LDS women deal with depression

A mother locks herself in her closet, where the kids cannot hear, although she doubts her own strength to form the words:

“Please God, let someone get into this subject and see that it’s real, it isn’t fake. That it isn’t just women who are selfish or women who are on the fringe of the Church or don’t have a testimony or aren’t serving. Let that pain we feel, that emptiness, let someone speak for us, finally.”

Kristine Doty discusses depression and helps those battling with this issue. (Photo by Tim Shaw)

Amy (name changed) prayed for years to witness this kind of study.

Amy, age 41, is one of 20 Utah Valley residents diagnosed with depression who shared their experiences with Dr. Kristine Doty, assistant professor of behavioral science at Utah Valley University. Doty’s keynote address kicked off UVU’s Mental Health Symposium, held Thursday, Jan. 31.  

Bethany Gull, professional development director for the Utah chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said, “This conference is particularly relevant … because it will include a discussion of the environmental and cultural forces that can both contribute to and develop effective responses for mental health issues, especially depression, in Utah.”

A 2007 report by Mental Health America placed Utah at the bottom of the “depression status” rankings. According to the report, Utah had the seventh-highest suicide rate of any state, and more than 10 percent of respondents had experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year.

“It’s so unique in our culture,” Doty said of these forces that feed depression and hinder its treatment. “You won’t find this is an issue in Ohio or in Florida or in New York. It’s just not as big of a deal, but here it’s huge.”

Doty became concerned about depression among LDS women while she worked as a crisis counselor in the emergency room at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. During that time, she saw a pattern of increased visits on Sunday afternoons by women who came from their church meetings feeling anxious, guilty or inadequate.

From this experience, and with the 2010 study by her colleagues Jack Jensen and Cameron John linking religiosity, perfectionism and depression among LDS college students, Doty conducted her study to gain deeper understanding in what makes perfectionism such a recurring theme in cases of depression.

“In the LDS Church it’s like, ‘I feel depressed,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh you must not be righteous, maybe you should go serve somebody and then you would be,'” Lindsay (name changed) said. She told Doty how feeling judged by others contributed to her depression. Lindsay, age 32, also said, “It’s just something we do to ourselves, that’s not coming down from the prophet, it’s not coming down from God. That’s just us comparing ourselves to each other and having that perfect standard.”

Doty found that Lindsay’s struggles were common among 75 percent of volunteers in the study. All 20 women are residents of Utah County, all 20 are self-described as active Latter-day Saints, and all 20 have been diagnosed with depression by a medical doctor or mental health professional.

“Fifteen of the 20 women felt like they were under a microscope in this community,” Doty said. Another 15 also “struggled with toxic perfectionism.”

Nineteen of the 20 women said they used antidepressants in their treatment. “It’s like it’s OK, and in some cases a badge of honor, to be on an antidepressants,” Doty said of the social acceptance of medication. She fears many women compare themselves to others, sometimes measuring their struggles based on the dosage they take.

“It’s like we’ve just lost the war on treating depression,” Doty said. Although she recommends medication in some cases, she said, “No medication changes situational factors. It just doesn’t. It numbs it, but it’s stopping them from working through whatever those issues are. It’s just masking what those problems are.”

However, Doty cautioned practitioners about incorporating gospel messages into therapeutic treatment programs. She counted few women who were coping with depression by turning to scriptures, prayer or temple attendance because these strategies caused them to feel more inadequate.

“Let’s not set them up to fail by throwing all these things that, in a deep depression, actually come off as guilt producing,” Doty said. She prescribed a system of treatment that helps LDS women reach a healthy, functioning level then introduces the principles and habits of gospel living.

“Give people permission to not be perfect,” Doty concluded. She said the ability to cope with one’s imperfections precedes healing by virtue of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Doty said future studies are being developed to explore whether this phenomenon exists in LDS culture outside of Utah and among other religions.

In previous years, the UVU Mental Health Symposium focused on addiction and autism. Both topics were so successfully received that the College of Humanities and Social Sciences added two more conferences to its symposium schedule — an addiction conference on Feb. 22 and an autism conference on April 12.

According to Toni Harris, assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, providing “a forum for discussion, research, education, theory, recommendation and networking” makes UVU’s annual mental health symposium a source of information to the community that can enrich the quality of life.

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