“What we think are the answers are often not the answers after all.”
An Interview with Joel C. Smith on Dealing with Depression
The real and personal world of walking the pathway of life while experiencing depression is a common experience for many men and women. But it need not be a hopeless experience. Part III of this article series, “A Light in the Darkness-Understanding and Dealing with Depression,” is an in-depth personal interview with Joel C. Smith. Joel C. Smith is a Latter-day Saint husband, father and grandfather, church leader, and businessman. He also has experienced significant depression throughout his lifetime and dealt with its effects.
Joel Smith grew up in Bountiful, Utah. He attended public schools in Utah and served a mission for the LDS Church in Santiago, Chile. He received a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biology, and a Master’s degree in Business Administration, from the University of Utah. He is married to Marni (Elsby) Smith, from West Bountiful, Utah, and they have been married for thirty-three years. They are the parents of five adult children and grandparents of six grandchildren.
Joel has worked for thirty-two years in the field of regulatory affairs and environmental compliance. He has worked for the state governments of Utah, South Dakota, and Minnesota, and has worked as the Regulatory Affairs Manager for American Crystal Sugar Co. for the last 11 years in North Dakota. In the Church he has served as high councilor, bishop’s counselor, Young Men’s president, ward clerk, and in numerous other callings. He has served twice as a bishop (7 years) and served for 9 years as Stake President of the Fargo North Dakota Stake. He currently serves as the High Priest Group Leader. He enjoys painting, raising pets, building models, reading, sports, and other activities.
Tell us about your personal experience with depression?
First of all, for years and years until I was an adult I didn’t realize that I was actually depressed. It particularly started to become a problem in the teenage years, I think, and I used to entertain thoughts of suicide a lot. I was about fourteen or fifteen years of age.
My way of dealing with problems was just to get away. We had a little grove of trees not too far from us on the farm that I would go to, or I would sit out on top of the garage at night and just watch the stars. I tended to isolate myself somewhat. I did have a good group of friends as a young man growing up. Friendship with others was not really a problem, and so the isolation I would seek was just because I wanted to get away. It was not because I didn’t have friends.
I just wanted to be away from everything. I had a lot of feelings that I would like to just disappear, because suicide wasn’t really an option because of my religious beliefs. I knew it would be the wrong thing to kill myself, or to do that, and so basically I think that without my religious beliefs I would have probably carried it out in my teenage years.
I had feelings of inadequacy. Feelings that if things were going wrong then it was my fault. Feelings that I could never measure up to others. In spite of the fact that I was in Advanced Placement courses in high school, that is what I felt. I was probably the smallest kid, at least among the boys, all throughout junior high and high school. I only weighed a hundred pounds when I graduated and I badly wanted to play sports and things like that, but because of my small size that just wasn’t an option.
There was quite a bit of blaming when things would go wrong at home. It was usually our fault, meaning the children, and Dad would get groups of us together and sit us down even in the middle of the night. If he was worried about finances, he would get us all together in the middle of the night and explain to us how if we would make sure that we turned off the lights, not run new bath water if someone needed to bathe, or not use so many towels, then we would be okay financially. That was a tendency of his. When things were going wrong he would get the children together and lay the blame on the kids. When mother was sick, he would tell us that we just weren’t helping out enough. Those kinds of things were going on.
My mother started her first bout with cancer when I was ten or eleven years old. Then it was all laid on us, the burden of her illness and her tiredness and us needing to help out more and do more so she didn’t have to do as much. So there was a lot of that going on.
So do you feel there was stress in your family environment that contributed to your feelings of depression?
Absolutely. Yes. Dad had a terrible temper and he would lose it. He didn’t exercise it as much on me as he did on a couple of my other brothers and sisters. I was kind of the peacemaker in the family most of the time. I tried to smooth things out and get everybody calmed down and have peace again. I’m the third child out of six.
How did depression continue to affect your life?
At a young age like that I was involved in seminary. Seminary was a lot different then. You would go to seminary classes and just be taught, and you were never expected to read or do things like they do now. For a while in high school I was running around with some kids that weren’t all that great. They were doing some things that were a bit borderline. They weren’t terrible kids and they weren’t into drugs, but a little bit of alcohol and tobacco. They could get a little rowdy. I kind of got in with that group for a while during my junior year.
