As a child I remember listening to a particular sermon about the evils of depression, a tool of Satan, evil ingratitude. I don’t know why it struck me so strongly, maybe because I recognized a dark sadness within myself that convicted me.
Since then, the messages from the pulpit have been more positive. Over the years our corporate understanding about the affliction of depression has improved.
Fortunately, I am like most people; I am not a chronic sufferer. My days of successive depression can usually be counted without removing my shoes. While you and I might not have depression, I can guarantee that we all know someone who repeatedly struggles with long periods of depression. (Some people are good at hiding or managing it.)
It is this debilitating depression that is the subject of Silent Souls Weeping by Jane Clayson Johnson. She started her career as a Salt Lake city television station news anchor and now has a program on NPR. Having experienced severe depression as an active Latter-day Saint, she recognized that there are unique issues faced in an LDS context.
Silent Souls Weeping is an anthology and commentary. The book is full of anecdotes of sufferers that provide insight into challenges faced by our fellow saints. These personal stories help us understand their burdens. Johnson’s plea is for us to become more understanding and supportive of those with mental illness; stigma and shame are not antidotes. We must be part of the therapy that lifts the burden of others.
As Latter-day Saints we are taught that if we are obedient to God’s commands and live righteously, we are entitled to the companionship of the Holy Ghost. These feelings, we are taught, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Consequently, when we lose those feelings, we identify that with a loss of the Spirit, which, we feel, must be due to unworthiness. Self-imposed guilt then reinforces and validates the depression.
From an interview in the book:
“I came to church during those months convinced that I was a hypocrite and terrified that others were going to catch on. I felt like all of my prayers were hitting a brick wall. It had been ages since I’d felt the Spirit. Surely it was a sign that I was unworthy. . . . I felt certain that I had lost not just the ability to feel the Spirit but the privilege of being worthy to feel it.” (pg 15)
Thoughts scatter, distraction destroys focus, and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness distort perspective. Access to the divine feels blocked. For me, and for many of the Latter-day Saints I interviewed, the latter is the most distressing symptom of depression. It’s also one of the most shocking because of our doctrine that the Holy Ghost can be our constant companion. (pg 18)
It is not easy interacting with someone in depression. A friend of Johnson’s explained that:
“Depression is a ball and chain. Some people drag it. Other people swing it.” (pg 163)
When interacting with those who suffer with depression is not easy, we must be on guard for judgement, shame, and blame. These are easy to cultivate when the sufferer doesn’t respond to our care. Hopefully, we can recognize these tendencies and remember to self-correct, showing love and support in spite of how we might initially be received.
Shallow advice by well-meaning associates can be well-intentioned but more hurtful than helpful.
“That was probably the most painful thing anyone could say, was to snap out of it, because I did not have the ability to do it.” (pg 39)
Physical ailments are much easier for others to understand.
In fact, the sister with depression confided, “I so wish I could be in [the sister with cancer]’s shoes. I would take the death that is coming her way. It would be such a relief for me to be able to die in a non-embarrassing way. I would just love to have my own troubles come to an end and have it be in a way that people wouldn’t judge me and could reach out to my kids and be kind and loving to them and take care of them.” (pg 40)
LGBTQ feelings, toxic perfectionism, truncated missionary service, and child birth are all tied to LDS expectations and “failures” can initiate or exacerbate depression. Johnson addresses each of these in separate sections of her book.
Through personal stories and advice from psychologists, Johnson hints at a few practices that help some people manage depression.
It is often surprising to those with depression that taking a pill can make you “righteous” again, capable of feeling the Holy Ghost. How can this be? But, if we believe that God will “impart unto you of [His] Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy” (D&C 11:13), then our mind has to be in good working order.
Dr. Louise Jorgensen … : “There’s no question that a person who is depressed has their wheels on ice, and until they get traction they can’t get off the ice. Sometimes the best way to get traction is through medication. In fact, a lot of times it’s the only way to get traction.” (pg 26)
Other techniques can help sufferers manage their condition. But, as one interviewee suggests, “her life had what she called a new baseline” (pg 139). Managing depression can become an essential focus of activities that were not originally part of the life plan. These can seem constraining, but may be necessary.
Can Church Do More?
There have been a few things over the last few years that I would put in a Must-read list for LDS Church leaders. The penultimate chapter of this book is one of them. It contains some possible institutional ideas for ward and stake leaders to help those with mental illness.
While churches are poorly equipped for long-term care, we should be good at offering a loving, accepting environment.
A study by Baylor University psychologists found that churches are surprisingly likely to overlook the needs of congregants who suffer from mental illness. (pg 181)
Dr. Rob Waller, a consultant psychiatrist for the UK’s National Health Service, has studied the effects of mental-health issues in Christian circles. . . .
“Some people have been told that they ought to pray more, to snap out of it, or that they just need more faith,” he told Christianity Today. “But what they actually need is a healing and accepting community. I was shocked how little the church talked about these problems. The church needs to foster a culture that means that this topic can be discussed if it needs to be. They need to be clear that they are mental-health friendly. (pg 187-188)
Johnson reports on one stake that has taken mental health concern to a new level.
The Nashua New Hampshire Stake has developed a formal initiative in the form of a wellness committee (something of a subcommittee to the stake welfare committee) with a broad focus to help the poor and needy—and a specific bull’s eye on mental health. Dubbed by the stake president as the M25 Committee, the group uses chapter 25 of the book of Matthew as its inspiration. (pg 190. Matthew 25:37-40)
This M25 committee is staffed by subject matter specialists in mental health, addictions, employment, and welfare. In stakes that lack these skills among their members, I wonder if outside people could be recruited.
While this chapter presents some institutional suggestions, nearly every chapter provides insights into how leaders and members can be supportive of specific circumstances, whether post-partum or post-mission.
Ignorance is easy. Far too often it has been my path.
Compounding my ignorance is my temperament. While others may be naturally empathetic, I am not. Unfortunately, education can only go so far. My “just fix-it” idealism and self-dependence often seep through sincere empathy. Hopefully, I can get better with more practice.