September De Soto experienced her first panic attack sitting in the middle of an LDS Church sacrament meeting. She was 16 years old, and unsure of what was happening to her.
“I couldn’t breathe,” De Soto said. “I felt like the room was spinning and I couldn’t feel my hands.”
De Soto, a 20-year-old member of the church living in Utah, has panic disorder and depression.
Studies on mental illnesses and Mormons
De Soto is one of many who contribute to the unique statistics on Mormons and mental health.
After studying and surveying samples of members, Tim Heaton concluded in Statistical Profile of Mormons – Health, Wealth, and Social Life, “LDS women are significantly higher in depression than non-LDS women.”
About a fifth of Mormons say they have taken or are currently taking medication for depression, according to a study by Jana Riess published earlier this year for Religion News.
“The numbers are definitely higher for Mormon women than for men. Twenty-seven percent of women say yes, almost twice the number of Mormon men who do (14.5 percent),” Riess said.
Utah, where 62.8 percent of the population is Mormon, ranks poorly for several categories of mental illness. According to a 2017 survey by Mental Health America, Utah ranks dead last in the nation when it comes to adults with serious thoughts of suicide and prevalence of mental illness and access to health care. Utah also ranks 40th for adults with any mental illness reporting unmet needs.
On the other hand, Utah ranks as one of the least affected states for several categories that typically go hand-in-hand with mental illnesses, including a No. 2 rank for adults with alcohol dependence and illicit drug use.
“The data about mental illness and suicide in Utah is complex and any simplistic interpretations should be treated with caution,” said Dallas Jensen, a licensed psychologist practicing in Provo. “I can’t say that the LDS religion and culture are directly responsible for those types of statistics but I also think it would be silly to suggest they are completely unrelated.”
Negative effects of religious factors
Jensen said he frequently sees religious and cultural influences interact with psychological concerns among his LDS clients.
“Sometimes those religious factors seem to help, at other times they can exacerbate the problem,” Jensen said.
De Soto said she remembers young women’s lessons where she was taught, “You can choose to be happy. You can choose to be not depressed.”
De Soto remembers thinking, “Are you kidding me? I did not choose this,” in response to the lessons.
People in LDS culture pretend to be the happiest people because they believe they have the true gospel, De Soto said.
“I think we try to put on this face, especially in the LDS Church, that our lives our perfect, when that is completely false,” De Soto said. “The gospel is for the sick. It’s for the people that need help.”
Jensen said perfectionism — “the damaging belief that one’s worth is inherently attached to always doing or being their absolute best,” — is often a factor that negatively affects his patients’ mental health.
“I see people stuck in erroneous beliefs that negative feelings must mean they are less righteous, or being punished by God, or deeply flawed,” Jensen said. “I hear people say they are doing everything the church tells them to do but they are still unhappy, and then assume it’s because they are just ‘bad’ people.”
Positive effects of religious factors
De Soto said the aspect of the LDS Church that has helped her mental health the most is the knowledge of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. She said it changes everything.
When De Soto was first struggling with her panic disorder and depression, she went to her brother. He told her he didn’t know how she felt.
“He said, ‘but I know that Jesus Christ knows.’ And that was something that really changed for me that day,” De Soto said. “Not only did he (Jesus Christ) suffer for all the mistakes we have ever made, but he also suffered for the things that are out of control for us as well.”
Jensen said he sees many aspects of the church helping his patients through their experiences with mental illnesses.
“An individual might feel a sense of religious community is a buffer to them as they try to heal from trauma, or perhaps they feel comforted by beliefs about being loved, or a sense of grounding from religious rituals such as prayer,” Jensen said.
Recent outreach from the LDS Church
LDS Church leaders have recently increased their outreach to those with mental illnesses. More General Conference addresses in this decade highlight mental illnesses than all other decades of General Conferences combined, according to the LDS General Conference Corpus.
De Soto said she thinks the church is getting better at addressing mental illness, especially with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s 2013 General Conference address, “Like a Broken Vessel” which focused on those suffering with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
Elder Holland spoke of his own experience with mental illness and told members, “If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders.”
The church later came out with a Mormon Message video furthering Elder Holland’s message.
“That opened a lot of eyes,” De Soto said.
“Church leaders can be a powerful voice of support and encouragement for those who look to them for counsel,” Jensen said. “And at times they have been, which is fantastic.”
Jensen said he thinks church outreach to those with mental health issues has been better overall, but at the same time, leaders can say and do things that are unhelpful or even hurtful.
“For example, I’ve had clients in my office who were dramatically helped by loving leaders who listened and loved, and others who were hurt by leaders who were trying to help but should have deferred to qualified mental health professionals,” Jensen said.
While general leader mental health outreach has improved, outreach on the local level has a significant way to go, Jensen said.
Listen to the full interview with September De Soto: