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Latter-day Saint psychologist: Anxiety and depression are not sins (but the Savior's Atonement still helps)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided wonderful mental health resources in recent years. There is even an entire “mental health” section in the Gospel Library on the Church’s website. The content is excellent, and I encourage you to explore it.

Mental health challenges vary widely in terms of type, but among the most common are anxiety and depression. I imagine anyone reading this article probably personally experiences or knows someone who suffers from anxiety or depression. Professionals estimate that almost one in five individuals suffer from anxiety, with depression affecting almost 7 percent of the adult population. This prevalence has been consistent with my experience as a psychologist. I've interviewed thousands of people throughout my career, and anxiety and depression are routinely among the most often cited mental health struggles.

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One of the statements from the Church’s valuable mental health material that I want to explore a little more reads as follows: “We should not automatically conclude that a mental health challenge is directly caused by sin or that it is a character weakness.” This is a true concept. This statement indicates we should not assume that mental health issues are directly caused by sin. “Directly” is an important word in this sentence. If someone is purposely engaging in an illegal activity and is experiencing anxiety over potentially being caught, sinful behavior directly contributes to a mental health condition. But in the vast majority of mental health struggles, willful disobedience to commandments is not the culprit. So, what causes feelings such as anxiety and depression? In most cases, these emotions are the product of our thinking.

A Scriptural Example

In the Book of Mormon war chapters, there is a tense interaction via letter between Moroni, captain of the Nephite armies, and Pahoran, the Nephite chief judge. Captain Moroni has become disheartened as the Nephite leaders have not sent additional troops to reinforce their dwindling military force. In what appears to be a burst of anger, Moroni writes a blistering epistle to Pahoran, where he accuses him of sedition and thoughtlessness. As the letter states, Moroni assumes the leaders must be either complicit with the Lamanites or clueless in how to fight a war. This line of thinking makes him very angry, resulting in the scathing letter to Pahoran found in Alma chapter 60. Moroni threatens Pahoran's very life and promised to “smite him with the sword” if he does not respond by sending assistance. That’s a serious threat.

What Moroni did not know was that there had been an insurrection in Zarahemla, during which Pahoran was removed from power. Pahoran responded to Moroni's letter, informing him of his plight and pleading for help. Once Moroni received Pahoran's message, his feelings immediately changed. Whereas he was once enraged and ready to take Pahoran's life in defense of liberty, now he was a fierce supporter of Pahoran and rushed to his aid. What was it that changed Moroni's emotions? It was a change in his thinking and perceptions. His initial, inaccurate thoughts cast Pahoran as a villain and worthy of confrontation, while his corrected thoughts showed Pahoran as a faithful cohort and in desperate need of assistance.

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Like Moroni's thoughts changed as he aligned his beliefs and understanding with truth, as we change the way we think about things, we can change the way we feel about things, including mental health issues. With that understanding, the thoughts that contribute to anxiety and depression are not typically sinful. It is not sinful to think that you are worthless even though the thoughts are leading to feelings of depression. It's not sinful to believe a crowded store is dangerous even though it is contributing to feelings of anxiety and panic. But even if these thoughts are not sins, they are also not accurate. You are not worthless. You are a child of God with infinite and unassailable value. And generally speaking, crowded stores are not natively dangerous—most everyone there will be able to complete their shopping trip without incident. As we adjust our thinking to be more consistent with reality and restored gospel truths, we will experience less emotional distress.

The Role of Repentance

If anxiety and depression are not sins in and of themselves, does repentance play a part in coping with certain mental health issues? Well, if mental health issues are the product of sinful behavior, then that answer is clear. If you are a Latter-day Saint and have anxiety because you are engaged in an extramarital affair and are afraid of getting caught, then stop what you are doing. Repent of those sinful ways and see what feelings result after you are back in compliance with your covenants.

