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Depression in the Church: Let’s talk about awareness, not causation

November 9, 2007

Often, our discussions regarding the occurrence of mental illness in the Church grapple with the question of whether church involvement “causes” depression. I’m not interested in that question, frankly.

Mental illness occurs in every religion, every country, and every social class. It just doesn’t seem plausible that any single variable, such as religion, “causes” mental illness. Mental illness is a phenomenon that affects humanity across the board, and is likely due to a complex combination of biological, environmental, and personal factors that we may never fully comprehend.

The studies (which aren’t few in number) may provide some insights into religion’s effect on mental illness, but they don’t present a clear picture. While religion is generally shown to be inversely correlated with susceptibility to depression, it has also been demonstrated that, under certain circumstances, religion can be a complicating factor. (I’ll try to upload or link to some interesting articles later, if I get a chance.)

I think it’s safe to say that while, for many people, religion helps deal with (and may possibly help avoid) depression, there are nonetheless many religious people who will suffer from mental illness, through no fault of their own. It should also be safe to say that, under certain circumstances, religious experience may exacerbate rather than relieve symptoms for some of those that suffer. This may not have anything to do with the religion or church itself–it may have more to do with the individual’s particular condition and predisposition–but the religion or religious community nonetheless might bear some of the responsibility for how the illness pans out and is dealt with.

I purposefully used the word may a lot in that paragraph. I’m trying to avoid generalizations, and I don’t want to push the discussion in the direction of debating causation, fault, or blame. I just want to say that depression does happen in the Church, and that for some sufferers, religious activity or association complicates the problem.

The solution isn’t an abandonment of religion, but it may involve some repositioning of the sufferer’s beliefs and perceptions.

But what can the Church? What should the Church do?

I don’t think the Church should try to shoulder the responsibility for treating mental illness. If you have cancer, you may ask your bishop for a priesthood blessing, but your primary treatment will probably take place in the hospital. When it comes to mental illness, the bishop and other leaders and members may perform a support function and offer appropriate aid in the spiritual sphere, but the sufferer’s primary treatment should be with a trained professional. Leaders who are are approached by those who may suffer from mental illness should direct them in the appropriate direction. Where mental illness overlaps with spiritual problems, the ecclesiastical leader should work with the professional in addressing those needs.

For the most part, I think the Church does a pretty good job in this realm. And things are getting better. We see more Ensign articles addressing the topic, and more resources are available to members and leaders. Old stereotypes (that depression is caused by sin, for instance) are clearing up, and we’re becoming less aversive to the field of psychiatry. LDS Social Services performs a valuable and vital function in helping Latter-day Saints cope with the challenge of mental illness.

Of course, there’s always room for improvement. I am waiting to hear a General Conference talk devoted to the topic, for instance. According to my father (member of a stake presidency and former bishop), leaders still receive relatively little training in this area, although they are provided with some resources and guidance. Since many Mormons may approach their bishop before they consider speaking with a psychiatrist, I think it’s imperative that the leaders on the front lines (primarily bishops) receive a higher degree of training in this area. But that will come, I’m sure.

I don’t believe that problems relating to perceptions and treatment of mental illness are unique to the Mormon community. Most members of the general public who have not experienced (or known someone who has experienced) mental illness probably don’t understand what it is and how it works. So perhaps we should be speaking of increased awareness and understanding in society at large. But then, our own faith communities are a good place to start.

In my old ward, the relief society president (whose husband was a therapist) held firesides in which various afflictions that don’t receive frequent attention were discussed. There was a fireside devoted to eating disorders, for instance, and one devoted to depression. She invited competent professionals, who spoke authoritatively and directly on the relevant topics. This is a wonderful way to increase awareness on the local level.

The goal should be to equip the members of our community with the understanding necessary to empathize with and appropriately support those who suffer. If you’re depressed, there’s nothing worse than being told that you need to pray more or repent harder or exercise more faith, or just put your shoulder to the wheel and get over it. Awareness will eliminate such misunderstandings and misdiagnoses.