Then between my junior and senior year I decided that I really needed to know for myself if the gospel was true. So I read the Book of Mormon three or four times that summer and gained a testimony of it and that lifted my spirits quite a bit.
It helped me through some of that time. But even at that, I still felt that I wasn’t measuring up to the standard that somebody expected. Of course, I assumed it was the Lord’s expectation and I was never good enough to live up to it fully. So, there were always a lot of feelings of guilt and I basically carried that throughout much of my life. There was always a constant feeling that I could not measure up.
I had some wonderful friends in high school. They were good kids who were there for me in that senior year when I got fully involved in the gospel. I was always active and would go to all the church meetings, but these were good kids. One of them is a doctor, one of them is a professor at BYU, one of them teaches astronomy at the University of Utah now-good kids with high academic achievement and we had classes together in math, science, physics, etc. So I hung around with them and had a lot of fun with them. Those guys were always supportive and helpful.
I went on my mission right after high school because I turned nineteen in January. I went to one quarter of college at the University of Utah and then went on my mission. I had struggles during my mission too. I remember when my mother died while I was on my mission that I felt like if I had been measuring up she wouldn’t have died. I felt that somehow I was in part a cause of her death. I carried that with me for years and years.
You felt that when something bad happens it was your personal responsibility?
That’s right. It was because I wasn’t measuring up, I wasn’t good enough, or I wasn’t doing everything that I should do. Of course, the sad part about that kind of situation is that you may then go and do things that are not exactly right. I don’t mean anything truly sinful or evil, but you may try to go out and prove that you’re not a good person. I’ve seen that pattern happen. It’s kind of hard to explain. You might just willfully not do something that you’re not supposed to do. It can be even more subtle than that. You realize that you’re not reading the scriptures in the way that you ought to be, and in your mind it just reinforces what a bad person I am because I’m not reading my scriptures. Or else, you get discouraged and think that you can’t be any good so you might as well just chuck it all and not even try any more. You have a sense that there’s no hope no matter what you do. You think:
How could anybody forgive me?
How could anybody ever like me?
How could I ever be good enough?
It becomes discouraging and just feel that you might as well just let things go and forget doing all this hard stuff. Of course, when you do that then it just reinforces your bad thoughts about yourself. It is kind of a vicious cycle that a person gets into.
Other people may go out and take drugs, visit prostitutes, or do other negative things due to such feelings. My belief in religion kept me from doing anything immoral or wrong such as that, but I think some people do that just to show everybody how bad they are because of how they feel. It is a tendency to prove that you don’t deserve anybody’s attention or anybody’s forgiveness or anything good that people say about you. There is always the feeling that if they really, really knew me then they wouldn’t say these things about me, meaning they wouldn’t say that I’m a good person or that I’ve done good for them in their life or that I’ve helped them.
How did the issue of depression arise as you married and went on with your life?
Well, I didn’t recognize what was going on. Then one day some years ago while we were still living in Minnesota, we had been there a couple of years, my oldest brother called me. This was around 1990. He called me and explained to me that he was getting counseling and that a lot of it had to do with the way our father had treated him-that he wasn’t a real good father. Of course, I had always suppressed that kind of thought. That just wasn’t right. Dads had to be good. Period. But then it just hit me like a ton of bricks and I completely lost control. I was serving as bishop when this happened. Our stake president happened to be a psychologist and did counseling, so my wife got an appointment and we got down there that same day and talked to him.
That’s when I started to realize that something wasn’t right and something hadn’t been right. I was depressed. Well, I went to a few sessions with him and made some good progress and started feeling better. It’s kind of an iterative process from one level to the next. It wasn’t like I woke up all at once and knew what I needed to do. I felt good for another year or so and hadn’t seen him for a while, and then the depression started hitting me again. They had an employee assistance program where I worked at the state and so I went over and saw a psychologist there two or three times. That helped and I was doing pretty well. Then we moved up to North Dakota and it started getting bad again.
This was now a period of about four years. It started getting bad again and I could feel it. So, through the employee assistance program at work here I went and saw another social worker and visited a few times and was doing fairly well, but I realized that I needed to do more. They referred me to a psychologist at the local health system and I talked with her. I talked to my doctor about it. He prescribed some medication and then I decided that I really wanted to see a psychiatrist. Eventually I got in to a psychiatrist and started seeing him. He was able to help me find some medication that has helped.
It has taken both things, both medication and talk therapy, to work on this issue.
