Peace and Depression: Lessons on Accountability

Ray Mormon 17 Comments

I am struck regularly by how many members fail to focus on Jesus’ life and realize that there are incredible lessons (particularly in the Gospels) about specific things we can do to become more like Him – things that can lessen the effects of our sins and actually help decrease the frequency of those sins – thus bringing internal peace and a measure of calmness to our lives in the here and now. I believe we sometimes buy into the apostate obsession with the afterlife – as though it’s OK to be miserable here, since we’ll be happy there. The problem is that we are told that the same spirit we develop here will rise with us there. (Alma 34:34) In other words, if we gain peace in this life, we will be at peace in the next life. That’s worth pondering.

Having said that, I need to point out that depression and issues relative to similar physiological difficulties that suppress our joy and impede our growth in this life can be an exception to that last statement. I hope NOBODY takes what I have said above as a reason to feel guilty over their struggles to conquer those types of difficulties. I realize completely that there are some things for some people for which enduring to the end is the only course. That’s why medical help should NEVER be stigmatized in any way for depression or other similar challenges. If proper medication provides a degree of peace for someone, taking that medication is an act of establishing accountability that will be rewarded, imho.

The whole doctrine of accountability is one of the most beautiful in Mormonism, imo. It is SO much more expansive than most people realize. We tend to focus on the “punitive” aspects of accountability (“You are responsible for the effects of your actions when you are accountable.”), but we also should understand more fully the “merciful” aspects of that same principle. (“You are not responsible for the effects of your actions when you are not accountable.”)

We understand the concept as it relates to the “extremes” (children and the mentally handicapped on one end; fully accountable adults on the other end), but we often overlook it when dealing with the “emotionally handicapped” and the “abused” and any others whose thoughts and actions are influenced by things they didn’t choose – things often outside their full control. We are learning more and more about how to treat these things, but I believe there are still so many manifestations of these types of issues that we haven’t even identified completely that “Judge not” (others AND often ourselves) becomes an even more vital command.

I am convinced to the core of my soul that many people who struggle mightily with feelings of guilt and despair do so largely because they are wired to do so (either at birth or through trauma) – that they simply can’t help it. I believe strongly that those people are not “accountable” for their actions during those times of guilt and despair in quite the same way as others are without those episodes. I’m not saying that they are completely free from the responsibility to understand their condition and try to “repent” (simply meaning “change”), but I am saying that “repentance” in these cases often is more about learning coping mechanisms or taking medication than it is about the classic “exercise of will” often associated with repentance.

If we understood more fully that “repentance” is a positive thing – a process of growth that includes almost anything that helps us become righteous (“right/in harmony with God”), I believe we could begin to tackle the “natural” guilt associated with depression and other issues in a much more productive and ennobling manner than we tend to do currently. If we overcame that natural guilt, we would be far less quick to stigmatize conditions like depression – and far less likely to stigmatize the use of medicine to treat it. That, alone, would go a long way toward bringing peace to those who struggle with such things.

Question: Why do we care so much about how others view us that we automatically get defensive when a report says we use PRESCRIBED anti-depressants more than others do?  Why don’t we celecrate that kind of study results?  Most pointedly, how do you think our theology addresses disabilities – and what are the implications for those of us who don’t have a “diagnosed” disability?

Comments

comments

Comments 17

  1. Being diagnosed can certainly carry a stigma, while having issues with one’s mental health and NOT being diagnosed can be a problem as well. It’s kind of sad, because imo whether or not someone meets all the criteria for a full diagnosis is pretty arbitrary, as diagnoses are imperfect categories…

    When I think about others and their “will” as you said, I always try to take into account that I don’t know what it is like to be them, and God will take EVERYTHING into account. It’s great to have a perfect Judge, but another matter entirely to really believe Him, a la Stephen Robinson.

    What concerns me is when people feel guilty for their lot in life. I have often heard people express guilt or at least concern that “if I was more faithful, then I wouldn’t have this trial.” Which in a lot of cases is the opposite of what we have been taught, which is if you are faithful, you can probably expect more trials, because you may be able to bear them more. At least, that idea was taught by Pres. Eyring and Elder Maxwell some time back.