Some readers of this blog may know something of my own history, but I suspect that most do not. I don’t want to go into particulars, but I know from experience that, for all the good that the Church and Mormons do, improvement in this area is definitely needed. We may be moving in the right direction, but it’s important that we keep moving (as quickly as possible). Rather than debating causation, perhaps it would be better to accept the reality that mental illness does and will happen–even in the best wards and families, and even to some of the most faithful individuals–and focus our efforts on increasing awareness and providing adequate help and support for those individuals and their families.

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19 comments

  1. “I don’t think the Church should try to shoulder the responsibility for treating mental illness. If you have cancer, you may ask your bishop for a priesthood blessing, but your primary treatment will probably take place in the hospital.”

    Amen!

    “If you’re depressed, there’s nothing worse than being told that you need to pray more or repent harder or exercise more faith, or just put your shoulder to the wheel and get over it.”

    Unless that’s what your competent physician prescribes—in which case, service in the Church could be “just what the doctor ordered.” (thinking more of the later example…)


  2. If putting your shoulder to the wheel is all you need to do to get over your “depression,” then you probably don’t have depression.


  3. I hope that the comments made here aren’t in response to my comments or my post because 1) the purpose of my post was not to try to define a cause, but rather to show that it’s never as easy as seeing data and implying cause/effect relationships and 2) I never meant to imply that faith is going to eliminate depression, or that we should just say ‘you need to pray more or repent harder or have more faith’ in order to get over the depression. Just for the record. I know that depression is often a real, biological thing, and I think it’s very important that we not have a simplistic view of mental illness, because it is anything but simple. Thus, I actually basically agree with everything said here.

    But still, the answer at least long term still lies in the gospel. I have had some depression my life, and it’s hard to accept why something would come that interferes with the ability to feel the Spirit and have the ‘typical’ approaches to religiousity not really work. It helps to understand that this, like any other trial, is something that is sometimes part of our mortal existence, and if we endure it well, we have promises that we can hold onto eternally.

    Alexander Morrison wrote a book that addresses this topic and was helpful, I thought. His daughter has struggled with depression. I think it’s things like that book (and his article in the Ensign, as well as others) that can help. Like I said in my post and comments, I wish there was less of a stigma about mental illness. But on the flip side, I think sometimes there is some defensiveness about it all as well. It’s not a black and white issue. It’s not all something that can be changed simply, but it’s not all something that sometimes can’t be acted upon as it were in some ways. Again, it’s complex on many fronts, including how one can respond to and deal with and accept it and face the challenge, just as with any health issue that affects one’s ability to function.


  4. M&M,

    My post wasn’t meant to be a response to yours. Sorry if it came off like that. It was more a response to people who are searching for that causal link between religion and mental illness. I wasn’t interested in discussing that question.

    While I think we’re pretty much in agreement on this issue, I don’t think I agree with this statement: But still, the answer at least long term still lies in the gospel. To me, I see religion as a positive factor that can help someone deal with depression, but not an end-all solution to it. Mental illness really is an illness. To say that the long-term solution to depression is in the gospel, one must also be willing to say that the long-term solution to cancer or diabetes is in the gospel.


  5. one must also be willing to say that the long-term solution to cancer or diabetes is in the gospel.

    Actually, Steve, that is exactly what I am saying. I can’t come up with any other solution to dealing with the injustices of life and the pain different people experience through no fault of their own (because of biology, or because of where they were born, or because of others’ choices or…) than to find solace in an eternal perspective that the gospel gives us. It’s that understanding that keeps me going, when I see people around me struggling so, or when I have my own struggles.


  6. M&M,

    Okay, I see what you’re saying. I think I misunderstood your earlier comments. I think we’re more in agreement than I originally thought.

    I, personally, am just not a fan of the idea that religion is the ultimate “cure” for physical illnesses. While I think religion serves an important function and helps people face these challenges with faith, courage, and perspective, I think we’ve been blessed with modern medicine for a reason. In my view, whether you have cancer or depression, religion may obviously help you get through it, but if you’re interested in a cure, I think it’s imperative to see a professional. That’s all I was saying.


  7. Yup, I think we are in agreement.


  8. I always like what you have to say, m&m. It amazes me that, with all that you’ve suffered, you are so clear-headed in your comments and posts.

