Mormonism and Mental Health

"Blessed are they that mourn" - Matthew 5:4

My name is Michael and I have double depression or, as I like to call it, Mega-depression. I'm sad a lot. I don't sleep well. I have trouble connecting with people. I face major issues with lack of motivation and energy as well as feelings of hopelessness. I often have periods of suicidal thoughts. And I'm a Mormon.

Mormons are "supposed" to be happy. According to a Gallup poll, Mormons are the "happiest" of all Christian denominations. If you don't believe it, ask a Mormon. I'd bet if you asked them why they're Mormon they'd say it's because it "makes them happy." But does it? Consider these lyrics:

If you chance to meet a frown,
Do not let is stay.
Quickly turn it upside down
And smile that frown away.

No one likes a frowny face.
Change it for a smile.
Make the world a better place
By smiling all the while.

'Smiles' - Daniel Taylor

That's a song we sang as Mormon kids. I think it more than anything exemplifies the problem we have in Mormonism when it comes to our perception of mental health. I don't think it's unique to Mormonism but that's the reference frame I have.

I spent a lot of my life pretending to be happy. We usually call it "choosing" to be happy, though. As a clinically depressed individual I've been told on numerous occasions that "happiness is a choice" and I indeed admit that it's advice I've misguidedly given others. This "happiness-choice" philosophy is insidious enough by itself but in Mormon culture it couples itself with another dangerous idea—that if you're "righteous enough" or if you keep the commandments well enough then you will be happy.

The latter thought has particularly plagued me throughout my life. The earliest things I remember learning about the gospel were that if I kept the commandments then I would be happy. This, of course, is coupled with its contrapositive: if I'm not happy then I'm doing something wrong. In the mind of someone who is not mentally healthy it's not a long journey from that thought to "if I'm not happy then I am something wrong."

To highlight one impact of these poisonous ideas, I'd like you to consider one bit of falsehood that's often taught as Mormon doctrine (though I affirm it is in no way such). If you are a Mormon, I suspect at some point you heard something along the lines of "those who commit suicide go to outer darkness." If you're not Mormon, outer darkness is the closest thing we have to the archetypical image of hell and is essentially reserved for people who see the resurrected Christ in person, recognize him as such, and then say, "Nah, I'm good." I won't go into the arguments of why some assert this as "doctrine" but I'd like for you to imagine, if you will, a child, nine or ten years old, who struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts and is introduced to an idea that, from his perspective, supposedly comes from the mouth of God. Suddenly that child believes that if were to take his own life that the creator of the universe would reject him. How does he deal with his thoughts of suicide? How does his then-undiagnosed depression intermingle with his spirituality in developing his sense of identity? I don't expect you to be able to answer those questions but I hope it helps you understand how scared he would be to talk about these things with anyone, particularly the people who might be able to help him the most.

If you're thinking to yourself, "OK, so what can I do? How can I help someone with mental illness?" I don't have the answer. Maybe you're not supposed to be able to help them in any traditional sense. I think part of the issue is reframing our definition of happiness and accepting that sadness and sorrow is part of that. Along with that comes an understanding that there might not be anything "wrong" with someone who is depressed.

If we tell depressed individuals to "read their scriptures and pray harder" then we're only setting them up for crises of faith when those things fail to make them "happy" (according to a conventional use of the word). If we convince them that they "just need to do service" then we tell them they're depressed because they're selfish. "Being more grateful" isn't a substitute for medication and counseling. The advice Mormons tend to give to those that are mentally is not just wrong, it's harmful. So maybe we should stop giving advice and start listening. I don't know if any of us really know the right answers. Spirituality and mental illness are very individual, personal things so there might not be a right answer. I don't know. But I don't think telling a sick person what they're doing wrong is "mourn[ing] with those that mourn." It's really just comforting yourself because you're not comfortable with someone who's "stand[ing] in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:9).

The gospel promises that we will be healed as part of the plan of happiness. It is quite possible, though, that that healing and that happiness will not come in this life. We as Mormons have a long way to go on this issue. I've had a particularly low bout recently and I've had difficulty dealing with how that's impacted my ability to be a "good" Mormon. I feel obligated to say yes when asked to do things at church but it's often difficult in a way people don't see. I'm sick and I'm sure I'm not the only one. I hope that we can all strive to be more sensitive to the pains of others and be better at supporting, not fixing, those in need.

Since I started writing this, the Church has launched a new website focused on preventing suicide. It has many resources for those struggling with suicidal thoughts, those concerned for others who may be at risk of suicide, and those who have been affected by suicide. All of our lives are impacted by this issue and I encourage each of you to familiarize yourself with these and other resources.