When I was diagnosed with depression 20+ years ago, I went online to find other people who were also LDS and depressed. It was a huge relief to find people who felt the way I did, and who were also confused that God had somehow created a physical illness that kept his faithful child from feeling his love.
I noticed we had differing responses to religious experiences. Some were comforted, even if only temporarily, by religious actions such as asking for a priesthood blessing or attending the temple. Others of us either felt no relief, or felt worse, when we tried to bring the spirit through faithful living. I was emphatically in the latter category. When I felt depression start to seep in, I redoubled my efforts to live faithfully. I went to the temple twice a week instead of once; I quit reading novels and spent more time pondering Ensign articles; I worked across the street from Temple Square, so I spent my lunch hour in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple, searching for peace. Everything I tried made me feel worse. Had God rejected me? What on earth had I done wrong??
Years later, I figured out two reasons for my Religion-Resistant Depression.
The first reason is that the Spirit is the “spirit of truth.” If the truth is that you’re a hot mess, that’s how you’re going to feel in the presence of the Spirit. The Spirit was basically trying to tell me: “you have a problem and being more righteous isn’t going to solve it. Pay attention to yourself and get to work.” (This was during the time when there were frequent reminders of President Hinckley’s story about being discouraged while on a mission and his father wrote to him and said, “forget yourself and go to work.” I needed to do the opposite: “pay attention to yourself.”)
The dialogue about depression has changed since the early 2000’s. Back then, it was almost verboten to say that there might be a reason for depression besides a brain chemistry imbalance. Since then, mental health professionals have linked depression to many different life experiences, such as being bullied in school, being abused as a child, being a victim of abuse as an adult. Depression is also common during the grieving process. Some may experience depressive symptoms and can address them by being more mindful, changing careers, or focusing on doing something you love. The point is, brain chemistry can cause depression. But life experiences can also cause depression. Or a combination of both factors.
The second reason that faithful behavior made me feel worse is that I was using that faithful behavior as a coping mechanism to try and ignore the life experiences that contributed to my depression. For me personally, my depression was linked to some childhood trauma, and some unhealthy relationships that I was tolerating without being able to change them. If I had been able to feel the spirit by going to the temple more often, I might never have taken a long, hard look at the pain I had internalized. If prayer and scripture study could have soothed me, I might never have taken concrete steps to end bad relationships. If serving in a calling had helped me to forget myself, I might not have prioritized my creative hobbies that bring me so much joy.
Once my faithful-behavior coping mechanisms failed, I was forced to address the real issues that were causing my self-hatred, despair, and feelings of worthlessness.
I give the Church credit for normalizing medical treatment for mental illness, including therapy. I also hold the Church responsible for contributing to some of my disordered thinking, most specifically perfectionism and misogyny. Church was not all good for me, but nor was it all bad for me.
Today, I’m mostly symptom-free. I’m on a low dose of a common antidepressant. I’m aware of my triggers. I’ve been through many rounds of therapy. EMDR and cognitive behavior therapy didn’t help much; dialectical behavior therapy changed my life; talk therapy – where I got to word vomit things I’d kept in for decades – was also very helpful. (Did you know there are different types of therapy and they can be prescribed depending on your diagnosis?)
Treating mental illness is often a matter of experimenting to find a treatment that works. This post is just my own personal experience and your experience may be very different. Some people go through several types of medication before finding one that helps. You may respond better to certain forms of therapy than other forms of therapy. Other behaviors may help or harm, depending on your personality and what might underlie depressive beliefs and feelings. Some people may feel better if they socialize more; others may feel worse. Some may feel better by doing something nice for someone else; others might feel emotionally exhausted at the thought of trying to meet someone else’s needs. Some benefit from prayer and meditation; others don’t. The point is, the activities that the Church encourages (like socializing, service and prayer/meditation) are simply activities that may or may not help a depressed person feel better. Religion-Resistant Depression is not an indicator of whether or not you are a faithful person.
Mental illness and its treatment is a touchy topic. Comment only if you feel comfortable.
Have you experienced mental health struggles? Did religious activity help or harm or do nothing? Did you expect religious activities to help you feel better?
Have mental health struggles redefined your faith and spiritual expectations?
What do you think of the way Church leaders address mental illness?