    You say: “I think it’s safe to say that while, for many people, religion helps deal with (and may possibly help avoid) depression, there are nonetheless many religious people who will suffer from mental illness, through no fault of their own. It should also be safe to say that, under certain circumstances, religious experience may exacerbate rather than relieve symptoms for some of those that suffer.”

    Yes! While religion is not the root cause of my never ending struggle with depression, it most certainly has a way of pouring salt in the wounds. In fact, it was religious experience that caused me to “hit the wall” so to speak.

    But even so, I have found some solace in the support of my church leaders. They have been incredibly understanding and have reiterated again, and again my innocence with regard to sin. They have been sensitive in issuing callings, allowing me to serve in ways that keep me involved without pushing me over the edge. They have been understanding and have withheld judgment in those few instances when I have had to say “no.” And most of all, they have given counsel which has been as keen, perceptive, and on target as any that I have received from a professional.

    And so I guess what I’m saying (in all too many words) is that, while there is room for improvement, the church really has come a long way.


  9. Jack, thanks for the kind words, but the quote you listed above was from Steve. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts, though.


  10. Wow, silly me! Sorry for the mix up–though I’m sure Steve would consider it a great compliment. 🙂


  11. Thanks for the post. As someone who has battled depression her entire life, I appreciate what you have said. Yes, it is less than helpful for people to tell you to excercise faith. Also, I think we should state that encouraging people to go off their medication is a bad idea. Most of us struggle enough with taking it, and feeling like we are weak, that we don’t someone else telling us we are.

    I had a stake president with hold a temple reccomend based compeltely on the fact that I have anxiety and could not stay the entire 3 hour block. I could make it through the first two, but not the third.

    These issues are not just with mental illness though. It is with anything they don’t understand. I have Lupus as well. My body is literally attacking itself, but I don’t look sick. I have been told many times by well meaning people (including my bishop) that if I had more faith I would be able to attend church, would feel better, meet a man and get married, etc. It has been devastating. The point is that when people don’t understand they seem to default to “have more faith, pray more, and do more service”. While that may build your spritiuality and help you get through having these struggles, they won’t cure the illness itself. That seems to be the area that confuses people. Maybe we can help people learn to say “I don’t undestand but am sorry” or just learn that being supportive doesn’t always mean fixing things.


  12. Oh, anon, how awful. What a horrible burden that must be. I don’t know what I would do if I were in your shoes. (Well, actually I think I do–and it scares me to imagine it–because while most of my interaction with people at church has been positive, on rare occasions I’ll run into some jerk who feels it his duty to strip me of all my “excuses” for depression–and little does he know that the only thing his wise counsel accomplishes is the placing of his life in imminent danger.) You deserve a medal of honor.

    I think one of the things that has helped me forge such positive relations with my leaders is that they are aware that my condition stems (primarily) from difficulties in childhood: sexual abuse; multiple divorces; etc. And I’ve wondered if, perhaps, those who are not able to point to specific causal circumstances for their condition have more difficulty in garnering sympathy. I don’t have any data to back up this idea–it’s just a thought. But I know there are those who suffer much more than I do with depression (who seem to come from much more “favorable” circumstances–who are not able to discover the cause of their condition) and yet they have more difficulty with their leaders.

    I guess my general point is that we can stand a little improvement in raising our level of consciousness toward the fact that depression is depression. It can be a debilitating horrific nightmare for all who suffer from it regardless of what the root cause may be.


  13. I should make it clear that I did not mean to imply anything about your specific situation, anon. It seems that you are fully aware of all the whats, whys, and wherefores of your condition. Reading your comment just got me thinking in a certain direction, that’s all.

    Take care.


  14. Jack-the thing is, the bishop who said those things knows I had a difficult childhood. The stake president was in the stake I group up in and asked about the abuse in childhood during the lovely reccomend interview, which left me devastated. I can barely talk about the details of my childhood to my therapist. The SP kept pushing me to talk about it and I think it more out of curiousiy that compassion. My bishop said I just need to attend all 3 hours and then we would be ok. I just calmly said no, I wasn’t able to attend and God knew that. I also said that if he was ok with his role in my not having a reccomend that was fine.

