Self-Less – Thoughts on Service and Depression in Mormon Culture

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48

My whole life, I have been taught of the value of selfless service. If you are ever struggling with yourself, find someone to serve and it will help your situation not seem so bleak. It is important to show compassion; to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those that mourn, and to succor the weak. The following two verses come to mind:

“And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God.” Mosiah 2:17

“He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Matthew 10:39

Marvin J. Ashton counseled those suffering from depression to “not doubt your abilities. Do not delay your worthy impressions. With God’s help, you cannot fail. He will give you the courage to participate in meaningful and purposeful living. Prayer and service lift their spirits and increase their self-esteem and feeling of power or control. Taking the focus off of themselves also helps put their problems in perspective and makes them feel they are not singled out for challenges. A day of service makes them feel useful and significant to others. At the moment of depression, if you will follow a simple program, you will get out of it. Get on your knees and get the help of God, then get up and go find somebody who needs something you can help them with. Then it will be a good day.”

Depression isn’t a sign of failure, but the feeling of failure. Telling someone to “snap out of it” is like telling a sick person to perform surgery on himself. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, an LDS father of five said, ” We have this ‘All is well in Zion’ kind of thing going on here…We’d rather not talk about it at all…or maybe go talk to the bishop about it. If there really is  a mental health issue you need help with, it doesn’t work to talk to your ecclesiastic leaders.” He touches on a pretty common misconception – that the bishop is your all-knowing source of guidance and counsel. If you’re having a problem of ANY type, you need to go talk to the bishop. But this is not necessarily true. Most bishops are not formally and professionally trained in psychology. Bishops are given guidelines in a handbook, and are told to “follow the spirit.” Bishops do the best they can, but they have limited resources. They are able to refer you to a mental health professional, typically through LDS Family services. Unfortunately, an untrained bishop may attribute overwhelming feelings of depression as evidence for a serious undisclosed sin. These unnecessary feelings of guilt will likely make the depression even worse. Psychological disorders are NOT a reflection of sin. I wouldn’t be surprised if most disorders found in a mental health clinic were also found in a typical ward.

I was reading a link someone sent me on Mormon Depression via Twitter the other day. It was an article by a conservative Christian pastor named Mark Cares, President of the Truth in Love Ministry. The Ministry has launched a billboard campaign in Idaho called “Feeling Worthy?” and campaign literature focuses on Mormon “stress points.” Pastor Cares said, “Mormons are under a significant amount of stress because of all the commandments they need to uphold and the duties they need to perform in order to be worthy to receive God’s blessings — including his forgiveness. The article asks, “Are Mormon women plagued with guilt and stress because of their religion, or is this campaign simply another form of anti-Mormonism?”

Paraphrasing the article a bit, researchers have drawn conclusions that the large Mormon population in Utah is partially to blame for the high levels of depression in the state. According to studies by Mental Health America and Express Scripts, Utah is the most depressed state in the country, and Utah residents are prescribed antidepressant drugs at a rate twice the national average.

A 2008 ABC News article stated, “The postcard image of Utah is a state of gleaming cities, majestic mountains and persistently smiling people. But new research shows a very different picture of the state, a snapshot of suicide and widespread depression…Psychiatrists point to several factors that could contribute to Utah’s high levels of depression: limited mental health resources, restricted access to treatment as a result of cost, poor quality of resources and a varied list of other factors, including an underfunded educational system and a culture deeply rooted in the Mormon faith.

As these depressed Mormons, particularly women, serve themselves out of their rut,  a key principle is not often mentioned; the opportunity to serve requires the other half of the service equation – someone in need of service. Sometimes, the person desperately in NEED of service is overwhelming themselves with GIVING service. As I struggle to improve my self-confidence and trust my innate abilities, I tend to drop everything when I hear of someone in need. I want to be happy, so I help. It does feels good to be helpful, but I’m realizing how often it depletes me.

