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)