    My bishop’s response was that I got a bum deal and nobody could do anything about it. He basically told me to get over it. He is actually a good guy, but he has led a somewhat charmed life and cannot grasp what I have gone through.

    Thanks for the sympathy. You know at this point I have taken a little break from church to let the pain from the situation calm down and then I will go to a different ward in a different stake. I can say that the experience has helped me learn that all that matters is that my Heavenly Father approves of me. That he really does grasp what I have gone through even if my leaders have not.

    The bad part is that I have always struggled with women’s role in the church and lack of “voice”. Since I am single and have no male family member to go to bat for me, it was really hard. The only reason he agreed to meet with me was because a man who’s kids I used to babysit was super upset when this happened because he knew how much effort it took to get to church with my issues and I still go. He went to the SP and talked to him about where things were, how hard i worked, etc. I still feel helpless when I think about it.

    I have determined that the peope who want to strip the excuses are afraid. Basically, if I can have severe depression from trauma’s and then develop an illness with no known cause or treatment then they can too. It is easier to blame the person suffering than to acknwoldge that bad things happen. Period. That at this point we cannot understand or explain.


  15. Oh, and I didn’t think you were telling me what to do, just offering your experience of what worked for you. Thanks for sharing.


  16. but he has led a somewhat charmed life and cannot grasp what I have gone through.

    This is one of the greatest challenges of this kind of problem. My heart goes out to you, anon. It hurts to hear the pat answers you receive. It’s often those who have been through or been close to someone who has been through the trials we struggle with who can have the sympathy or empathy that can be so helpful. It’s so very hard when we don’t get the responses we feel we need, but then again, part of the challenge of our existence is also to be patient with those around us who goof. We all do our best, right? Situations like that remind me that there it is truly only God who will never fail us.

    I’ve had similar reactions from people even in my own family, who are supposed to understand and know me the best. But they are trying their best, just as I am. I would hope they would trust that about me, and so I need to trust that they are doing their best, even when what they say or do hurts. I have tried to change my expectations of those around me and just remember that God knows my heart and knows what’s up. That is the case for those who may not understand me as well. We all do our best, and that’s all God expects of us. All around, I think sometimes we expect more than that from each other. Those who aren’t depressed or who struggle in other ways expect those who are to just buck up. But those who struggle sometimes expect those who don’t understand to just get it and somehow read our minds. 🙂


  17. I couldn’t get this to post in the previous thread so I’ll try it here:

    I think identity plays a huge role in depression. The problem for many is that they have such a deep sense of self doubt and shame that they unconsciously annihilate their identity by supplanting their true sensibilities with those that are “acceptable” by external standards.

    Now we all do this to some degree as we strive to safely position ourselves in our environment, but the problem is that those with a deep sense of self-hatred will take it to an unhealthy extreme–usually as a coping mechanism of sorts. And so what we have are a lot of poor devils repenting of that which they need not repent and sacrificing that which they need not sacrifice.

    Typically, the kinds of things that needlessly go on the altar are the precious characteristics that make them who they are–those gem-like traits formed in their early years with which they feel little sense of continuity as adults–that lack of continuity resulting from the eschewing of early childhood identity which has been associated with the root cause of shame, e.g. abuse, trauma, or what-have-you.

    That said, where religion comes into play in this psychological game, is when it is used as a weapon–and a deadly one it is–against oneself in a cruel effort to keep one’s true identity at bay rather than merely refining it. While any number of means may be employed to carry out the destruction of an hated self, none is more imposing than a fierce deity waiting to send his wrath upon those who “selfishly” acknowledge their true sensibilities in the slightest degree. And this because religion “demands” that we be loving–and any failure to love is perceived as proof that who one really is is truly wretched and therefore worthy of God’s disapproval.

    Now some may feel that I paint too dramatic a picture, but such is indeed the on going psychological saga for so many who are caught between themselves and the monstrous coping construct which has become their worst enemy.


  18. Did y’all see this new blog?

    http://ldsds.blogspot.com/


  19. Sorry I haven’t responded. It has been a busy week at work.

    M&M-thanks for the compassion. i do understand the family thing. I love that you put we have to be patient with others since we all make mistakes. Except me, of course…

    Thank you for posting the link to the new blog. I love that.



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