Jane Clayson Johnson: Responding to the mental health repercussions of a pandemic


Earlier this month, a nationwide study confirmed what many have suspected for some time: the prevalence of depression has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to researchers, symptoms of depression have increased more than three-fold since March. The CDC reported that 40 percent of U.S. adults described experiencing symptoms of depression in June. In a recent segment on mental health produced by WBUR in my hometown, Boston, a researcher suggested that depression spurred by the pandemic could itself become a second pandemic.

The stress of social isolation, job loss, political divisiveness, uncertainty about the future, the disease itself, and a dearth of normalcy have likely caused all of us some anxiety. For those who are prone to depression or who have suffered with it in the past, the pandemic has created a widening chasm of darkness. Many who felt hints of hopelessness before. . . are now struggling to find any light at all.

► You may also like: Jane Clayson Johnson Tackles Stigmas of Depression and Perfectionism in the Church

Depression is a disease that attacks the mind with such viciousness that those who experience it often find themselves unable to function, trapped in a place from which return feels impossible. For believers, it often seems like the Spirit has fled. Acts of faith—prayer, scripture study, Sunday worship—that once brought solace and comfort no longer seem to work. Instead, it feels like a solid brick wall has blocked the Spirit, completely. 

Before writing Silent Souls WeepingI spent three years interviewing more than 150 fellow Latter-day Saints about their experiences with depression. These interviews revealed a number of overriding themes, among them was this: Isolation and toxic perfectionism are depression’s most common companions; both can potentially lead to deepening depression and even suicidal ideation.

In today’s chaotic and frightening environment, isolation and toxic perfectionism are particularly dangerous. Fighting COVID-19 has put many of us in a position where we no longer interact with others on a daily basis. Employees are working from home, social gatherings are discouraged, many schools have converted to virtual learning, even weekly church attendance is not possible in some places. The chance to talk with others about how we’re feeling has been drastically cut.

Those who suffer from depression already tend to isolate themselves from others. The pandemic has deepened that isolation and cut off many from previous sources of help. Now, more than ever, we need to keep talking about depression and doing things to help those who feel desperately alone. 

If you know someone who experiences depression, call them. Arrange regular times to talk, send frequent texts or little notes to let them know you’re thinking of them even when you can’t be physically near them. Use social media to share experiences with depression and start conversations that open doors to learning and healing. 

One of the first things I noticed on social media and in the news when quarantine orders were issued nearly six months ago was a rush of people attempting to suddenly “become” something they weren’t before. With all this time on our hands, it seemed we could finally perfect all the things we’d been unable to in the past. Moms set out to create an ideal schedule for at-home learning with their children. Aspiring bakers became determined to master the art of the sourdough starter. We made lists of all the projects we’d complete and clutter we’d throw out during this unexpected free time.  All of these are good things, of course. But anxiety and discouragement—which the pandemic, civil unrest, and political uncertainty are now handing us in spades—never pair well with a desire to be perfect. 

Right now—especially right now—it’s time to let the perfectionism go. Be kind with yourself. Be kind to others. Remind yourself frequently that your self-worth is not based on how much you do or achieve. This is a year unlike any we’ve experienced before, and if grappling with that takes all of your energy and leaves little time for perfecting this or that, it’s okay. 

Finally, if you are suffering from depression right now, I want you to know that you are not alone. There is hope and help down the road—even if that road seems impossible to traverse today.  We’re living in stressful and unprecedented times. Let’s think more deeply about how we take care of one another. . . and ourselves.

For many who battle depression, the first step on the road to help has come from sharing their stories with others. You can read Jane’s own story, as well as dozens of others, in Silent Souls Weeping: Depression—Sharing Stories, Finding Hope.

Jane Clayson Johnson is an award-winning journalist widely known for her work at CBS News, ABC News, and the nationally syndicated NPR program On Point. Over more than two decades, she traveled the world covering stories from international news to presidential campaigns and interviewing the biggest newsmakers of the day. Jane is the best-selling author of I am a Mother. She has served in regional, stake, and ward public affairs, as a Gospel Doctrine teacher, and in many Relief Society and Primary callings. Jane and her husband, Mark, live in Boston. They are the parents of five children and grandparents of three.

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