  2. “I am convinced to the core of my soul that many people who struggle mightily with feelings of guilt and despair do so largely because they are wired to do so (either at birth or through trauma) – that they simply can’t help it. I believe strongly that those people are not “accountable” for their actions during those times of guilt and despair in quite the same way as others are without those episodes. I’m not saying that they are completely free from the responsibility to understand their condition and try to “repent” (simply meaning “change”), but I am saying that “repentance” in these cases often is more about learning coping mechanisms or taking medication than it is about the classic “exercise of will” often associated with repentance.”

    As I read this comment I can’t help but think of my own life. I grew up in an abusive home and struggled with deep depression at one particular point in my teenage years. Even though I was being taught at church the true nature of God and my own divine worth, I was incapable of believing it because I was “taught” something different at home. During that time of depression I was constantly seeking other’s attention to survive the emptiness inside of me. Having come out of that situation years later and into a loving relationship with my husband, I can see the trail of consequences that come with abuse. I have had the most difficult time trusting the Lord or anyone else. The Lord has manifested His love to me clearly in recent years and it has taken a lot for me to get to the point I am in my relationship with the Lord.

    In relation to this comment -“I am convinced to the core of my soul that many people who struggle mightily with feelings of guilt and despair do so largely because they are wired to do so (either at birth or through trauma) – that they simply can’t help it. I believe strongly that those people are not “accountable” for their actions during those times of guilt and despair in quite the same way as others are without those episodes.” Being on the trauma side of it, I agree that what you say is true. I can easily look back in my life and see that I wasn’t myself and I wasn’t in a position to be. I didn’t make a bunch of bad choices, I was just deeply suffering and it was consuming me and keeping me from progressing. I was able to progress to a certain point and then was unable to move forward without being released from my environment.

    I think with mental illness it might be much the same. I think a person who suffers with depression (or any mental illness) can take medication and that will help them to have good days and function quite normally. Hopefully, they have more good days than bad, but the bad days come. I think in some ways, they can only progress so far until they are released from their body. I agree that accountability lessens to the extent that their capacity has as well. When we are unable to respond in life as we “normally” would due to trauma or mental illness, I know the Lord takes this into account and He will make up the difference.

    Speaking of judging for just a moment, I work harder now than ever to always assume the best in others and to never assume that I know enough that I am willing to risk tarnishing another’s reputation. I am not perfect in this area, but I truly believe as we show forth mercy and give others the benefit of the doubt, the Lord will do the same for us. Since we all need His mercy, how can we go wrong by assuming only the best in others?

    I look at each person as unhealed in some way and in need of the Lord’s healing power. We can choose to be a conduit for His healing power or we can assume we know best by judging and treating others according to our “best” judgments (scary). We MUST be very careful about deciding who deserves our love and who doesn’t. Because a person doesn’t have a “diagnosed” disability doesn’t mean they aren’t mentally and emotionally suffering deeply. I for one, celebrate the God-given gift of medication to help those who cannot function otherwise and I am most grateful that I can be a source of strength to those who can’t find enough within themselves on any given day.

  3. “I am convinced to the core of my soul that many people who struggle mightily with feelings of guilt and despair do so largely because they are wired to do so (either at birth or through trauma) – that they simply can’t help it.” (my emphasis)

    Ray – not to be nitpicky, but if one can have their “wiring” changed after birth by trauma, then I think it seems completely reasonable to say that one can have their “wiring” at birth changed throughout their life. I’m not a big fan of the term “wiring”, as it seems to be used in a deterministic sense, to preclude the ability to change. Even from a strictly physiological point of view as we learn more about the brain’s role in emotion and behavior, we are also learning about the marvelous resilience and adaptability of our body’s “wiring” with regard to locality of brain function.

    I agree with you that some people get a raw deal with their bodies and their circumstances. Frankly, I got a raw deal with mine. I’ve been on both sides of the antidepressants issue (I’m currently on neither), taken them and not taken them, and I think I have a pretty good idea of the limitations of diagnosis. My concern with the antidepressant issue is the degree to which they’re used as a crutch. To what degree are people who do have the strength and ability to overcome their challenges — IMO, those who fall somewhere between the two extremes you mention — rely on medication because it’s available and it’s not as much work as coming face-to-face with the lot you were given? As you say, that’s the spirit that will rise with them. I can’t give a perfect picture of the next life, but I would guess that maybe they won’t be depressed, but they may find themselves disappointed.

    Seeking medical help is an important part of accountability if one feels the issue is serious enough. We all have baggage of some sort. If there is such possible peace and relief to be had in taking that action, imagine how much more peace and joy could be found in the Lord! Imagine what relief might come with a closer, deeper trust in God! If we can find more success at overcoming our nature, I would expect we might actually find there’s not as much occasion to stigmatize depression or medical treatments for it. They can still be used to help many people. We might find that both those who are and are not taking medication would have more strength in spirituality.

    I think the reason depression is stigmatized is because it’s misunderstood. I don’t think it has to as much with whether or not medication is involved, because people stigmatized both sides of the issue. Perhaps if we (those with and without depression) could work to become more ”right/in harmony with God” we would, as I just mentioned, find less reason to stigmatize it. Maybe then we could work to strengthen and love each other, instead of finding reasons to do otherwise (or not do anything at all).

    I’m in my 20s, with an as-yet-undefined degenerative neurological disease. I’ve experienced the different degrees of

  4. Dang, I hit the wrong button at the end there. To finish… I’ve experienced the different many degrees of mental illness. But the thing is, as discontent as I’ve felt with the fact that I’m not the degree of healthy that a 20-something expects to be, and that I have no idea what the next few years may bring, no medication of any kind has ever been able to provide the peace and the “lift” that I have found when I put my faith in the atonement and the Savior. His experience was, in part, to be able to “succor His people”, and I think we make far less use of that ability than we could.

  5. I suspect that any discussion of depression sort of goes the same way as that of gender preference. The hows and why are not fully understood. Having a significant family history filled with mental and emotional issues did not have any effect on me, but I have seen family members, including some of my children, struggling with depression and some of its after-effects..

    Having said that, depression does not have to overtake a person’s life and it cannot be used as an excuse in all cases. I firmly believe that a strong faith in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice can help in mitigating some of the effects of depression. I’ve seen it work in the lives of others including a former Stake President.

    I have also found that a lack of faith has created more problems for my children than they would otherwise have. But, unfortunately, they have decided the gospel has no applicability to them. So, in many ways they still suffer the consequences of their choices.

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    What concerns me is when people feel guilty for their lot in life. I have often heard people express guilt or at least concern that “if I was more faithful, then I wouldn’t have this trial.”

    Adam, that is my deepest concern, as well. When people who already are struggling with an emotional disability have a feeling of spiritual failure added to their bag of guilt simply because they struggle more openly than others . . .

    I look at each person as unhealed in some way and in need of the Lord’s healing power.

    Jen, thanks for sharing your personal experience. I appreciate it.

    J.Ro, I agree with you about wiring being non-fixed in many cases. I identified the extremes, but the core of what I have considered is the absolute necessity to not judge others’ ability in an absolute way – to realize that if and how much any particular individual can change will not be obvious or the equal of any other individual. The Atonement really is individual, and it has to be “worked out” individually, imo.

    Jeff, please understand that what I am about to say is based on NO in-depth knowledge of your children’s situations. It probably is something you already know and consider. I only share it for the flow of the conversation and how it might help others.

    With that caveat, there are teachers who teach the same way they learn – who lecture because they are auditory learners – who use hands-on projects because they are tactile learners – who use pictures and videos because they are visual learners. Perhaps your children’s choices weren’t as “free” and “informed” as that same choice is for others. Perhaps they are suffering the natural consequences of their condition, and perhaps they are suffering the natural consequences of their choices, but perhaps those “natural” consequences are all they will suffer. Since we simply don’t know fully, I believe it’s worth holding onto that hope.

  7. “Perhaps your children’s choices weren’t as “free” and “informed” as that same choice is for others. Perhaps they are suffering the natural consequences of their condition, and perhaps they are suffering the natural consequences of their choices, but perhaps those “natural” consequences are all they will suffer. Since we simply don’t know fully, I believe it’s worth holding onto that hope.”

    Thanks for that comment. We’ve considered every possibility from “what did we as parents do wrong” all the way to ‘what kind of spirit were they in the preexistence.” No right answer has emerged, as you can imagine. Plus there is not a distinct pattern that is the same across the board. In one case, it is prolonged drug use that has taken its toll. In the other case, it is simply a path chosen. hard to say.

  8. Oh, I forgot one thing. We just think that they would be better off in the Gospel construct rather than the aimless floating that is going on, the lack of appropriate behavior and the blaming God business. The one thing we’ve learned about depression is that it is no respecter of persons.

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  10. You are misusing Alma 34:34.

    In context it is clearly stating that you can not put off repentance until the next life because you are the same person then as you are now, and if you would choose God’s way then you would also choose it now.

