Depression and mental illness are topics that are rarely talked about openly in our church. Aside from Elder Holland’s path breaking talk in 2013, we rarely hear sermons devoted to the topic. And when the Church does address the topic, it often focuses on its more extreme manifestations such as suicide attempts, rather than the day-to-day or hour-by-hour struggle that so many endure. The unfortunate side effect has been that shame and stigma has clouded this disease and made it harder for those who suffer to get the care they need.
Enter Jane Clayson Johnson’s revolutionary new book: “Silent Souls Weeping: Depression – Sharing Stories, Finding Hope” that was recently published by Deseret Book. Clayson Johnson is a celebrated journalist who has interviewed presidents and prime ministers. She is also the mother of two children. Yet, while everything outwardly appeared to be going well in her life, she suffered a serious depressive episode. Her recovery led her to want to shed light on the topic of depression which is such a taboo in our Church. She therefore set out to interview over 150 people who have either suffered from depression or helped those suffering from the throes of the disease.
This is a very important endeavor. As one of the people she interviewed told her, ”
“Depression thrives in secrecy, but shrinks in empathy.”
There are so many stigmas that unfortunate still surround mental illness and sunlight is needed to help to banish these myths and falsehoods. These myths are unfortunately still present among us. Just a few months ago, for instance, I heard someone in my ward suggest that anyone who is struggling from depression should be able to just get out of it if they buckle down and study the scriptures more. Such advice is not only false, but deeply counterproductive.
Other myths dismantled in this book include: The idea that those who suffer from mental illness are weak, the notion that talking about depression or mental illness will create more of it, the idea that those who are depressed must be sinful, and the idea that depression cannot strike those who are talented and successful.
Clayson Johnson’s book begins with her own story. She then focuses her sights first on two overarching themes which recur again and again throughout the remainder of the book.
First, feelings of shame, guilt, and toxic perfectionism are a “corrosive cocktail” that breed depression. This is the first reason that the advice that was offered in my ward is unlikely to produce the desired results. Those who suffer from depression are likely to feel great guilt,anxiety, and shame at their inability to fix their own mistakes. Relying on such advice, they may even think that if they cannot handle their illness themselves that they are failures in the eyes of God. We would never tell someone with another health condition like heart problems or diabetes that they merely need to take better care of themselves and that if they cannot get better it is their fault. And yet, we are sending that message to those who suffer from mental illness. That is deeply tragic
Second, those who are in the midst of depression often struggle to feel the Holy Ghost. This is not because of sin or transgression, but because depression makes it difficult to feel that still small voice. The inability to feel the spirit exacerbates depression by making those who suffer feel forsaken or unworthy. Well meaning individuals who urge depressed people to just read and pray more, are inadvertently making the situation worse.
Clayson Johnson then focuses on the manifestations of mental illness in specific contexts. She devotes a chapter to depression among the youth of the Church (including LGBT youth), depression among missionaries, postpartum depression, and suicidal depression. The chapter on missionaries in particular was revelatory and hit close to home. When I served as a missionary, I was assigned to train a missionary who suffered from depression. I wish I would have had access to this book before I served. I know that I could have done a much better job showing love, empathy and compassion had I been more familiar with the signs of depression.
The good news, according to Clayson Johnson, is that there is hope amidst mental illness. Psychiatric drugs in conjunction with counseling and other life style changes can dissipate the darkness. While those who have mental illness may have their illness chronically recur, they can nevertheless be healed and strengthened.
Throughout, Clayson Johnson provides examples of members of the Church who led with empathy and compassion, from loving bishops and mission presidents to spouses and friends. She further devotes one of the last chapters to the theme of what friends and loved ones can do to support those who struggle. Clayson Johnson’s message is a clarion call to all of us to rise up and better help those who struggle with depression.
I truly cannot recommend this book more highly. Perhaps my only critique is that there are a few areas where I would have liked to see more. I would have liked to have even more discussion about how we as member of the Church can make a difference in the lives of those who suffer. I also thought that Clayson Jonhson could have perhaps spent a bit more time talking about the process of recovery from mental illness and what recovery actually looked like in the lives of those she interviewed. I also would have liked to see a chapter on those who have left the Church as a result of mental illness, because I think that perspective would have been very valuable. But don’t let any of those nitpicks detract from this wonderful work.
This book had an enormous impact on me. I am so grateful for all of the work that Clayson Johnson put into her many interviews. I am grateful for those who opened deeply personal stories up to the public. This book has truly inspired me to try to be more compassionate, empathetic, and loving to those around me who may be struggling.
I think this book should be required reading for newly called bishops, and for anyone else who helps to minister or care for those who struggle with mental illness. If members of the Church throughout the world took this book to heart, then we would be so much better equipped to combat mental health issues that arise.