a universal experience of suffering that plays itself out in various contexts, such as PTSD, anxiety, trauma, addictions, and a high degree of negativity and blame in relationships.


  1. Does Christ know what each individual experience is like (PTSD vs. schizophrenia), or is it that He has experienced Suffering, which is a universal process that underlies all specific forms of suffering? Which do you think, and what meaning does that provide you?
  2. If you were seeing a therapist, would you need them to have experienced the same or very similar things as you have in order to help you? What would be the benefits of this?
  3. What might be the potential pitfalls of a therapist who has struggled in the same areas?
  4. Should a bishop or other church leader ever disclose specific struggles (e.g. “I’m a recovering alcoholic”) to members, or should they always keep it general (e.g. “I’ve been through the repentance process as well”)?

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16 Responses to Do bishops need to be recovering addicts?

  1. geoffsn on July 19, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    1. My thinking changes all the time. I think whichever view gives the most comfort to the individual at that time.

    2. Not necessary. But I think if someone has experienced similar things it can help with sympathy/empathy and make it easier to confide in them.

    3. It could possibly make recovery more difficult for the therapist or re-open old wounds.

    4. Depends on the situation. I think it can be appropriate if they feel to do so. Sometimes when a person is trying to overcome/manage something like that, just knowing another person who has/is also dealt/dealing with it can be an enormous aid in recovery.

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  2. shenpa warrior on July 19, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    geoffsn – Thanks for the comment.

    On #3 – I also think that if the therapist has had similar experiences, that can get in the way of helping the client. It can become too much about commiserating together about the common issue rather than doing therapy. It’s also hard to stay very objective in those cases. For example, if I was working with a couple that was very similar to my own marriage, it might be more difficult to remain objective.

    On #4 – One bishop I have talked to said he NEVER self-discloses specific issues regarding repentance. He’ll share with members general stuff though.

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  3. FireTag on July 19, 2011 at 11:32 PM

    1. Moot point in my theology because, since the Divine only TAKES ON human form rather than HAS human form and so experiences everything with us as we do daily.

    2. In choosing a therapist initially, I’d look for a “specialist” in the kind of problem I was dealing with, but thereafter the degree of successful guidance would govern whether the rapport and empathy should carry over to other kinds of problems.

    3 & 4. I agree with Geoffsn

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  4. Badger on July 20, 2011 at 12:01 AM

    Assuming Mr Miller meant what the context makes him appear to mean, and that he represents a body of opinion rather than one unusual view, I think he has to be taken very seriously. Certainly veterans are uniquely qualified to tell the rest of us whether veterans find non-veterans less helpful as therapists.

    It seems to me the right questions to ask are (1) are therapists lacking military experience really at a disadvantage?, (2) if so, how large is the disadvantage?, (3) is there a large surplus of ex-military mental health workers? and (4) if there is a disadvantage, can the non-veteran therapists close the gap by improving their skills? The experience of veterans as patients is directly relevant to (1) and (2), and indirectly to (4) if it helps to identify systematic differences between more and less successful non-veteran therapists. Of course, if the answer to (3) is “yes”, there’s not much of an issue because anyone who wants a veteran can just go see one.

    It seems like the question can be approached on its own merits, without having to rely on analogies like the physical therapist. If there is a problem, the beginning of a solution is surely being open to the possibility and recognizing the value of what veterans as patients have to say. On the other hand, given a group of people and a specific opinion, the LA Times can probably always find a member of the group to give them a quote expressing the opinion. I’d say the paragraphs you quoted raise a reasonable question but provide only negligible evidence toward an answer. You might say I scoff at the idea of reaching conclusions based on a single newspaper article.

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  5. Aaron R. on July 20, 2011 at 5:57 AM

    It seems possible that the distance created by a client between themselves and the counselor is part of this destructive process of wanting our problems to be special in order to justify our current situation. Veterans for example feel that their problems might be a unique response to their experiences but in reality they reflect similar processes to other issues. Accepting this seems an important part of teh healing process and so maybe crossing that divide through a counselor who has not had your experience is valuable.

    On the issue of Bishops, for a long time I valued the professional help that could be offered by various agencies. However more recently I have come to sense that with some basic training Bishops if they are trusted by the parties involved can be very helpful at providing perpsective and helping people work through problems themselves. This does not mean that they should necessarily be giving advice but that they can be taught how to teach others to solve their problems.

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  6. Paul on July 20, 2011 at 7:16 AM

    In response to your questions:

    1. Christ understans suffering, but does so without having experienced sin. It suggests to me that he (being all knowing) can understand my suffering even if he has not been in my situation.

    2. My understanding is that one quality of a good therapist is objectivity. I’d be interested in a therapist who has successfully treated people in my situation, not necessarily one that has been there. (That said, the way mental health care goes in the US, who gets to select a therapist based on his experience?) I do notice that therapists in drug and alcohol recovery settings often are addicts themselves in recovery, and their havintg “been there” gives them a certain street cred.

    3. It seems while empathy is important, it is not the sole basis of therapy; objectivity is probably more important in the end.

    4. Regarding bishops: I do not they should disclose personal transgression, just as no one else should, especially once those matters are resolved. The savior did not need to teach from the position of “I’ve been there, done that.”

    That said, a bishop cannot hide his humanness, and it is folly to try. My own observation is that a bishop that acknowledges his own faults is likely to be more empathetic to members of his unit who are seeking his help. When I served as bishop, some members told me that the fact that I had challenging children at challenging times of their lives made it easier for them to talk to me because they believed I would understand. Of course, there may have been others who did not speak to me, thinking that if I couldn’t keep my own house in order, what could I offer them.