I’m in a constant battle between my own needs and the needs of others. My husband has needs. My daughter has needs. My parents have needs. 90% of the time, I ignore what I need for myself. And I’m beginning to realize how harmful my “selflessness” has been. I’ve given up on dreams and desires of my youth. I missed out on much of Rosie’s young years because I was working to support my family. I’ve postponed my goals of fitness and weight loss because the financial cost was too overwhelming for our meager budget. A lot of the time, I don’t know what is worth aspiring to in my future.

I am realizing my desperate need to allow myself to be selfish, not selfless. And it feels like foreign territory.

I know through my religious beliefs that my struggles are temporary. God has a plan for me. The following quotes and scriptures help sustain me when I feel like I have no strength to keep trying.

“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8­9).

“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

“Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. (“Doctrine and Covenants 122:7)

“If all the sick for whom we pray were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principle of the gospel, free agency, would be ended. No man would have to live by faith. . . .Should all prayers be immediately answered according to our selfish desires and our limited understanding, then there would be little or no suffering, sorrow, disappointment, or even death, and if these were not, there would also be no joy, success, resurrection, nor eternal life and godhood.” Spencer W. Kimball

“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just like people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, and most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is just like an old time rail journey … delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”  Gordon B Hinckley (quoting Jenkin Loyd Jones)
  • You Knew

    Thank you….thank you….thank you! I needed to read this!

  • This is a beautiful post Nicole! I think we all have feelings of not being good enough, both inside the Mormon church and out. It always makes me feel a little better to know I’m not alone. 🙂

  • Lisa S

    I am the compassionate service leader in my Relief society. When I put a call out for help, I always tell the sisters I ask to just tell me you can’t if you can’t. Don’t think you need to say yes when you should be saying no. ” My feelings aren’t going to be bothered when someone says no. I am always ready to help no matter who or what…but I also know when to say no.

  • Beautifully said Nicole! I wish there was a way for more people to realize this. Thanks for sharing!

  • Oh boy. I needed this in a bad way. I loved both the ending quotes especially. Thanks so much for helping me today.

  • There is a difference between clinical depression and a “down in the dumps day”.

    There is a difference between self-care and selfishness.

    Sometimes when you take, you are giving. If someone offers service and you say no, that can be selfish too.

    As a woman with both clinical depression and fibromyalgia, I have to limit how much service I can do. But we also moved a long way from family recently, and I have found that reaching out to other families here helps me to fill the empty spaces. So life is a balancing act, one that we often feel we are teetering through, always on the edge of falling.

    One thought on Mormon women and antidepressants–is it that we are more stressed, or that we have learned the importance of taking care of ourselves while still following the Word of Wisdom? Many people of the world treat depression with alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs–not very effectively.

    One good reason to talk with the bishop is so that he knows your family is in need, and so he doesn’t overload you with things you feel obligated to take on. But he is not all-knowing; we shouldn’t treat the human bishop as if he is God. Sometimes we have to educate our bishops. And that’s okay. It’s part of the interaction between brothers and sisters.

  • I hope you won’t mind one more comment. When I look back on my childhood, I can see the signs of anxiety and depression in many of my memories–from a time way before my family became “Mormon.” And I see them in stories told of my grandmother, who was not LDS, as well as other family members.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said! I also agree with Lynn. I think we, as Mormon women, recognize the need to take care of ourselves and not medicating our depression with drugs or alcohol.
    I have a long family history of depression on my mother’s side as well as my father’s. I am high functioning and work to care for myself to the best of my ability. I have learned how to say no when I need to and that helps so much! I also help other women learn how to do this when it is necessary. A good friend of mine who has never suffered from depression recently told me that she doesn’t see how I can be depressed because I always try to laugh, smile, and be friendly. Sometimes it takes EVERY single ounce I have to be that way, but I feel it is important not to “give in” so to speak. It is my way of fighting through it. People don’t understand that it is as much physical as it is mental! It’s hard to describe the “fog” over your mind that exists with depression to people who have never expierenced that before. I’m not ashamed to talk about it to all I come across. It’s important to eliminate the stigma that comes with depression.
    Your article was right on the nose! Thanks for sharing!