I have been taking the medication now for two years and maybe a little more than that. I take anti-depressant medication and an anti-anxiety medication at night. So, you can see that from the time I found out what was happening with my depression until now it has taken almost fourteen years to get to this point. It was about ten years before I actually started taking medication.
Can you describe the symptoms you experienced so that people understand that aspect of depression?
The things I experienced when things would become bad again would include:
Feelings of despondency
Feelings of gloominess
- Wanting to cry or be highly emotional
- A feeling that things seemed overwhelming
- Thoughts that things were useless or could not get better
- Thoughts that nothing was going to change
- Withdrawing from my family and other people
- Feeling tired and worn out
I do know that when I get really tired depression also sets in more. You want to try and get your sleep and sufficient rest.
One of the other things that happens with depression is that you will find yourself wasting time in some way or another. It may be just sitting and playing computer games for hour after hour. You do things just to escape. You find different escape mechanisms. Of course, then you feel guilty about those things because they are non-productive as far as use of time goes. You think to yourself that I “should have” done this or I “should have” done that. That is part of the language of depression-I “should” this or I “should” that. I should, should, should, should, should. That is always a judgmental state because if you don’t do it when you should do it, then you’ve failed. You try to change that language and thinking to “I can.”
Have you found anything that is a trigger for depression in your experience?
Sometimes when there is just too much going on around me or things get too hectic. Too many people around, too many people talking, too many people wanting you to do things-that is an easy trigger.
How did depression affect your life in other ways?
It probably affected me in not doing some things as well as I could have done. The depression would affect me so much that I wouldn’t want to do things, like studying for school. You want to lose yourself in doing other things that are not challenging at all. I spent a lot of time playing ping-pong. I got really good at it in college. But that was an escape mechanism again. I could go and do it and do it well. I could see the results as I played.
I think in part, too, that the idea of winning all the time became an issue. I always wanted to win. I always wanted to be the best. I didn’t want to be second fiddle to anybody. There was that going on and it’s totally unrealistic because there’s always somebody better than you are at something. It leaves you with a desire to own something that nobody else has, or do something that nobody else has ever done, or beat the competition in everything.
The danger of that is that it can get to be obsessive. As a result, when it gets to be obsessive then you can spend a lot of time doing things that simply aren’t productive and that will not produce happiness. I wanted to play basketball in the worst way in the world. I went out for the basketball team in junior high. I was probably the smallest boy in the entire junior high and I still went out for basketball. You tend to overlook things that are probably weaknesses or limitations, and you think that you should be able to do these things and when you cannot accomplish them then you feel that you don’t measure up. You think that you can be the smartest astrophysicist in the world, but if you can’t do math then no matter how hard you try you will not be able to do it. You are always looking for the place that you can be unique.
We are all unique in a sense, but in this sense everybody is common. We are all children of our Heavenly Father. We are all mortal. We all make mistakes. We all have limitations. In my case, I tried to think that wasn’t true and there shouldn’t be limitations. Then when you’re not asked to do something that you view as important and that somehow indicates your worth, then you feel that you have failed.
For example, I was a district leader in the mission training center but that was the only position of leadership I held during my missionary service. During the rest of my mission I was a junior companion and a senior companion. That was all. So, I always felt like there was something wrong with me that I hadn’t been made a leader. They had missionaries as branch presidents, district leaders, and zone leaders, but I was never asked to do any of that and so that automatically meant in my mind that there was something seriously flawed in my makeup. Depression makes you see anything like that as a personal defect. I felt that I wasn’t worthy enough or I didn’t work hard enough. I wasn’t good enough.
I remember one of the training sessions I went to as a stake president with other stake presidents, mission presidents, and the General Authorities. We were talking about this problem with depression among missionaries. They pointed out that sometimes these missionaries make the best missionaries because they want to make sure that they obey the rules, they want to work hard, they want to be the best, and they want to show the world that they’re worthy. They don’t tend to boast and brag about themselves because they don’t see themselves as good. But they also tend to struggle emotionally.
I think one of the other main symptoms is just having deep, deep feelings that it would be nice if Heavenly Father would just obliterate you or send you off into oblivion.
A feeling that you could be gone and not have to think about anything any more. A feeling that you wonder why you can’t just be gone. Just be gone. Period. Nothing to think about any more. Nothing to work hard on any more. Just to have it all go away.