    It has nothing to do with peace of mind- other than that a sinner can never have the peace of mind that he will simply repent later.

    Perhaps you should be more clear on why you say “I believe we sometimes buy into the apostate obsession with the afterlife – as though it’s OK to be miserable here, since we’ll be happy there.” I don’t see many espousing such an idea. At least I never hear it phrased such. Instead I hear a lot of talk about how our suffering in this life is acceptable because we have the promise of an afterlife reward.

    Taken literally it as you phrase it, it is a false understanding of the teachings of Christ, as the gospel can bring us peace in this life too. (Not sure I would use such a judgmental word as apostate though). However, it should be clear that suffering is real. And that one of the reasons it is acceptable for God to allow us to suffer in this life is because we have the promise that our suffering will be temporary and that in the next life we shall have relief.

    This promise can then be a comfort to us in this life, allowing us to endure our suffering without being miserable, because we know His promise is sure. This is clearly the message of John Ch. 14, particularly verse 27.

    I’m still not entirely sure how that led into your long digression on mental health, which in fact makes up the bulk of your post. You then attempt to come back to the theme in your final paragraph, but I don’t really see the connection, as you seem to assume that depression and guilt are the same thing. Or at least you assume a connection that I don’t think obvious. While clearly unresolved guilt can lead to depression (the sorrow of the damned is the scriptural phrase I believe), depression does not always mean guilt. Furthermore guilt is an important part of repentance- the difference being that healthy guilt brings us to our senses and leads to change and repentance, while unhealthy guilty leads to hopelessness.

    Perhaps you are referring to the occurrence of misplaced guilt. Feeling guilty when you haven’t really do anything wrong, or guilty that is out of proportion. Obviously this can lead to unhealthy behavior- and it is something that unbelievers often accuse believers of, but I have to say I don’t find it that common an occurrence. I know a few people like this, mostly it seems to be mothers feeling guilty over their children, but they are not the majority.

    Just saying I don’t really understand where you wanted to go with this post. (Also the bit about being “hard wired” makes me leery, I don’t like the implication of lessening the importance of free will. Not saying you intended that, but I can still see that as the logical extreme.)

    I think this could have been a great little thought provoker on how to maintain peace of mind though faith in God, despite the many difficulties that are increasing in the world. Instead I’m left going: “…huh?”

  11. Ah… just read through all the comments.

    I guess you are referring to guilt that people who are depressed feel for being depressed? I guess there is some of that. The feeling is that if you were just stronger, just able to overcome this depression, that this would make you of greater value. Perhaps some take that as far as to assume they are guilty and that their depression is punishment?

    That actually seems to me to be countered by the focus on the afterlife- as it emphasizes that our suffering is temporary and of a testing nature, rather then a permanent punishment.

    Although it seems to me the more common form is for prosperous people to assume they are being blessed for being righteous, and not to assume they are guilty when they suffer.

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    Cicero, I was going to ask a bunch of questions from your first comment, since you obviously misunderstood just about everything I was trying to say 🙂 – but your second comment cleared up most of the questions I would have asked.

    I specifically was talking about those who feel guilty for being mortal – or, more accurately, for having mortal “disabilities”. What I’m saying is that it’s not up to us to judge others for what we might see as their unwillingness to be happy and do everything others can do. Perhaps it’s laziness; perhaps it’s a hidden physical infirmity; perhaps it a lack of understanding – a form of mental or intellectual disability, if you will; perhaps it’s an emotional disability; perhaps they simply don’t get answers to their prayers in ways that are discernible to them (a spiritual disability, if you will). I’m saying that it’s not as easy as, “If only you were more righteous, you would have (fill in the blank) blessing – or understand this concept – or not get laid off and need financial assistance” – or whatever else we might imagine.

    I’m saying that finding peace in this life sometimes includes taking advantage of the scientific advances with which we have been blessed in this day and age – that sometimes the issue really is a chemical imbalance rather than a spiritual shortcoming – that righteousness is not directly proportionate to lack of suffering and internal pain.

    I’m saying I believe in agency and accountability, but I also believe that God’s grace makes accountability an individual standard – not something like classic justice that applies uniformly to all – that accountability for you and I and Jeff and J.Ro and Jen and Adam and everyone else will look slightly different from a practical perspective, even though the absolute standard is the same. I’m saying “after all we can do” allows each of us to “do” differently in detail but unitedly in overall form – being all we personally can do.