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However, what about situations where sinful behavior is not involved? How can repentance help? The key is in expanding our understanding of what it truly means to repent. President Russell M. Nelson stated, “The word for repentance in the Greek New Testament is metanoeo. The prefix meta- means ‘change.’ The suffix -noeo is related to Greek words that mean ‘mind,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘breath.’ Thus, when Jesus asks you and me to ‘repent,’ He is inviting us to change our mind, our knowledge, our spirit—even the way we breathe. He is asking us to change the way we love, think, serve, spend our time, treat our wives, teach our children, and even care for our bodies.”

President Nelson indicates that repentance is far more than just asking for forgiveness after committing sin. Repentance is simply the process of changing from the natural man or woman to the man or woman of Christ. The Gospel Topics section on the Church’s website states as follows: “[Repentance] is much more than just acknowledging wrongdoings. It is a change of mind and heart that gives us a fresh view about God, about ourselves, and about the world.” While this can involve seeking absolution from sin, it also includes changing our thinking, perceptions, behaviors, habits, and anything else that makes us different from God. Repentance shouldn’t be something that we do on the rare occasion; repentance is the moment-to-moment event that facilitates all change for the better. Given that consideration, can you see how repentance helps with mental health issues? Repentance helps us become less anxious, less depressed, better students, better parents, better spouses, better friends, and any other metric you can imagine that measures personal improvement. This second principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not meant to be used sparingly but rather with great frequency. So, what can we do to repent and help manage mental health issues? Here are a couple of suggestions:

1. Align Beliefs with the Truth

Very often, the thoughts that contribute to depression and anxiety (and other mental health issues) are inaccurate or incorrect thoughts. For example, if you believe nobody loves you, that can lead to feelings of despair. If it were true that nobody actually did love you, then the feeling of despair would be unfortunate yet accurate. But that thought is not true. It is a gospel truth that our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son love us, no matter our circumstance, so at the very least, our Father in Heaven loves you deeply. Your Savior Jesus Christ loves you always. I imagine if you were to meet President Nelson or any of his cohorts, you would feel their love for you as well. And on top of that, for most people, there are likely many in your life that love you, even if they don't know how to show it very well.

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As you correct your own distorted thinking, realizing you are lovable and loved, you “change your mind” like President Nelson said. Your feelings of depression and despair give way to feelings of happiness and acceptance. This process of change is actually repentance; it is the process of aligning our thoughts and beliefs with those taught by the restored gospel. As we close the gap between our beliefs and the truth, we experience happier and more positive feelings.

2. Be Actively Engaged

Change requires intentional action. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of action. Doctrine and Covenants 58:27–28 reads, “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.”

President Nelson stated that repentance is an invitation to change the way we do things. Doing something different than usual is critical in managing mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression. People who experience chronic emotional challenges often feel locked into negative patterns of behavior and thought. Because of the way our brains work, these patterns can be highly resistant to change. However, they can be changed. Doing something consistently, even if it is small, can make a big difference over time. For example, if you have anxiety, you are probably plagued with self-doubts about certain issues. You might say, “I could never give a prayer in a public meeting. I would freak out.” If you tell that to yourself on a daily basis, you will certainly reinforce that thought and the anxiety that results from it. But what if every day you told yourself, “I’m stronger than I think, and I will eventually become less anxious.” You might not be ready for a public speaking gig in front of a thousand people the next day, but in time, you will start to feel more confident. Or what if every day, you did something outside of your comfort zone? It could be a very small thing to begin with. If you did this every day, in time you will find your comfort zone expanding and you’ll have greater courage. Positively changing how we do things is part of repentance, and little steps will result in large gains over time.

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Anxiety and depression are not sins. In many cases, reaching out for competent help is critical for positive outcomes. But in every case, the overarching and comprehensive process of repentance can help us become more like our Father in Heaven and our Savior. It can help us replace feelings of doubt and fear with confidence and peace. Great change is not needed all at once, but small, forward movement every day will bring about amazing results. As Alma counseled his son Helaman, “Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6).

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David morgan

Dr. David T. Morgan, Contributor

Dr. Morgan is the author of My God Hath Been My Support: Seven Keys to Understanding and Enduring Personal Trials and several other books that can be viewed here. His writings contain insights and solutions to apply gospel principles to emotional challenges. You can see more content, connect with him on social media, or ask questions on his website, www.ldspsychologist.com.

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