This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of LDS Living magazine.
Abraham Lincoln, arguably one of the most influential men of the 19th century, experienced several documented periods of deep depression. At one point, he wrote to a friend: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe how I felt during the worst of my own depression. Thankfully, I no longer feel this way. But I understand—the experience of depression is excruciating.
“Where Can I Turn for Peace”
A wise therapist once told me that life isn’t really about being happy. It’s about finding peace. This lesson struck me with renewed force when I learned the story behind our beloved Latter-day Saint hymn “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” (Hymns, no. 129).
The lyricist of this hymn, the late Emma Lou Warner Thayne, was brilliant. A devoted wife, a mother of five daughters, a champion tennis player, and a professor at the University of Utah for more than 30 years, she inspired men and women the world over with her writings. She wrote honestly and served admirably in many callings in the Church. And she struggled mightily to find peace amid severe trials that threatened her family, including her oldest daughter’s battle with mental illness. For three years, Thayne did everything she could to solve the mystery of her daughter’s suffering and to find peace and help for a diagnosis she knew little about. She called it “the bleakest time I had ever known.”
In the midst of this adversity, she was asked by Church leaders to compose a song for the finale of an annual conference of the Mutual Improvement Association, the organization for young men and women at the time. Initially, Thayne doubted she could find the words for a song that would unite and inspire the youth. Nevertheless, she resorted to a quiet room in her basement and began the process. She later wrote about it for the Church News:
Sitting at my makeshift desk I asked on paper what I had implored—so many times. “Where can I turn for peace? Where is my solace? When with a wounded heart, anger, or malice, I draw myself apart, searching my soul?” Three verses of a poem found their way to the page, voicing my anguish and providing the answer I carried in my heart. “He answers privately, reaches my reaching in my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend.” I called Joleen [who composed the music for the hymn]. She had a history of genetic depression in her family, so she understood every word I’d written. She sat at her piano, and as I read a line, she composed a line. By noon we had our hymn.
I was so inspired by Thayne’s story I knew I wanted to speak with Joleen Meredith myself. Meredith told me that she and Thayne had called their song the “Mental Health Hymn” and that the Gethsemane they were both thinking of as they wrote it included the mental suffering and anguish that the Savior took upon Himself for each individual who has or will suffer from depression and other mental illnesses.
She then told me about a “mental health episode” of her own. It was so severe, she recalled, that she was unable to get out of bed for months. She joked that when she was finally able to leave her room and go downstairs, she and her family “celebrated by getting in the car and driving around the block.” After the episode eased and Meredith found help, she became a lobbyist for mental health issues and served on the Utah Governor’s Board of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. Her goal, she said, was to erase the stigma attached to mental illness and encourage people to look for help.
I loved visiting with Meredith because she made it easy to talk about mental illness. She spoke with candor and even a little bit of humor. She said she wishes that mental health issues were as easy to spot as physical issues. “Too bad you can’t wear a cast on your head,” she laughed, “because something is broken in here, and that’s really hard for people to understand.”
Overturning the Harmful Myths of Mental Illness
Elder Alexander B. Morrison, an emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, has written and spoken frequently about mental illness. As an internationally respected scientist, he taught with both authority and knowledge. As a parent of a mentally ill child, he spoke with empathy and experience. “Among the most painful trials an individual or family can face is that of mental illness,” he wrote in an Ensign article he penned on the topic.
By mental illness I do not mean the temporary social and emotional concerns experienced as part of the normal wear and tear of living. Rather, I mean a disorder that causes mild to severe disturbances in thinking and behavior. If such disturbances are sufficiently severe and of sufficient duration, they may significantly impair a person’s ability to cope with life’s ordinary demands. These illnesses may even threaten life itself, as in severe depression, or be so debilitating that the sufferer is unable to function effectively.
In the article, Elder Morrison outlined several myths about mental illness, including the misconceptions that “all mental illness is caused by sin,” “mentally ill persons just lack willpower,” and “all that people with mental illness need is a priesthood blessing.” His insightful article is a must-read for those dealing with the challenges of mental illness.
Ryan Thompson is both a medical doctor and a former bishop with experience counseling people who are depressed. He says, “I think it can be damaging or risky to somebody if they approach mental illness in a way that does not pull together the best of religion and the best of science. . . . If somebody solely relies on a spiritual approach to treating depression, I think they’re less likely to be successful. . . . I also think that if somebody solely relies on the physical component of treating depression, they might be missing out on some potential spiritual parts of it that they need to be addressing in their lives.”
