Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why ARE Mormons so depressed?

A few posts ago, in the comments Katie asked me this, "How [do] you see Mormonism intersecting with mental health? Specifically, do you think there's something in the culture or our teachings that tends to create this high incidence of mental health problems (depression, anxiety, etc.) in Mormon women? Or do you think we're pretty representative of the population as a whole?"

I've taken a while to respond to it because I've been trying to figure out how to go about this. In my mind there are a few facts about depression we need to lay out first.

Fact #1: Depression IS an illness--a permanent, although ebbing and flowing, condition of the body. But, the term is also used to describe an emotional state--which may or may not be a long term condition. Not everyone who is having a hard time and views the world pessimistically is depressed in the clinical sense. The difference is that for some people feeling grouchy and pessimistic gets in the way of life, sometimes to the point of hopelessness and self-harm. These are the people with clinical depression. It is hard to talk about depression in cultural terms without accidentally conflating the two meanings, but I usually talk about depression in terms of the illness.

Fact #2: Clinical depression can manifest itself in a number of ways. Stereotypically speaking depressed people have no motivation, cry a lot, stay in bed all day, and wear pajamas to the grocery store. (You all know what commercial I'm referencing here!)However, depression also manifests itself through explosive anger, anger that never goes away, anxiety, racing thoughts, and inability to sleep. Through the ups and downs of my depression I have experienced both types. It's important to remember that depression has a wide set of behaviors when discussing it culturally.

Fact #3: It is almost impossible to pinpoint a "cause" of depression. Depression, in the clinical or temporary sense, usually occurs due to a constellation of factors including genetic predispositions, environmental conditions, previous emotional education, and other things.

So, to get to Katie's question: Why ARE Mormons so depressed? Is it a cultural issue, a doctrinal issue, or physical issue?

Mormon Matters blogger Andrew Ainsworth took these questions on in a couple of posts earlier this year (you can read Part One here and Part Two here. In the first part he talks about the biases in the study that concluded that Utah is the most depressed state in the nation and in Part Two he talks about some interesting theories (genetics and the lack of alcohol are among them) as to why Utah is depressed.

For me I would say that I do not think it is a doctrinal issue, but I do think there is an issue in the way many, many LDS people digest the doctrine. I think there are way that we internalize ideas that furthers our depression. For me, since I am depressed in the clinical sense, I think of these issues as triggers. Triggers are something that set off a cascade of negative thoughts which in turn transform themselves into negative behaviors. For a long time a big trigger for me was the scripture, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as my father which is in heaven is perfect." I'd read this scripture--almost compulsively and times--and tally my imperfections and fret about what to do. Sometimes I would stay up at night praying and praying myself to distraction. Other times I'd try to come up with some sort of penance--I think I usually picked not eating or abstaining from TV--to ease my anxiety on this issue. Another doctrinal trigger for me has been "No success can compensate for failure in the home." In my mind that meant that mothers had to be perfect or we, and possibly our children, would be damned. That created a set of impossible benchmarks and a flurry of nervous activity that depleted me and left me discouraged and not wanting to get out of bed.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of those doctrines. Neither of them is saying to make yourself nuts or intending to drive people insane--it was simply how my set of experiences and circumstances interpreted them that made them harmful in my life. An important facet of cognitive behavioral therapy is being able to examine your thoughts and find the parts that are NOT true and being able to dispute them. I was able to do this by looking at the big doctrinal picture and viewing things through the lens of the plan of salvation. When I looked at this life as a time to learn and grow and that the next life was the time to find perfection, well, that eased my mind.

(Now, all this is rather OCD of me, but depression and OCD are sort of sister disorders and, from what I understand, there is a high incidence of OCD in the Church also. That is an issue that definitely needs more discussion.)

Those kind of misinterpretations and misapplications tend to feed off each other, especially in the community of the Church. Our church is unique in its efforts to build a social structure within its members. This social structure is a good thing most of the time, but one unintended consequence (that is perhaps also due to pride) is the idea that our place in the social structure reflects on our righteousness. Many wards have "power couples" and cliques--they don't mean to, but it just happens. These can phenomenon can further isolate people who are predisposed to depression.

There are a lot of issues like these and I can't cover them all in one post--or even in a million posts. That's why it is so important that we talk about this stuff and help each other work through it. That's why we need to read our scriptures and attend our meetings even when we don't feel like it. We need to give the Spirit as many opportunities as possible to correct our misinterpretations!

Of course, there is one HUGE doctrinal misapplication that I haven't mentioned yet and that is our relationship with our Savior Jesus Christ. As Katie mentioned in the comments in another post, many LDS people misunderstand the relationship of grace and works. We mistakenly believe that our efforts make some sort of difference in how we are perceived by our Father in Heaven and what our eternities will be like. The truth is the only thing our righteousness does is signal to the Savior that we need His help. As scripture tells us even if we were to be perfect in all that we do every day of our lives--which we can't--we would still be unprofitable servants (Mosiah 2:21). After all, the Savior lived a perfect life and it was still required that he give his blood and body for us. We need to be righteous so that we can access His grace, but it is HIS GRACE that redeems and saves us--not anything we do. Trying to learn and accept that in my life has been a humbling process, one that is ongoing.