    Finally, I’m saying that clinical depression robs the depressed of real power in real ways, and that God will account for that (the gracious side of accountability) in the end – even in cases where He doesn’t change it in the here and now.

    I hope that clarifies the post for you.

  13. From the original post: “Why do … we automatically get defensive when a report says we use PRESCRIBED anti-depressants more than others do? Why don’t we celecrate that kind of study results?”

    I agree that taking medications for depression should be celebrated.

    However I suspect that Utah has a disproportionate number of people who abuse prescription medications. My conversations with nurses who work in Utah hospitals for example revealed health care providers who had grown disilusioned by the huge percentage of old ladies that come in (for various reasons) who are taking all sorts of combinations of narcotics for seemingly no medical reason at all, even professing not to have depression or other mental illness. While I would like to think that getting a prescription is an effective barrier to abuse, the sad truth is that most middle/upper class people can find a doctor without too much effort whose personal philosophy about medications allows them to hand them out like candy.

    Further, conversations with high school kids have also revealed unbelievably rampant abuse (>90% in some schools, according to student estimates) of over-the-counter and (to a lesser extent) prescription medications at school, which is NOT the case in schools I know of outside Utah. (Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Phoenix)

    I think this may be where much of the defensiveness you mentioned stems from.

    Outside of Mormondom, when people want a chemical/biological crutch, they drink coffee to wake themselves up, or they have a drink to calm themselves down. Mormons tend to jump straight to pharmaceutical options, which can be much more easily justified to their religious minds, but which are MUCH more serious and quite often harmful, sometimes even fatal.

  14. [Ray speaking of the “abused” among others] I’m not saying that they are completely free from the responsibility to understand their condition and try to “repent” (simply meaning “change”), but I am saying that “repentance” in these cases often is more about learning coping mechanisms or taking medication than it is about the classic “exercise of will” often associated with repentance.

    If we understood more fully that “repentance” is a positive thing – a process of growth that includes almost anything that helps us become righteous (”right/in harmony with God”), I believe we could begin to tackle the “natural” guilt associated with depression and other issues in a much more productive and ennobling manner than we tend to do currently. If we overcame that natural guilt, we would be far less quick to stigmatize conditions like depression – and far less likely to stigmatize the use of medicine to treat it. That, alone, would go a long way toward bringing peace to those who struggle with such things. [emphasis mine]

    With as much emphasis as I can, Ray, I would say that the term “repentance” should NEVER be applied to someone’s recovery from abuse. I appreciate your efforts to differentiate the literal definition of “change” from the common “turning from sin”, but the connotations are too strong, too entrenched to be associate with victims of abuse. If you truly seek to minimize guilt and maximize peace for these persons, please reconsider anything with implications that they are accountable for their abuse.

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    Tea, I agree that “repentance” should never be applied to someone who has been abused – IF it is used without clarifying that it means nothing more than changing and growing. I do think, however, that we need to change the fundamental way we talk about repentance – and I really do want to stress to those whose pain comes from situations where they have not sinned that they still can learn to appreciate “repentance” as something they can do. That only works if that word is narrowed strictly to its core meaning and applied to the growth and change that they must pursue to heal.

    I understand completely your concern, and perhaps you are right that the negative meaning is so ingrained into our collective psyche that I simply should avoid teaching what I consider to be the “higher meaning” of repentance, but I just don’t like to narrow something in a way that, imo, obliterates its usefulness and robs it of its power. At the very least, I think we should understand that more fundamental meaning and how we can “repent” even in the absence of “serious” sin – how we can use that concept as a means of proactive progress rather than just reactive remorse. I think it carries both meanings, and I hate to see the positive one eradicated just because the negative one has dominated for so long.

    In the end, you probably are right. I just hope not.

  16. #15 Ray-

    As I read what you wrote about repentance, I thought back to our discussion about using the terms “serving” rather than “fighting against.” You mentioned that you didn’t like the negative implications the words “fighting against” brought. I think for members of the church, repentance is so connected to a person doing something wrong that it is almost impossible for a person to not feel like they are at fault in some way if the word repentance is used rather than another word.

    Having said that, I have experienced a time when I felt like I was allowed to feel feelings that made me feel like I was in the repentance process but I didn’t feel the associated guilt and I recognized it as a process of learning and growth. That happened when I was in my more “mature” years so I am able to understand what you mean by the “higher meaning” of repentance, but someone who is coming out of abuse or in the middle of it may just associate more guilt and shame to themselves, making it harder for them to recover.

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