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  7. Ethesis (mobile) on July 20, 2011 at 7:22 AM

    there are several different issues subsumed here. first, should caregivers and council givers appear perfect, or mortal?

    second, do they have sufficient base to connect? i have dealt with terribly clueless people from time to time. two weeks after the death of a child i had a member of a stake presidency badgering my wife to assure him she was completely recovered. i have relatives who have seen hard combat, i assure you that many who deal with them are just as clueless.

    third is the AA “experience, strength and hope” concept, where i survived the experience, you can too.

    i do not think a bishop need the specific experience, but i think that those intent on the illusion of perfection create a distance.

    it is distance that is the problem.

    but with combat vets, sometimes i think the easiest way to weed out the clueless is to just require shared experience.

    the alternative is something like the lds chaplin who fell counceling gis meant thier standing at attention and answering yes sir and no sir.

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  8. Badger on July 20, 2011 at 10:07 AM

    the alternative is something like the lds chaplin who fell counceling gis meant thier standing at attention and answering yes sir and no sir.

    I almost said something in my last comment to the effect that if there is a difference related to military experience, it’s not a law of nature that those who have the experience will be more effective than those who don’t.

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  9. HeidiAnn on July 20, 2011 at 10:10 AM

    My husband just got his Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. He has a really strong desire to work with military families and veterans. He is not a veteran. I don’t think anyone likes it when someone who has not been through your particular trial assumes they know just how you feel. I think people just want to be listened to and cared about. I think people want tools to help them in their relationships, and they just care that those tools work, not if the person giving the tools has needed them in their personal life.
    In one of my husband’s courses, there was a young veteran in the class. He said that there are not many combat veteran therapists. He said that at times learning about how to do therapy was difficult for him as it brought up a lot of painful things for him (related to combat, etc.). He said that was one reason a lot of combat veterans didn’t want to go into something like counseling. Now that’s just one combat vet’s opinion, but that was his experience.

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  10. Badger on July 20, 2011 at 10:33 AM

    I guess I skipped the questions:

    1. A psychotic messiah? I think I’ve met one briefly (to be clear, a mentally ill man who knew himself to be the messiah). I don’t think it’s possible for me to believe that his experience was just a variety of suffering such as I have experienced myself. I think you probably have to have been there to understand it. On the other hand, I’m not sure having that experience is of much value. I’d certainly pass, given a choice.

    2. Life experience and cultural background are too important to set aside completely. An extreme case, for illustration: I once read about an Indian boy (about 12, if I recall) who had a following as some sort of guru. That’s not the sort of difference Shepna is asking about, I presume, but I think there is a real boundary somewhere between the young guru and “just like me”. Among realistic, non-guru options, think I’d probably be most hesitant about a therapist who was much younger than me.

    3. Nothing to say on this one.

    4. I don’t believe the Bishop should feel obligated not to make such disclosures. As an example, suppose a Bishop (or secular counselor) is dealing with a very distressed person with serious financial difficulties, like very large medical expenses, loss of employment, and foreclosure. The Bishop himself has been through bankruptcy under similar circumstances, and is full of very helpful practical advice (“these are the bills you need to pay first”, that sort of thing). It would be wrong to withhold the advice, and pointless to make a mystery of it (“Bishop, you seem remarkably well informed about bankruptcy. Is it the Spirit?”)

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  11. ssj on July 20, 2011 at 5:48 PM

    I see the reasoning behind using the therapist & bishop analogy however I don’t think the two can be compared. A therapist has extensive training (usually a Ph.d.) and has had a lot of supervision. A bishop is a volunteer that may have no experience whatsoever in counseling people.

    Either way, if a person feels compelled to self disclose than they can do that if it is appropriate.

    I’ve had bishops self disclose with me and it was nice to hear that I wasn’t the only one who had experienced what I was going through.

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  12. Henry on July 20, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    DO I have to try meth in order to counsel others against it?

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  13. Badger on July 20, 2011 at 8:48 PM

    DO I have to try meth in order to counsel others against it?

    No, but we’re talking about military service, not meth. They aren’t comparable.

    I’m reminded of a book I once read by a former Catholic priest, who wrote of how unprepared he felt as a celibate young man fresh out of the seminary to help older couples who came to him seeking marital advice. He didn’t think it made any sense for celibate priests of any age to be giving such advice.

    I’m willing to believe that a priest could learn how to be a good marriage counselor, but to do it I think he’d have to recognize that his lack of personal experience is an issue.

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  14. Troth Everyman on July 20, 2011 at 10:53 PM

    #2. I don’t think so. I have been helped personally by folks with whom I haven’t had shared experiences. I have also been told that I have helped others who have experienced traumatic events that I have not. However, I do think that there can be a positive interaction when peers with shared experiences interact. Some AA groups, other peer run groups, group therapy, and the modern push for peer support workers in mental health all are formed on this principle. I agree that things can go wrong…but when they work I think it can really be helpful.

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  15. ken on July 28, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    One of the best bishops I’ve ever had was divorced. One of the best sacrament meetings I’ve ever attended was when he invited three nonmember husbands to speak.

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  16. shenpa warrior on July 28, 2011 at 4:50 PM

    ken – I didn’t know a divorced man could be a bishop! Interesting… was he divorced prior to his call or during?

    (Also, I love the idea of asking nonmembers to speak – we need more of that)

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