What roles the Savior's atonement and Heavenly Father's plan play in my depression I have yet to figure out, but I do know that my depression is a part of those two things. Because Jesus suffered for me He knows how I feel and is with me in my trials. Because my depression is part of Heavenly Father's plan for me I know that there is a reason for it and that it is in my (eventual) best interest. Anything beyond that, I still don't know. But what I do know is enough for now.

Katie, does that answer your question? Let me know what you think!


Kalola said...

Can you clarify what you meant by this statement?

"We need to be righteous so that we can access His grace, but it is HIS GRACE that redeems and saves us--not anything we do."

Don't we show we are righteous by doing something?

Your post was excellent.

I might add that an individual can also experience what is known as "atypical depression." "The main characteristic of atypical depression that distinguishes it from major depression is mood reactivity."

An explanation of "atypical depression" can be found at this website:

Heathie said...

"The truth is the only thing our righteousness does is signal to the Savior that we need His help."
I really liked this statement. It's something I needed to hear. Because when we're not doing the things Christ has asked of us it's like we're saying, "I can do this on my own." I know that, but the way you phrased it made it click somehow.

Great post.

Coffinberry said...

Yup, me too. Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Hey Laura, thanks for your post.

I really related to your agonizing over certain scriptures or doctrines. I used to stew over that darn scripture in 2 Nephi, "After all we can do..." ;)

You touched on some amazing points. Thank you for the clarification between what depression IS, what CAUSES it, and what might TRIGGER its effects in us Mormons. I had never thought of it that way before, but you are really right on there.

We need to be righteous so that we can access His grace, but it is HIS GRACE that redeems and saves us--not anything we do.

Might I make a distinction here? I'd actually phrase this the other way around. Instead of being righteous so we can "access His grace," I'd say we access His grace so we can be righteous.

This gets to the heart of what Kalola asked: "Don't we show we are righteous by doing something?"

The answer is no, because we are not righteous.

Though by our nature we have Divinity within us, the scriptures are very clear that we are flawed and fallen--lost, cut off from God because of our iniquity. In fact, the Bible goes so far as to tell us that "There is none righteous, no not one" (see Romans 3 and Psalm 14). Christ is the ONLY righteous one. And we can only become righteous ourselves by tapping into HIS righteousness.

One of the biggest breakthroughs I've had as a "recovering perfectionist" was coming to terms with my state as a fallen being. ONLY Christ can make me better. Through the covenants I have made, I am whole, complete--"perfect," if you will--IN HIM. I do good works not to prove anything to Him or to try and save myself, but to thank Him for the wonderful gift of His mercy in my life.

This perspective has made all the difference in my life and has allowed me to lighten up, let go of much of my anxiety, and live more happily and carefree than I ever thought I'd be able to.

I think there are some deeper layers of doctrinal misunderstanding in Mormondom that may serve as "triggers" for those with anxiety and depression, but this comment is already long enough so I'll leave it at that for now. :)

(Maybe I *will* try and take you up on that guest post offer...)

Also, will be happy to read any thoughts, concerns, etc. about what I've said here.

Laura said...

I'm glad this post was meaningful. I just reread it and it is replete with typos! I apologize! I wrote it while the baby was napping and the five year old was at school and the three year old was "telling me a story" that sometimes demanded me to get down on the floor with her . . . thanks for struggling through it :)

Kolala--I'll try to explain my thoughts better. My dad used to say that grace was what got us into one of the three kingdoms and that it was our works that earned us a higher or lower kingdom. That made sense to me for a long time. Then one day I was reading a doctrinal book by Gerald Lund at a friend's house (I'll have to call her and get the title) and he broke down my father's explanation--which is, I guess, a pretty common misconception. Lund even used diagrams to do it! Anyway, Lund basically said that no matter what we do we will always fall short of perfection. We are imperfect beings. But the Lord has said that no unclean thing can dwell with Him, and unclean is pretty strict. The only person who can make us clean is Christ. I suspect you agree on that point:) The part that is confusing is about works. Of course, I'm no genius and I'm not a GA so I might have this wrong so that's okay if I need correction . . .but the way I have started to think of my works is in light of the scripture about being yoked with Christ (Matthew 11:28-30). To be yoked with Him I have to be willing to give up myself, tie myself to Him. But at the same time I can't just be idle. The yoke doesn't work if I'm just standing there. I'll either get dragged along or we'll both be stuck. I have to do something. But it can't be what I want. It has to be what Christ is doing. My works, if they are righteous, keep me tied to Him and keep me moving forward on the path that my Heavenly Father has laid out.

So, that's the way I look at it. Does that make sense? I would love it if anyone had some good talks to point me to on this subject!

Laura said...

Kalola--I just realized I spelled your name wrong before. Sorry! Um, Kolala is what my children call koala bears (and sometimes other things; it's a pet name at our house). Again, sorry.

Kalola said...

Laura ~ Thank you for clarifying your statement. It helped me understand what you meant. Kolala, koala, Kalola ... it's all fun. =)