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“I was scared that if the Bishop found out I was depressed, I would be excommunicated.”
This was the shocking fear that my friend shared with me after my admission of my own experience with clinical depression. It’s hard to believe today, but it made sense to her over twenty years ago. She reasoned that “good Mormons don’t get depression”—so she would be cast out if she revealed her private despair and darkness.
Reaching for Hope
It was stories like these that prompted me and my friend Betsy Chatlin, a therapist, to collaborate on Reaching for Hope: An LDS Perspective on Recovering from Depression. When the book was published in 2000, I was shocked at the number of women I knew who quietly admitted to me that they had been struggling for years, each isolated in shame and feeling she was the only one with this terrible burden. In their stories, I recognized my own. I had believed my depression was the result of a character weakness, a fatal flaw that made me a burden to those around me and ultimately unfit for exaltation. This was all wrong, but my distorted thinking couldn’t see the error. Happiness became a dim memory. I felt isolated and immersed in darkness and despair.
Betsy and I wrote the book to offer hope and companionship to those who feel forlorn and alone. Depression is the result of a complex interplay of factors, including trauma, genetic predisposition, grief and loss, chemical imbalance, side effects of medications, serious illness, chronic fatigue, and many other possible causes. Even changing seasons or high elevations can contribute to depression. But the feelings of hopelessness and isolation are consistent among sufferers, whatever the cause.
Spiritual side effects of depression
A complicating factor for Latter-day Saints is the feeling of spiritual abandonment. We believe that if we are faithful and worthy, the Holy Ghost will always be our companion. As darkness seems to close in, we can begin to feel spiritually alone. Familiar feelings of comfort and connectedness during prayer may be replaced with the sense of a lead ceiling over our heads, preventing prayerful communication with our Father.
We may no longer feel comfort, love, warmth, joy. Because we don’t have access to the feelings we associate with the Spirit, we may wrongly assume that the Holy Ghost has fled, confirming our false sense of unworthiness. This can be one of the most wrenching effects of the disease: the conviction that if God has left us, we must really be bad.
Of course God has not left us. Our inability to sense His presence is not proof of His absence. President Thomas S. Monson assures us that “God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve love. It is simply always there. …I promise you that you will one day stand aside and look at your difficult times, and you will realize that He was always there beside you”.
As our minds mend, our ability to feel positive emotions will return, and we will again feel those emotions we associate with the Spirit. In the meantime, we can look for other ways of experiencing God’s presence: inspired ideas, small tender mercies in our day, the Lord reaching us through other people, and other new ways to sense the Lord’s awareness and care for us. We become flexible and trust that God is still there, even when our brain isn’t recognizing Him in the old familiar ways.
The emerging face of depression
In 2003, Sister Kathleen H. Hughes, of the Relief Society General Presidency, spoke of her personal experience with depression. Her brave vulnerability, along with that of other women leaders and General Authorities, has helped to reduce the shame of this condition and encourage people to look around with hope at those who have recovered or who persist in life, even with a thorn in the flesh.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, himself no stranger to depression, delivered a ground-breaking address in 2013. “Like a Broken Vessel” focused on major depressive disorder. His moving discourse, anchored by a description of his own experience, included a short list of others in this undesirable fraternity: “Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Elder George Albert Smith…who battled recurring depression for some years before becoming the universally beloved eighth prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (“Like a Broken Vessel,” Ensign, Nov 2013).
In her October, 2019 Conference address “Thru Cloud and Sunshine, Lord, Abide with Me,” Sister Reyna I. Aburto delivered a landmark address on mental health. She modeled the vulnerability she encouraged in each of us. She teaches that “when we open up about our emotional challenges, admitting we are not perfect, we give others permission to share their struggles. Together we realize there is hope and we do not have to suffer alone.”
This openness is reflected in our society and wards. We know that “good Mormons” get depression, too. On the whole, many of us feel safer today revealing our experiences with depression. Talking to others about our experience helps to relieve the shame that worsens and deepens our darkness. What do we do when a friend opens up about depression? We can help to relieve some of that anguish, simply by being willing to listen to the pain of our spiritual siblings.
Staying present with them is an act of Christlike love. We can’t change their experience, but we can sit with them as they move through it. Elder Holland encourages us to remember that, while God is working to help those who struggle, we can do our part by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind. And when we are the ones struggling, we can be gentle with ourselves and trust that “God is in charge. He knows your name and He knows your need” (Elder Holland, “This, the Greatest of All Dispensations,” Ensign, Jul 2007).