  • This is a really well written blog. This week I’ve been going INSANE servings others. I did 2 class parties, helped with a book handout to less fortunate kids, did a first grade potluck, served the missionaries, cleaned the church.

    I found my “lamp” getting really dim. I think service can help but insane amounts can hurt.

    Great job. 🙂

  • I love your thoughts, this is so fantastic!

    Also, LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog. Thanks for sharing!

  • Amy

    Once again you have so eloquently posted what I have in my heart and what I discuss with my therapist on a regular basis. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  • I loved your thoughts on this. I have learned over the years that I HAVE to put myself first–as selfish as that sounds. If I am not happy, it affects my children, my husband, and those around me. If I am not happy, I have negative thoughts about everyone around me. Taking the time to help yourself be happy is not selfish. I believe it helps everyone around you because everyone wants to be around someone who is happy, confident, and at peace with themselves. It’s hard to find that balance. Thanks for posting this!

  • I liked your thoughts and insights on this subject. I have struggled with anxiety and severe clinical depression, and one thing that I have noticed is that many times when people refer to depression, they are speaking of feeling sad or blue. Everyone at times thoughout life experience times of sadness. However a general sadness versus clinical depression are two different things. Clinical depression is a mental illness, whereas sadness is a normal human emotion. It is true that when we’re feeling sad, service is a key to helping us feel better and happier. However, service does not make an illness go away. Clinical depression can be a very debilitating illness, making even normal functioning difficult.

    David Burns, a leading psychiatrist said, ” In my practice I find that the great majority of the depressed patients referred to me improve substantially if they try to help themselves. Sometimes it hardly seems to matter what you do as long as you do something with the attitude of self-help.”

    For myself, I have found this to be true. Sometimes helping myself means that I need to do service for someone else to recieve addtitonal fulfillment and sometimes it means that I need to do something that I personally need just for myself. Service in any circumstance can help us turn our thoughts toward something or someone else. However, we are also taught not to run faster than we have strength. That too is a very vital part of maintaining a healthy balance, particulary in those who deal with clinical depression. An important aspect of dealing with clinical depression is learning your limits and recognizing when you are and aren’t capable of taking on additional responsibilities.

    Also, concerning depressed people talking with their Bishop about their circumstance, it is true that Bishop’s aren’t psychologists or clinical social workers. Some people who have sinned have feelings of depression (not necessarliy clinical depression) and that should be resolved with a Bishop. However, having a husband who served as a Bishop for over 5 years, I also believe there is merit to talking with your Bishop if you are struggling with clinical depression. A Bishop is not qualified nor trained to replace the position of a professional counselor, however they can help in other aspects. A Bishop has a charge to watch over the people within his ward. Because clinical depression can have such an impact on so many aspects of a persons life, sometimes individuals may need addtional assistance in areas that a Bishop can be instrumental in helping with.

    Thanks so much again for your thoughts and insights. I too loved your quotes. I am very passionate about helping others who are struggling with or who need additional understanding regarding clinical depression. I always appreciate coming across articles that give additional insight into this trial that so many struggle with.

  • This is such an amazing post about depression in Utah. Which really should be address more.

    I have watch many Sisters, including my mother burn out trying hard to give service to others, selflessly. Until they themselves are not sure what the heck is going on with them. My mother is the classic example of this, and she has never lived in Utah. She gave until she could give now more, but still gave.

    My own story is much to long to share in a comment setting, I am grateful to have blog hopped on to your blog via MMB community. Glad risked much to open up a taboo subject. One that we don’t hear addressed enough. I personally don’t believe that active service is going to take away the depression completely if your depleted. This is experience talking.

%d bloggers like this: