Does the Church Cause Depression?

November 8, 2007

We’ve all heard it. Antidepressant use is high in Utah. Since Utah seems to represent Mormondom to some, the conclusion that has been made more than once is that somehow membership in the Church “causes” depression.

I have many thoughts on depression in the Church. I think that too often we don’t appreciate the forces of biology OR of agency in this complex burden. I am frustrated with the stigma that is still attached to mental illness. I could go on about these things, but this week, I am going to take a different approach and share instead someone else’s thoughts — and research — on this topic.

I’ve long been bothered by the conclusion that the Church ’causes’ depression. And a BYU professor has given credence to my gut. For those who haven’t heard about his work, I wanted to share it briefly (since a brief amount of time is all I have).

In fact, rather than summarize the article’s summary of his summary of his research, I’ll just post a link and invite you to discuss.



  1. According to the psych dept at the University of Utah SOM there isn’t more drepeession in Utah. They attribute a higher rate of antidepressant use in Utah county to better diagnosis and treatment versus a higher rate of self treatment with tobacco products and other illicit and addictive proscription drugs.

    You should know that these same Salt lake non-Mormons who bring up the Prozac-Utah valley stat are not telling you that theyre wives are taking valium, xanax,and ativan. This is according to several uofu pharmacy students who work in local retail pharmacies.

  2. This is according to several uofu pharmacy students who work in local retail pharmacies.

    m&m’s argument is a winnable one, but violating professional ethics to discredit one’s critics is not the way to do so.

  3. That study tells us exactly nothing. There is as much proof for his perspective as there is for the critical perspective, blaming the church.

    Take a look at his weasel words. “active”, “participating” mormons

    Often, when someone is hurt, or depressed they reduce their involvement with the people that caused that pain. Of course there is a corelation between those who are active and those who the church does not cause emotional pain to…

    What Utah needs is a longitudinal study of around 1000 people co-ordinating religious involvement, prescription drug use, depression, etc. We’ll see if it ever happens.

  4. Angrymormonliberal, that statement also struck me.

    “With few exceptions, Latter-day Saints who live their lives consistent with the teachings of the (church) experience greater well-being, increased marital and family stability, less delinquency, less depression, less anxiety, less suicide and less substance abuse than those who do not,”

    One could just as well say that those Latter-day Saints whose lives happen to align with current church expectations experience little anxiety or depression. But what if you are one who does not fit the mold, who struggles with Church expectations? Trying to change your very identity to fit expectations can certainly cause depression and anxiety. This type of rhetoric can easily exacerbate the situation, as it casts blame on those who are affected. “Your emotional pain is caused because you are not living the gospel, or because you are inactive.”

  5. I guess I understood that part differently. When he talked about people whose lives were consistent with church teachings, I assumed he meant abstinence from drug and alcohol, and fidelity in marriage. Seen in that light, this strikes me as something of a no-brainer.

    The area where I think there absolutely is more depression among Mormons has to do with child-bearing. PPD results from the hormonal fluctuations women undergo with pregnancy and childbirth, and if you have more children than others, you’re going to have more PPD. Again, this seems like a no-brainer.

    I would also like to see somebody study if there is a link to the genetic heritage of Utahns, who are descended disproportionately from morose Scandinavians. If your great great greats all come from someplace where its dark 18 hours a day for 6 months of the year, you might have some built-in challenges.

  6. I actually do think there is something to church culture and depression sometimes. I think we have very highexpectations of ourselves and others. Men are that they might have joy. I’m not having as much joy as I think I should have. We should be the happiest people on earth. Something must be wrong with me.

  7. While I definitely think that, as a culture, we do rather poorly in teaching joy, I’m not so sure that it is fair to blame the church for the depression of those who do not conform. To say that changing one’s “very identity” is intrinsically depressing is a misconception. The greatest joy in my life has come because I’ve changed my identity. That is, after all, what Christianity or even spirituality is about, isn’t it? Changing one’s identity – growing?

    I think the problem comes more from a perspective that says “THIS is who I am. Who I am isn’t who I should be. I’m not good enough.” Rather, healthy change comes from “THIS is who I am. Who I am isn’t who I want to be. I can change that.” Depression (at least in my experience) comes primarily from feeling trapped – like one can’t do anything about some attitude or experience. Ergo, “I am worthless. There’s nothing I can do to change that. I will always be worthless.” The Gospel of Christ teaches that we can always do something, always be better, even if that something is trusting in Him and moving on with the good we can do. It is that we don’t have to do it all ourselves, but that there are sources of power for change. It opens a door in our seamless tin box of frustration.

    Therefore, I submit that depression comes from misunderstanding the Gospel, not from the actual concept of an ideal state of being or of a goal to reach.

  8. I’m back after a long day away. I have a few thoughts, which may be sort of what I might have posted had I had more time. 🙂

    SilverRain’s comments reflect what I have been thinking. The whole purpose of the gospel and the Church is about change — change that turns us to Christ. And, as she said, it’s not change that says we are horrible, awful people (which is depressing to think, indeed) but that, with Christ, we can be perfect and perfected. Any depression we let creep in because of external forces or perceived cultural pressure in my opinion reflects a lack of understanding about the Atonement. We all misunderstand in this way. It’s part of being mortal, I think. I know this because I have experienced it personally. It’s too easy to get focused on my behavior (and my constant failings, esp. if I find myself comparing), and to equate my worth or sense of well-being to my behavior. That is not what God wants for us. We are, as Lehi said, redeemed not because of our righteousness, but because of the righteousness of our Redeemer. When I really, really start to internalize that and rely on Him, it changes everything.

    To me, this is the whole purpose of life — to learn to define ourselves relative to our covenant relationship with God through the Savior. When we really start understanding that and what it means, the ‘pressure,’ the culture, the competition, the self-berating disappears. Even though I’m still imperfect, I am no longer weighed down by that imperfection because I realize where perfection comes from. (Go read and re-read Elder Bednar’s talk. He taught profound and life-changing doctrine. e.g., “This mighty change is not simply the result of working harder or developing greater individual discipline. Rather, it is the consequence of a fundamental change in our desires, our motives, and our natures made possible through the Atonement of Christ the Lord.”

    I TOTALLY understand when people say that they think it’s the Church that causes depression. But we are here not to be acted upon, but to act. Agency is given as a gift to allow us the chance to turn to the Savior so we can be perfect in Him. The adversary wants us to think we are helpless victims — that the people around us, or our culture, or the Church, or whatever, determine what we do and how we feel. This is false. As SilverRain said, feeling trapped in such victimhood is not what the Savior wants for us. He wants us to be free. We are free when we accept the Atonement and its power in our lives. It sounds so easy. I know it’s not. I believe this is a key purpose of life — to learn to really know how to stay in the ‘arms of safety.’ But I do know this – they are real. Life is never more sweet, in spite of its difficulties, when I really ‘get it’ and feel the power of the Atonement and stop trying to do it all and be it all by myself.

    That said, like I said in my post, there IS that biological factor to depression for many. External forces can trigger or worsen the body’s response to stress. Still, it’s not the Church’s fault that this happens. And I do believe there is much that can be done even within the biological forces that can act upon us. We can choose to endure even when things feel black. We can choose to trust in the promises of God (Elder Condie’s talk was one of my favorites from Conference, on that topic). Again, the Atonement can come into play, even if the immediate healing is not presented.

  9. And a simple addition to the original post…the thing I llked about Dr. Judd’s research is simply that it recognizes that there are many variables that aren’t considered when people simply look at the number of antidepressants used in Utah. That fact alone to me should cause people to pause before making any sweeping generalizations about our culture. This ‘data’ is too often used in a spiteful way, to try to ‘prove’ that being LDS is somehow a bad thing, detrimental to people’s well-being.

  10. I will save my comments for when I post this Saturday. I hope that you will continue with discussion.


  11. Two other thoughts:
    BiV, I want to reiterate that I understand the anxiety, etc. of which you speak, and I hope my comment didn’t come across as insensitive to that. I just think that part of our journey is to really figure out our relationship with God, and to learn to sort through what is culture, what is doctrine, and what God expects us to do to repent and become more like Him.

    Piggybacking off of that, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that I think the culture doesn’t need help sometimes. I think we put too much pressure on each other in unnecessary ways, and we sometimes try to invade into people’s lives when we shouldn’t. There is pride, competition, pettiness and judging that exists when it shouldn’t. But that doesn’t fundamentally negate the power of the Atonement. Again, our challenge is to build a relationship with God such that we can better sift through all we hear and figure out what really matters.

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