It was 1835. In a small Illinois town, a young man who had been living on his own was now moving in with the Green family, and just about everyone in town knew why. The Greens were worried about him. Bowling Green, the father of the house, had witnessed the boy's behavior for weeks - and it wasn't a pretty picture. After a dear friend died of a fever (an adversity made worse by a bout of bad weather), the young man was overcome with a debilitating sadness. He grew despondent, spoke often of suicide, and wandered alone in the woods for hours. When several weeks had gone by and his friend did not get better, Mr. Green insisted the boy come stay with him for a while. This the young man did, and after enjoying the Greens' company for a few weeks, he moved back home. He was still rather melancholy, but recovered from the overwhelming depression of before.1 It would not be the last time this man would struggle with the disorder. Abraham Lincoln would have to cope with depression for the rest of his life.
If depression could cause someone like Lincoln to struggle, it should come as no surprise that many people around us suffer from depression, also. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.7% of American adults suffer from Major Depressive Disorder in a given year,2 with Persistent Depressive Disorder (a more long-term form of depression) affecting 1.5% of Americans.3 Depression is especially common in Utah. According to a study by Mental Health America, Utah is the most depressed state in the U.S.4 Another study found that "antidepressants are prescribed in Utah more often than in any other state, at a rate nearly twice the national average."5 Clearly it's a common struggle, and with the most depressed state being 60% Mormon,6 it's obvious many latter-day saints suffer from depression.
However, despite the condition's prevalence, latter-day saints suffering from depression can still feel out of place within the Church. With a gospel that celebrates the plan of happiness and a culture that values pep and positivity, those with depression can feel they are abnormal - a lone outlier in a group of happy-go-lucky saints.
But even though they may not show it, depression is a concern for many Mormons. Dr. Kristine Doty worked as a crisis counselor in the emergency room of the Utah Valley Medical Center. While there, she noticed a consistent influx of LDS women coming in for treatment, many of them on Sunday afternoons.7 But it's not just the Relief Society sisters who suffer. One study found that mental health issues accounted for 36% of early missionary returns, with depression being one of the top three mental health conditions causing missionaries to come home early.8 This statistic does not account for the depression which can ensue after an early return due to feelings of failure - feelings reported by 73% of early-returned missionaries9 - nor does it account for depression experienced by those who serve for the anticipated length of time.
Prophets themselves have struggled with the disorder. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland noted in his talk "Like A Broken Vessel," President George Albert Smith experienced recurring depression during his lifetime.10 President Smith had experienced health problems for much of his life, but from 1909-1912 he was struck with severe depression and anxiety. Elder Smith was only able to attend the first session of April 1909 general conference, after which he became so tense that he could no longer perform his church duties. He spent the following months and years recuperating in California and St. George, but nothing seemed to help. He received multiple priesthood blessings (as often as twice a week). His fellow apostles prayed for him, many friends wrote him encouraging letters, and his wife and family visited him. Still he suffered. He tried to be grateful for the support of family and friends, but his anxiety and depression overwhelmed him. He actually got more depressed the longer he rested, because he felt guilty for not being able to perform his duties as a general authority. Finally, after months of suffering, he decided "to ask the Lord to release him from his position as an Apostle of the Lord, take him home, and put someone else more suitable in his place." The afflicted apostle uttered that prayer, but the Lord had other things in mind for George Albert Smith. Elder Smith's life was spared. He recovered and went on to serve as the eighth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.11
So with so many of our brothers, sisters, and even our prophets struggling with depression, what can we do to help ease the burden? Here are a few suggestions.
First, know that depression is real. Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy has said, "There are some who mistakenly believe that the mentally ill just need to 'snap out of it, show a little backbone, and get on with life.' Those who believe that way display a grievous lack of knowledge and compassion. The fact is that seriously mentally ill persons simply cannot, through an exercise of will, get out of the predicament they are in. They need help, encouragement, understanding, and love."12 If someone you know is suffering from depression, resist the temptation to place judgment. Remember that he or she is probably doing their best cope with a difficult situation that is largely outside of their control. If you are experiencing depression yourself, remember it is as real an illness as measles and you need not blame yourself for your feelings.
Second, embrace imperfection. A common symptom for depressed latter-day saints is perfectionism. BYU psychologist Barbara Morrell says perfectionism consists of "rigid, idealistic standards and...feelings of blame and self-loathing an individual feels when they fail to live up to them."13 A study of depressed LDS women found that 75% of volunteers studied struggled with "toxic perfectionism." This perfectionism can cause depression to worsen when people feel their sadness is a product of their own sins and shortcomings. According to one member medicated for depression, "In the LDS Church it’s like, ‘I feel depressed,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh you must not be righteous, maybe you should go serve somebody and then you would be.' "14 If your loved one struggles with depression, do your best to show them they are acceptable even with their supposed flaws. If you struggle with depression yourself, remember you are not your own savior and that your true savior does not require you to reach perfection on your own.
Third, seek help. Never have there been more resources available for treating mental illness than there are today. In addition to family, bishops, and trusted friends, trained physicians, counselors, and other professionals are often just a phone call away. There should be no shame in seeking these services when the need arises. As Elder Holland said, those with mental illness should "seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values... If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation."15 Caregivers and friends also have resources available. By educating yourself about depression you can discover the most helpful ways to support those you love and help guide them through difficult episodes.
Lastly, remember your Savior. Jesus was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). He paid the price to be able to understand and care for you. Take advantage of his helping hand by staying close to the Lord through daily prayer and scripture study. Christ will be there, sometimes imperceptibly, to carry you through if you hold on with faith.
There are more helpful strategies for dealing with depression than could possibly be listed here, and even when you apply them there may still be times when depression lingers. Luckily, however dark they seem in the moment, all storms have a way of dissipating. That's true for each of us. It was true for George Albert Smith, it was true for Abraham Lincoln, and it's true for you and me.
While he was in the White House, Lincoln wrote a letter to a young woman whose father had recently passed away. In it Lincoln said, "You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again... I have had experience enough to know what I say."16
So he did. Whether you deal with depression yourself or you're a modern day Bowling Green, remember that while you may not think so now, you're sure to be happy again.
1. Siegel, Robert. "Exploring Abraham Lincoln's 'Melancholy'" NPR.com. October 26, 2005. Accessed September 25, 2015.
2. "Major Depression Among Adults." NIMH RSS. 2013. Accessed September 21, 2015.
3. "Dysthymic Disorder Among Adults." NIMH RSS. June 2005. Accessed September 21, 2015.
4. Thalman, James. "Utah Leads the Nation in Rates of Depression." DeseretNews.com. November 29, 2007. Accessed September 21, 2015.
5. Cart, Julie. "Study Finds Utah Leads Nation in Antidepressant Use." LATimes.com. February 20, 2002. Accessed September 21, 2015.
6. McCombs, Brady. "Mormon Population: 60 Percent in Utah, 4-5 Percent Nevada." Reviewjournal.com. February 26, 2014. Accessed September 25, 2015.
7. Shaw, Tim. "LDS Women Deal with Depression." Universe.byu.edu. February 12, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2015.
8. Walch, Tad. "Many Mormon Missionaries Who Return Home Early Feel Some Failure." DeseretNews.com. December 6, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2015.
9. Walch, Tad. "Many Mormon Missionaries Who Return Home Early Feel Some Failure." DeseretNews.com. December 6, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2015.
10. Holland, Jeffrey R. "Like a Broken Vessel." Ensign, November 2013.
11. Woodger, Mary Jane. ""Cheat the Asylum of a Victim": George Albert Smith's 1909-12 Breakdown." Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 120-54.
12. Morrison, Alexander B. "Myths about Mental Illness." Ensign, October 2005.
13. Davies, Taylor. "Depression behind Perfection." Universe.byu.edu. January 14, 2014. Accessed September 23, 2015.
14. Shaw, Tim. "LDS Women Deal with Depression." Universe.byu.edu. February 12, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2015.
15. Holland, Jeffrey R. "Like a Broken Vessel." Ensign, November 2013.
16. Lincoln, Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln to Fanny McCullough, December 23, 1862." The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College. Accessed September 25, 2015.
3. Pixabay.com4. audio-luci-store.it. Flickr.com