Saturday, April 3, 2010

Depression within Mormonism

Depression sucks. Let's just get that out there.

While I'm not currently depressed, and haven't been for a good while now (for which I thank God), I know something about it. Which is why I very much appreciated a thoughtful series of posts from the Mormon blog By Common Consent titled "Living With Depression." In the series, a number of Mormons talk frankly and openly about how they've dealt with (or wished they could deal with) depression. It felt to me a little like my gay Mormon friends tell me it feels to just be around other Mormons struggling to come to grips with their sexual orientation. While I can never understand what it's like to be gay (or any number of other characteristics I don't have), just hearing other people discuss the issue of depression felt like a breath of fresh air for me.

One thing that really resonated with me and strikes me as something that those who haven't ever been truly depressed (meaning more than just sad or down for a day or two) is just how inescapable it feels, at least for me. Not only that, at its worst I don't even want to escape. Apathy is absolute. I once tried to explain depression to one of my roommates, and while he was as supportive and caring as possible, his advice was basically that depression is a tool of the devil's and I needed to pray and read my scriptures etc etc in order to ward it off. Trust me, I've done that. And so far, it hasn't ever helped, at least not in any way I could discern. When I'm really depressed, I eventually just stop praying and reading scriptures for a while until I come out of the hole. Not that I don't think they could help--I've had many powerful experiences with both--but that it just doesn't make sense when I'm in that depression to do those things. It just does not compute in my brain to perform those simple acts. It seems like it's a storm cloud that comes from time to time (triggered no doubt by my situation and own choices at times, but sometimes seemingly at random as well) and goes when it goes. I feel very powerless when I'm depressed.

I think one of the writers captured a similar feeling when she said:
It seems to me that we have become more comfortable in Mormon culture about talking about depression, precisely because it has been medicalized, and we can explain it in comfortingly technical terms like “serotonin re-uptake” and “dopamine receptors.” What we still can’t do is talk about the spiritual aspects of it–it’s ok to stand up in testimony meeting and say “the Lord has helped me recover from postpartum depression through priesthood blessings and medical care,” but it simply isn’t ok to say “I feel abandoned by God.  When you talk about your close relationship with Him, I wonder why I can’t feel what you do, and it makes me feel terrible.”

We countenance talking about grief, depression, and anger only when they’re safely in the past tense, or when we can explain them away as a physical, brain-based phenomenon.  It’s understandable, of course, because it is painful and unsettling to see someone suffering and have prayer or priesthood blessings seem not to work–”mourning with those that mourn” can be (perhaps must be) a genuine challenge to the faith and testimony of the comforter, as well as the comforted.  What does it mean to bear one another’s burdens, when one of our brother’s or sister’s burdens is despair, or the absence of hope and faith?

Well the point of this post was two-fold: first, to break down a little bit of the stigma around depression by sharing a little bit about it in my life; and second, to encourage whoever reads this and might be interested in learning more about depression and how it relates to Mormonism to read that series. Here are the links to each post. They are long, but I think very useful and instructive.

Living With Depression
Series Overview
Part I: Recognizing Clinical Depression
Part II: Impact on Daily Life and Family Relationships
Part III: Depression and Spirituality
Part IV: Everything Else, For Now

If you or someone you know struggles with depression, I think patience and support are the best things. While I've never gotten to the point of needing medication, I understand that it can also be extremely helpful for many people. And since I'm an avid PostSecret reader, I've seen the suicide prevention number (1-800-SUICIDE) there and figure it's a great thing to let everyone know about. Ultimately, I know God's love for us is as infinite and eternal as it is sometimes unfathomable.


  1. Austin, you have a brave and compassionate soul. Thanks for sharing with us. I feel like depression is so hard to wrap your heart and mind around. Yet, I'm convinced that it is worth trying.

  2. There was a very heartening brief reference to depression at this last General Conference--the text files aren't up yet, so there's no easy way for me to such for it, but a member of the seventy said something about "not wanting to minimize serious depression in any way" with his advice on happiness. He also said something about seeking counseling and medical help.

    Anyway, I think we're headed a good direction culturally as far as becoming more collectively aware of depression.