As a Latter-day Saint, when you think about living up to God’s standards or reaching toward godhood that can seem daunting and challenging. So, you don’t want to do any of that. You don’t want to go to hell, but you don’t want to have to do these other things either. It puts you in a quandary. Sometimes there is a feeling that you just want everybody to forget about you and you just want to be gone.
I’ve also been treated for anxiety. The symptoms of that are easier to spot. Symptoms of anxiety are pretty specific. For example, if somebody says to me that they are going to drive out of town for the day, such as my wife or a child, then the thoughts immediately run for me to a situation whether they are either kidnapped or murdered or get in a terrible accident or something terrible that will happen to them. If you get on a plane, you may think that it’s likely to crash and kill everybody. But you also may not care if it’s yourself, because if the plane did crash and everybody died, including me, then that’s okay because you wanted to die anyway. If you get a little ache or pain, then all of a sudden you worry that you’ve got Parkinson’s disease. The worst part of it is that your mind is always rushing to such scenarios.
I have heard people say that they don’t have to think about anything sometimes. That is impossible for me to do. My thoughts are always going and they go to the worst scenario. I can’t think stop thinking about something.
That is called “catastrophizing”-you tend to always think about the worst situation.
Are there other ways that it affects your thinking or acting?
One tendency I have is just to sit and think constantly about things. I don’t know that it has to do with depression. But there is the tendency to just sit and go through scenarios and ruminate. That can be useful as I sit and think about how I’m going to paint a picture or build a train set or arrange the garden. I sit and those things are constantly running through my mind. I asked my wife if she can just sit and not think about anything, just let her mind go idle, and she said, “Sure.” Well, I cannot. The one blessing that is for me is that it tends toward creativity. That is probably one reason why so many people who have struggled with such things have been great artists or other creative achievers.
It’s not uncommon at all for people who have undergone mental or emotional struggles to also be highly creative, highly intelligent, or highly accomplished in many areas.
I’m accomplished in my field. I’m the vice-chair of the North Dakota Health Council that oversees all the health rules and regulations. I’ve been the chair for two years in a row of the Minnesota Chamber of Environmental Policy Committee. I’ve been the chair of the Upper Midwest section of the Air and Waste Management Association. I like to paint. I write poetry. I enjoy astronomy. I try all kinds of things.
It’s important to know that you can be accomplished and still experience this type of thing. I think that’s something people need to understand.
What do you think is important for others to understand about depression?
I think one of the biggest things you need to understand is that it’s not going to go away, at least for many individuals. Even with medication and talk therapy, it’s not just going to disappear. It’s going to remain a challenge. With assistance from things like talk therapy or medication you can get through it better. That is because the thoughts of depression don’t come as much as they used to, in part for me because of the serotonin reuptake inhibitors I take and the anti-anxiety medication I take in the evening. I can tell when that medication kicks in because there a calming effect. But I have to listen to what I’m thinking to see if it’s making sense.
I still have a hard time accepting the fact that I might be good at anything. People will tell me that I’ve done something positive for them and it’s hard for me to believe. It’s hard for me to believe almost anything good that somebody has to say about me. I’ve gotten more gracious about it and express appreciation. But I have to force myself to think and accept the idea that maybe I have done some things that helped people.
I can look back at some of my experiences in different Church positions and see a lot of good things that I’ve done. It’s just hard to believe it. It’s factual and it’s before you but accepting it is a challenge.
Depression runs in my family and so it’s likely that there’s a biological link as well in my case. People need to think about that possibility.
Everyone will have the depression that comes and goes in life. We know that. Bad things can happen to people and they will get depressed. We know about post-partum depression and things like that which are more event-related. But for some of us, it is something that has probably been there for most of our lives.
For me, it probably started clear back in grade school. I used to be really self-conscious about my hairy arms. Even as a second grader, I would always wear long sleeves no matter how hot it was because I didn’t want anybody to see and think that I had hairy arms. That’s not normal. It’s symptomatic of anxiety. It just got worse as I got older.
I think that recognizing the fact that you have depression is important. Not to dwell on the past, as Elder Scott has advised, is extremely important, because we can become so self-absorbed in trying to figure out why we are this way and the world can go by.
Typically, humans will find somebody else to blame. So, you can find too much time trying to find somebody else to blame for your depression. You can spend too much time just thinking about yourself. I know I did this. Those are not particularly healthy and helpful things to do in getting through depression. You may have to encounter some of the past to understand it but you should not be obsessed with it.