“Changing the course of a mental illness, like changing the temperature of a large pool of water, takes time,” Thompson says. “You can’t just take a medicine. [Medications] work and they do help, like heaters do warm the water; but you may not reach your potential if you don’t also learn how to redirect your thoughts and form better ways of going about life by drawing upon the power of the Son.”
Meeting the Need by Recognizing the Needy
Knowing that each of our Latter-day Saint wards is likely home to dozens of Saints with depression, anxiety, and other illnesses is one thing; knowing who those members are is something else entirely. Once you know the myths surrounding depression, the next steps are to become well versed in the signs and symptoms of mental illness, acknowledge the reality of their biological component, and share awareness of professional counseling and medical therapy. This is something every member of a ward can do, from the bishop to Primary teachers to quorum and class members.
Warning signs of depression and other mental illnesses include prolonged sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of worthlessness, disturbed sleep patterns, change in weight or appetite, loss of will to live, excessive worrying or fear, and loss of concentration.
While a bishop, Frank Gentile found that watching for symptoms of mental illness in his members was a no-brainer. “Sometimes it was obvious—there’d be a big change in their weight or their hygiene,” he says. “Or somebody who was never, ever missing in action in a calling somehow started becoming a no-show.”
We can all watch for changes in church attendance. We can proactively identify an isolated teen. We can notice the new mother struggling to cope with her responsibilities. If something seems like it’s not quite right, there’s probably a reason.
We must learn to recognize the symptoms before we can gain insight into the struggles of those who are depressed. Dan Ellertson, a former bishop of a Salt Lake City singles ward, says he didn’t have a clue what to look for until his own son returned early from his mission due to depression.
“Without my experience with my son, I would have been like any other bishop,” Bishop Ellertson says. “The best training we’re given is, ‘Okay, call LDS Family Services.’ But the more bishops understand, the more bishops are in a position to not react negatively or ignorantly to any situation a ward member brings to them, and the better off we’ll all be.”
Bishop Gentile found it helpful to use his personal experience and familiarity with mental illness as a way to speak frankly about it.
“If I had somebody come into my office to talk to me, and it was clear to me that they were having some sort of mental health issue, I would bluntly talk to them about it—I would just say, ‘Have you ever been treated for depression? Do you have depression in your family?’” Bishop Gentile says. “Sometimes I’d ask open-ended questions: ‘How’s your sleep? Do you feel anxious a lot? Are you worried about a lot of things?’”
Usually, he says, that was enough to get people to realize that there was a real problem. From there, he could refer them to a doctor or therapist or both.
Bishop Ellertson advises bishops and other leaders to—above all else—make it clear that when members of the Church speak with a spiritual leader, they’ll be listened to.
“The best that bishops can do is be open and approachable and understanding and soft and sympathetic and encouraging and patient, because that’s the bishop’s role,” he says. “This can show in your body language, your sympathy, your understanding, your follow-up questions of wanting to understand more, and not judging the situation. When a person goes in to talk to the bishop, they need to know they’re going to be listened to; they need to know they’re going to be understood. You always leave the door open and leave the channels of communication open, and let them know they have an advocate. Bishops are advocates just like the Savior is our advocate.”
And the attitude that Bishop Ellertson describes—one of openness, approachability, understanding, and sympathy—can extend to all members of the Church community.
The Lord’s Torchbearers
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s 2013 general conference talk on mental health was a watershed moment for both Latter-day Saints who battle depression and those who love them. To hear an apostle of the Lord speak to this long-taboo issue—and admit his own struggle with it—kindled hope in many sinking hearts. I have quoted him repeatedly for this reason; after all, none of us can feel too much encouragement and understanding. Elder Morrison, President Ballard, and other general authorities have offered comfort and wisdom on this and related subjects. They understand the widespread and complex nature of this adversity—and they speak on behalf of a loving Lord who has descended below all things, including the depths of depressive illness.
Indeed, the Savior knows the trials and travails of this hard passage. He desires to succor those weary souls who travel it, encompassing them in His love and light. And we are His torchbearers! As leaders of Church units, as priesthood quorum or auxiliary members, and as neighbors and friends, each of us plays a part in carrying the Lord’s light to those who find themselves in life’s dark places.
Lead image from Shutterstock
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.