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Jane Clayson Johnson Tackles Stigmas of Depression and Perfectionism in the Church

You begin the book with an open and frank exploration of your own harrowing journey through depression. Was that a hard story to tell?

Yes. I think we all feel a tremendous vulnerability in opening ourselves up and sharing difficult personal experiences. But depression is so prevalent today and many people struggle with it. I truly believe that once we’ve experienced the trial of depression, we’re part of a fellowship with a particular responsibility to show greater love and empathy for others who suffer. We need to reach out and help each other and share our stories, so no one is alone in this struggle. That’s what this book is about. 

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You interviewed more than 150 people for this book—men, women, teenagers. What struck me is how authentic and real these interviews are. This is not a sugar-coated portrayal of depression.

Exactly right. In every person I interviewed, I saw pain and vulnerability and loneliness, but I also saw love and hope and life. These stories are heart-breaking in their honesty, but also tremendously inspiring. People would often say, ‘I’ve never talked about this with anyone.’ Or, ‘my parents don’t even know this.’ What most surprised me was that people actually started reaching out to me, saying they’d heard about the book and wondering if they could share their experiences with me. That’s very courageous. For me, there was something very healing in truly mourning with those that mourn, and this book provided many chances to do that. 

You write eloquently about suicide, postpartum depression, kids and teenagers with depression, and missionaries who return home early with mental health issues. Is there a common thread that runs through all these experiences?  

The number one thing I heard from people over the three years I spent interviewing, researching and writing this book was how powerful the stigma of depression can be; people described feeling a sense of embarrassment, even shame, attached to a mental health diagnosis. I want this book to be a “stigma-buster”! Depression isn’t the result of personal inadequacy or poor character. Just like other physical conditions, depression requires treatment—you can’t just “snap out of it” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” One woman said to me, “If you have heart disease or a broken leg, people are so helpful. If you tell them you have depression, they look at you like you’re crazy.” She’s right. We’ve got to change the narrative about depression and end the isolating, and potentially dangerous, stigma attached to it. 

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The book makes the point that depression-sufferers face stigma not only from the disease but also from taking medication for it. It’s as though depression is the disease that isn’t supposed to be treated.

I think depression has so long been perceived as a character flaw or spiritual failing—something we could control or overcome if we would just try harder. Almost everyone has someone in their circle whom they believe would not want them to seek treatment or be public about their depression. One individual I interviewed joked that it would so much easier if we could wear a cast on our heads, then others could see that something is really broken in there. Our whole mindset has to change; depression sufferers are not going to ‘fix’ this with hard work and discipline. 

Perfectionism, the book says, can play a part in depression, and within the Church, it can be a special problem. What would you like to say about that? 

That we need to listen to what our leaders are saying. They know the principles of the gospel and they are inspired. And they remind us over and over again that we do not need to be perfect right now. We need to be moving forward on a gospel path of improvement, and we need to be helping others do the same. There are many things that consume our time that will not matter at all in the long term; we cannot let the perfect execution of these things undermine our mental health. Even the important things require a proper pace.

You also have a chapter about how depression impacts your ability to feel the Spirit.  Is that something you experienced, as well?

Yes, and in my interviews, many other people reported the same thing. For me, depression blocked all feelings, including feelings of the Spirit. For long stretches of time, I just couldn’t feel God’s love. That is perhaps the most distressing part of depression and why getting treatment is so critical. 

This book weaves stories with the latest scientific research. You write that this book is your effort to “raise the blinds on the windows of a darkened room and talk openly about what it means to be depressed.” What conversations do you hope to spark? 

I want to open a dialogue—a new level of honesty, authenticity, and hope for those who suffer from depression. I think members of the Church face unique struggles as they try to fit a disease manifest through sorrow, into a religion centered on a ‘plan of happiness.’ The worst part of depression is the profound isolation it creates, not just from the Spirit, but from family, friends, and community. Sharing our stories is the first step toward ending that isolation. I want to get the stories flowing in families, wards, neighborhoods, classrooms, and chapels, in ward and other councils, and between ministering brothers and sisters and those they minister to. That would be a good start. 

Lead image courtesy of Jane Clayson Johnson

Read more from Jane Clayson Johnson on this topic in her eye-opening new book, Silent Souls Weeping: Depression—Sharing Stories, Finding Hope, available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.

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