I am analytical and so I like to find out all the details of why this or that happened. I do it in my job. I have a science background. But it’s not that helpful. It’s more helpful to realize that you do have this challenge of depression in your life, that you can do something about it, and that you do need to find the right people to help you. That is far more important.
For a couple of years, I was very self-absorbed with all of this and trying to figure it out. It was not healthy for the family. Then you can start to focus on “me, me, me.” If you feel like you’ve been deprived of something in your childhood, then you want to make up for it all at once. So it can easily turn into “I want, I want, I want.” You may feel that you deserve it because you were denied.
How did the depression affect your family?
I think that particularly before I realized what it was, I probably would get angry too quickly. I didn’t hit my children but I might yell at them too much. I was on edge all of the time. Irritable. Sometimes they felt like they had to walk on eggshells around me.
We had a great family life. We did a lot of good things together. We went camping; we had a tradition of playing games every Sunday night. When the kids were young, we’d get up every morning and sing a hymn and memorize a scripture and have breakfast together. We had family home evenings regularly. So, we were doing a lot of the right things. But I think that sometimes things would start to feel overwhelming for me and then, Boom!, I’d say that I couldn’t deal with it or couldn’t take it any more and I’d tell them to stop this or that or go to their rooms or whatever. So, I think that’s how it affected family life. It probably affected them in not understanding what was going on or why I was doing something.
I made it a point never to call my children names, never to swear at them, and never to hit or spank them. I had once lightly swatted one of my children when he had a sore on his behind, just playing around, and it really hurt him. I felt that if you could hurt a child like that just playing and goofing off, then you never ever wanted to strike a child in anger. So I never did.
You have to be a little bit careful when you are talking to people about this. Obeying the commandments, of course, helps a person. It helps everybody. You get the blessings for obeying the commandments. But when you tell that to a depressed person, if they mess up just a little bit then they think that all the bad things happening around them are their own fault. So, you have to approach that carefully. But it does help.
Saying your prayers is helpful. A depressed person, though, needs to remember that saying your prayers is a “help” and it’s not a “fix.” I remember when I used to pray and think that I should have a tremendous experience and if it didn’t happen, then I felt that obviously I wasn’t living the commandments and doing what I needed to do. So, you have to learn to balance the benefits you receive from gospel living with the reality that you will still have feelings of depression. That can sometimes be tricky.
You need to understand the gospel. You need to learn about it. You need to listen to the prophet. There is sometimes a real challenge to learn and understand the doctrine and to keep things truly in perspective.
You can listen to others and sometimes visit with a church leader or talk to them. Get their feedback occasionally if you feel like you are not measuring up. Sometimes they can just be encouraging and let you know that you are doing fine. You do not go in to see them and have them solve your problem with depression, because a bishop or other church leader is not your medical counselor. They are a help and they are priesthood leaders. There is a difference. A counselor or medical professional is someone you hire to help you, more or less, but a church leader can be a sounding board and a support. Counseling with professional counselors can be very helpful.
Another thing that has specifically been helpful is working with somebody that could get the right medication for my situation. It can take a good year or a year and a half to get things where they ought to be. These medications take a while to take effect, and you have to sometimes adjust dosage levels and different medications to get what works the best for you.
Can you talk a little about medication and the possible need for it in such a situation?
I have very strong thoughts about that. First of all, people who say that our faith should be able to cure us just simply don’t understand the gospel properly. I know that might create a lot of controversy. But anybody who says, “If you had enough faith, then you should be able to get over this,” is first of all being extremely judgmental of the person. They have no business judging another person for the medications that they decide to take. It is not their right or their purview. They are out of line. They do not understand. They have never been there themselves. It is not even a judgment that a bishop or a stake president can make for that individual. It is strictly between that individual and Heavenly Father.
By the same token, someone who suggests that faith alone would cure depression would probably never think about having a diabetic not have insulin with them or not take their insulin as they are supposed to do. They would not even think of doing that.
They know that death could follow if someone quit taking their insulin if they have the type of diabetes that requires a regular insulin treatment. So, why would they think that because somebody wants to take a medication for mental health that it’s wrong, but for someone who has diabetes it is right? There is just no logic in that.
The scriptures tell us a couple of things. In Doctrine and Covenants 8 and 9, Oliver Cowdery wants to translate the plates. He was told that the reason he could not translate is that he did not finish what he had started and he “took no thought [unto himself,” or in other words, he did not work the problem out as best he could on his own. It was only after Joseph Smith went through such a process that he was able to translate the plates. He had to think about it, ponder about it, pray about it, and put a lot of work into translating. It did not just come to him automatically. The same is true when we are struggling with any challenge in our lives, whether it be health difficulties or spiritual concerns or other things. The Lord expects a certain amount of effort from us before He steps and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is the key. He comes in and helps us to do those things that we cannot do for ourselves.
As Nephi explained, it is “after all we can do” that His grace is sufficient for us (see 2 Nephi 25:23). So, if we expect to have blessings because of our faith then we need to put in some effort, and I believe part of that effort is learning what kind of medicine or medical options are available to assist us. That might include glasses, hearing aids, medication, etc. A lot of individuals who might criticize for someone taking medication to help them with mental or emotional challenges are probably wearing glasses. So, why can’t they have their eyes fixed through faith? If you had that kind of faith, it would make sense to have your eyes fixed. But we know it is now possible to be assisted with your eyes if you desire through laser surgery or other options. With mental health, the aids available may include medication or other kinds of therapies.
We should never put ourselves in a self-righteous attitude that we get to judge somebody who does use medication. Our faith helps us because we can go to the Lord and seek His assistance and support. We know that trials are given to us. The recent issue of the Ensign magazine talked about it. We learn from our trials. We shouldn’t look upon having depression or diabetes or something else as unfair. We should look at it as something that perhaps the Lord allows us to go through and learn to cope with so that we can be like Him someday. It is part of the tutoring experience, as Elder Maxwell often mentions. We know what he went through with his leukemia. He admits that was a great tutoring experience. He had written many books about such a thing and didn’t realize that at some point in time he was going to experience that very adversity himself.
Look at what Joseph Smith went through and experienced. Look at what the Savior himself went through. He completed his perfection when he completed the Atonement and the Resurrection. He lived a perfect life but full perfection came after all that He had to do to finish the work of God.
Can you talk a little about counseling and its potential use in depression?
Well, there are some excellent books that you can read. I particularly recommend the “workbook” type of books where you actually have to do exercises. It is hard work. But those help you to go through exercises that assist you in beginning to recognize patterns of thought and how to deal with those. Sometimes you just have to stop yourself.
I heard a counselor friend once talking to somebody who was going through depression and she would often say, “Now just a minute, that’s your depression talking.” That is helpful sometimes to recognize. You catch your thoughts and realize, “That is the depression talking, that’s not really me.”
There was another example in the movie A Beautiful Mind. I believe he had paranoid schizophrenia. Towards the end of his life when he was getting back into a normal life, he made the comment that it hadn’t gone away. He would still see images and hear other voices or thoughts. But he stated that he “quit listening to them.” That is one thing you need to constantly work on. You have to not listen to these thoughts that, if you stop and think about them for just a minute are not logical or productive or positive at all. You have to choose not to think those thoughts or not to listen to them if they occur.
Those thoughts still come. They will still pop into your head. But over the years I have learned to listen to them less and less. I don’t expect to ever be able to get rid of those thoughts completely, but I do know that I can deal with them more effectively. I can not listen to them and I can stop myself and take a minute to think logically.
Are there other things that have been helpful to you?
I began to see some patterns a few years ago regarding when I would become depressed. For example, in the wintertime I would always start to talk about moving. My wife could tell you that almost every winter I would talk about finding a job or moving and going to another place. I started to see that those patterns of negativism or anxiety would come on more strongly as the days were getting shorter. I even notice now that when we have a long string of cloudy days without sunshine I can feel down. So, I bought what they call a sun box, a lamp with bright light that helps me to some degree. It helps sometimes even on a cloudy day to go outside and walk around and change scenery. Remind yourself that it’s the season or the time of year. You can learn to recognize the patterns.
Repeating a favorite poem or a scripture in your mind or a hymn can help. Just start doing something different than what you are currently doing so you can break the train of thought that is starting forward in your mind.
Go visit somebody or talk to someone for a few minutes.
That helps to break the cycle. You don’t talk to them about your depression, but just talk to them and say hello and visit with them.
One goal I have every day is to try and make everybody smile that I see during the day. That is helpful. It gives me something to think about as I encounter people. You can say something to make a person smile and make their day a touch better.
