Many in the Mormon community are saddened by the recent passing of Stephen H. Webb, a well-regarded Christian theologian who worked closely in recent years with Mormon scholars. A few weeks ago, Webb wrote an article articulating the dearth of Christian theological understanding regarding depression. Theological understanding is necessary, he argued, because “no other kind of pain has such a visceral spiritual component.”
Webb’s article is not the only recent piece to highlight the religious implications of depression. Rebecca J. Clayson also addressed spiritual side effects of depression in the February 2016 Ensign. Both articles make the same point: the spiritual effects of depression mimic the spiritual effects of sin. Clayson described her experience:
I prayed constantly for heaven’s help to relieve the heaviness in my heart. When the sorrow remained, it seemed as if the Lord had abandoned me and for some reason I didn’t qualify for His love. This further fed my belief that I was unworthy of my blessings. Reading the scriptures also fueled my anxieties because each time I came across a verse that described what I felt, the passage had something to do with sin. I could not figure out what great transgression I had committed to deserve such torment, but the scriptural association of despair with iniquity seemed proof of my fallen state.
As Clayson received medical help for her depression, she was surprised to learn from others who suffered from mental illness “that they had also felt little distinction between the spiritual side effects of depression and actual unworthiness.”
The effects of sin can be treated and resolved through repentance and the Atonement. Repentance, however, does not relieve symptoms of clinical depression. Webb wrote, “The absence of anything like grace in the experience of depression means it holds a dark mirror to the healing promised in purgatory… As a kind of contrition out of control, depression can be a lesson in how close purgatory is to hell.”
The question is, then, how? How does a chemical imbalance in a mortal body have the capacity to inflict such devastating spiritual consequences?
Mormon doctrine holds some promising clues. We believe that the soul of a person is made up of both the physical body and the spirit (D&C 88:15). Since we believe all spirit is matter (D&C 131:7), it’s logical to expect the finer matter in our spiritual bodies to interact in some way with the coarser physical matter of our mortal bodies. We often attribute physical effects to spiritual manifestations (burning in the bosom and all that). We also read in scripture and church history that transfiguration, seeing visions with the spiritual eyes, can cause total exhaustion in the physical body. Clearly, the spiritual and physical aspects of our identity influence and impact the other.
President Boyd K. Packer once said, “Your body is the instrument of your mind. In your emotions, the spirit and the body come closest to being one. What you learn spiritually depends, to a degree, on how you treat your body.” He was speaking in relation to the Word of Wisdom, but there are two relevant points. First, emotion seems to be an intersection point between the spirit and the physical body. Second, the health of the physical body affects spiritual reception.
If the chemicals responsible for manifesting emotion in the physical body are misfiring, there is a problematic connection between the body and the spirit. Depression misfires are more than just restricting access to positive emotion, though. They also grossly distort negative emotion. Webb insightfully states, “The case can be made that depression is not really accurately named, since it is a state of heightened sensitivity as well as lessened energy and lowered expectations. The depressed react to fears, worries, and deprivations without any of the ordinary resources that filter and contextualize those emotions. The depressed know on some level that they are confronted with exaggerated fears, but that only makes their hypersensitivity worse.”
When two factors are necessary in interpreting data correctly (physical and spiritual), it makes sense the interpretation will be off when one factor is malfunctioning. Think of eating food when you are severely congested with a bad head cold. Since both food odor and taste together form our perception of flavor, the lack of smell will cause the flavor to seem deficient. The food is the same, the taste buds work fine, but without the normal olfactory contribution we perceive the flavor differently.
The Holy Ghost communicates with us through our spirit. If the physical body is interfering with the emotional connection between it and our spirit, we will obviously have difficulty properly receiving messages from the Holy Ghost. The perception of “radio silence” creates that disconcerting feeling of God being far away, even when He is, in reality, quite close. These ideas echo Webb’s distressing statements: “Perhaps that can serve as a theological definition of depression: When your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.” And, “The more you cry out for help, the more distant God can appear to be. This is negative theology gone deeply awry.”
As a depression survivor, this is the biggest frustration: I know God is close to the depressed individual. I know there are people around that person who love and want to help them. I know there are individuals on the other side of the veil trying as hard as they can to lift that individual and inspire them to get the help they need. And yet, I know from experience that the depressed individual is often incapable of feeling any of that.
Webb’s description of depression as purgatory is haunting and disheartening. He ends with a message painfully familiar, “The depressed wait for the long nights to end and the anguish to subside. The depressed, like Jesus during his so-called lost years, are hidden from sight, waiting for their lives to begin.”
The church created a 7-minute suicide awareness video in 2014 with some very good visual imagery of how depression feels. I recommend watching if you haven’t already.