What do you recommend to others?
The first thing that I would recommend to anybody who thinks they might have depression is to go and find out if they do. Go and talk to a competent professional that can help them determine if they have real depression or not. Then they could be helped with a regime of talk therapy or medical therapy if needed. That is the best thing you can do.
I think the next best thing you can do after that is not be ashamed about it. I don’t talk to a lot of people about the fact that I have depression. But I let my boss know, for example, someone who might see me working and have association with me in my work. I don’t intend to use it as an excuse, but sometimes it can help them to understand that maybe you need some help if things are getting overwhelming or out of hand. Of course, you should let your family know that this is something you’re dealing with and can use support.
Another thing is simply to decide that you’re going to work on it. You’re going to work through it. You’re not going to try to get around it, but you’ll work through it. When you try to get around it and find the magic bullet that will kill it for you, it’s just not going to happen. It just won’t happen. Anyone who has a challenge like this simply needs to learn to do their best and try not to let it interfere if possible. We have a choice. We’re not always going to be successful in that choice, but we have a choice to decide whether this is going to ruin our lives or not.
Do not be too hard on yourself. As you work through it, it is going to take patience. It is going to take time. It is going to take effort. It is going to take help from people close to you.
How did the depression affect you spiritually? What spiritual practices were helpful? When were they helpful and when were they not helpful?
Well, in some ways it affected me in a positive manner because I wanted to feel the Spirit of the Lord and I wanted to feel the Lord’s approval. In a positive vein, that was probably good. It probably spurred me on to read the scriptures more and to seek more answers through the scriptures and the writings of the prophets. In a sense, I tried to find out what I needed to do in order to be better. Although it spurred me on toward perfection, in a sense I became a perfectionist and that is not healthy because you can never do enough to measure up or be good enough.
One of the challenges with depression spiritually is that it was hard to accept feelings of forgiveness or the fact that you were worthy to do anything. So, those feelings tend to interrupt or get in the way of spiritual progression. In some ways it is kind of a double-edged sword.
Reading the scriptures a lot, praying sincerely, doing your best to live the commandments-those things all helped. More often than not they were helpful. I always managed to say my prayers morning and evening. I managed to develop a real good habit of studying the scriptures, reading good books, and memorizing scriptures. When we lived in South Dakota I used to walk back and forth to work and memorized a scripture every day. And of course, going to the temple is a great spiritual and emotional boost because you can feel the peace that comes from that setting.
I worked very close to the temple in Salt Lake City and for two or three years I would go to the temple once a week. That was a great boost to me. That tended to be a calming influence. Occasionally, though, if I made a mistake I would feel not worthy to go and then that would be a miserable experience, even though I did nothing serious.
It has been difficult to understand how God could really love me and really accept me, considering all of the mistakes I’ve made in my life. I am working through that understanding and those feelings. When I say that this has been a lifelong journey, I’m saying that even now I’m beginning to understand some of these issues and work through them in a better way.
A thought that constantly goes on is that if only I could help another person or fulfill a calling perfectly then that would mean I’m okay. It is a futile exercise. It’s a frustrating exercise. It can deepen depression rather than help it if you go down that road. Even when you are trying to be perfect you will falter, and so you reinforce negative thoughts about yourself. So, you cannot look at doing such things as a “cure” for depression.
Can you talk about serving in the Church in leadership positions and giving spiritual guidance while also having experienced depression?
Even though you know that you are often being inspired of the Lord, at times you will doubt it. The depression will send questions into your mind. There is always that self-doubt that seems to hang on to you, at least for me.
But there are a couple of things that the Lord gives us when we are serving him in positions in the Church.
First, in a position like bishop or stake president you have counselors and others to help you. They are a great source of help and strength so you don’t have to feel like you’re out there doing it on your own. You have people to help you. There are others and they can give advice. If you need help they can help you out.
I also have a firm witness, and there is no doubt in my mind, that the Lord has never let me down when something important is to be done. No matter how unworthy I may have considered myself due to feelings of depression, when there is something critical and important to be done the Lord has never let me down. He never let me down as a bishop. He never let me down as a stake president. That doesn’t mean I always did everything just right, but those things that were critical and really important He just didn’t let me down. As President Monson has often said, “He whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.” I’ve got a firm witness and belief in that. He just doesn’t let us fail or abandon us.