I have some personal and professional understanding of mental health issues, and as I have pondered how the Atonement applies to the challenges associated with these, I have learned some important lessons. I hope that my understanding of this will continue to expand, but for the time being will share my current feelings. Another time I’ll share somethoughts on hoe I believe the Atonement applies to Mental Disorders and Illnesses, but for now my focus is on Depression. Due to length I’ve split this into two posts, with this being the first.
In this post I’ll talk about some examples of prophets who appear to have suffered depressive illness – including a surprising case from the Old Testament.
In October 2013 Elder Jeffrey R Holland spoke in General Conference about mental health. It was a fabulous talk and I’m certain that many Church members who have suffered from depression and other mental health related difficulties will have been overjoyed at hearing an Apostle speak so knowledgably about this subject in such a high profile setting (see Like a Broken Vessel, October 2013 LDS General Conference). It is a subject that is fortunately becoming more acceptable to talk about, and I hope the quality of our discussion on the subject can continue to improve.
“Adam fell that men might be: and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). So said Lehi to his son Jacob in the Book of Mormon. It seems that this was a specific message needed for a specific son, for nothing like it is recorded in any of Lehi’s farewell teachings to his other sons. Jacob was born in the wilderness, and right up to the time after his father’s death when he accompanied Nephi and the righteous away from Laman, Lemuel and the others; he had led a life of physical tribulation, as well as abuse from his older brothers. In fact, Lehi starts his final message to his son saying so, “…in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren.” (2 Nephi 2:1)
Although the same could be said of his brother Joseph, and to a lesser extent Nephi (who had at least lived the earliest portion of his life in relative comfort in Jerusalem), Jacob seems to have had a character that led him to feel these cruelties of life more profoundly. Indeed he concluded his own writings on the plates with the words: “…the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” (Jacob 7:26)
It seems likely to me that the spiritually sensitive and mature Jacob, who was visited of the Saviour in his youth, read on the Brass Plates the words of Enoch – lost to us in our current Old Testament, but restored through Joseph Smith – and perhaps took to heart because of his experiences, “Because that Adam fell, we are; and by his fall came death; and we are made partakers of misery and woe.” (Moses 6:48). The similarities between the wording in this passage and the verse in 2 Nephi 2:25 quoted above suggest to me that the two verses are related.
I can sense the depth of desire in Lehi, as he gives his parting words to this precious son of his, desperately desiring him to find joy in this life; as he adapts the words of the great Patriarch Enoch, “Yes, my son, because Adam fell, we are; but, the misery and woe Enoch spoke of is temporary – it will not last, for ultimately men are that they might have joy.” As a father myself I can hear in his words an almost desperate pleading for his prophet-son to find greater happiness in this life. It would seem from Jacob’s own writings that he was not able to fully accomplish this desire of his father’s.
While we learn in the scriptures that wickedness never was happiness (see Alma 41:10) – and certainly that is true – wickedness is also certainly not the only source of unhappiness. Jacob was righteous enough to have seen the premortal Saviour, but still seemed to experience sorrow throughout his life.
Harold B Lee, while still an Apostle, suffered from depression for a period of time after the death of first his daughter and then his wife – going far beyond what would be considered “normal” grieving. He failed to attend at least one conference he was due to preside at, and stated, “Somehow I seem unable to shake off this latest shattering blow. Only God can help me!” (quoted in Religious Educator, Vol 9 No 1, p 96)
George Albert Smith suffered from physical and mental health challenges throughout his life. Although his patriarchal blessing stated, “Thou wast called and chosen of the Lord from before the foundation of the earth was laid to… become a mighty prophet in the midst of the sons of Zion…”, he often felt that he was not adequately serving. He repeatedly had to withdraw completely from public life – at one time as an Apostle spending 3 years in virtual isolation, where even writing to others, “seems to distress me more than anything else.” (Journal of Mormon History Vol 34, No 4, p 135). He received Priesthood blessings and encouraging words, but these challenges never left him, at one point even leading him to ask the Lord to take him from mortality so that another more capable individual could be called to the Quorum of Twelve (Ibid, p 142). When individuals ignorantly suggested to him that an individual’s wellbeing and happiness was predicated on diligence and righteousness, that simply served to aggravate his depression. George Albert Smith, of course, lived to a relatively old age, and became President of the Church. His lifelong example of kindness and righteousness are an example to us all – despite his equally lifelong emotional and physical challenges – or perhaps his example is all the more powerful because of his challenges.
Depression can be caused by a wide variety of things. From my time many years ago as a Microbiologist, I know of certain bacteria that may cause clinical depression. Medications prescribed and used today can have side effects that include severe depression. We now know more about post-natal depression, as well as other life changes or traumas that can cause or trigger this painful illness. And on top of these things there are chemical imbalances or personality types that for some reason unknown to us make some individuals more susceptible to severe depression throughout their lives.
These examples are, fortunately, for most of us exceptions. Most of us do not have a permanent lifelong struggle with emotional stability or depression, as it may have been with George Albert Smith. Most of us are not born into abusive families living in the desert, as was Jacob. Although it would seem that clinical depression – a depression that goes well beyond the normal ups and downs of life and can’t be cured by “pulling yourself together”, or “choosing” to be happy – is on the increase, luckily most will still not experience it directly. Although even if we do not experience this directly ourselves, it is almost certain that many we meet, and some of those we love, will do so.
I won’t dwell too much on some of the practical lessons we need to learn about helping people with depression and other mental health difficulties as these are increasingly becoming well addressed elsewhere – and certainly in a far better way than I can (see here for an excellent article). My main focus here is to discuss how I feel the Atonement of Christ helps us through these challenges. Before I continue with that focus, however, there are two brief points I think are important to make.
Firstly, fortunately we live in an age, unlike George Albert Smith, or Jacob, where medical help and support is available where it is needed, and those suffering should seek such help. If we break a leg we get medical help. We should do the same if we are suffering from depression. I can’t emphasise this point enough.
Secondly, if you have not suffered from clinical depression, you cannot possibly understand how one who is suffering feels. The utter hopelessness that forms a part of the condition is beyond the comprehension of most. And unfortunately, some of the most beautiful doctrines of the gospel can actually make clinical depression worse – imagining an endless eternity with no hope of joy brings to mind Alma the Younger’s wish to be extinct both body and soul (see Alma 36:15-16), although with clinical depression such feelings may last weeks, months, or years. If we know someone who is suffering from this, we are best giving compassion and showing love – usually not offering advice.
With those points in mind, it is interesting I think to note that there are several examples in the scriptures of prophets suffering from what we today would call depression. Their example is, I think important in helping us understand the mercies of Christ in helping those who similarly suffer today.
Moses is a good example – one of the greatest prophets in history. In the Old Testament, he prays to the Lord in despair, saying, “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.” (Numbers 11:14-15)
Here the great lawgiver is begging the Lord to take his life away because he just can’t bear it anymore. As we think of all that Moses accomplished we might ask in wonder how he could see himself as “wretched”, but that is how he describes himself here. Those who have suffered from depression may recognise the feelings Moses expresses.
As I read the Old Testament I see other indications that these feelings of Moses may not have been a one-off; that perhaps he struggled with his feelings of self-worth and value throughout his life. His call as a prophet, when the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush is well known, but perhaps not discussed in this context. We often discuss how he seemed to almost argue with the Lord that he simply wasn’t good enough for the task, but where else in the scriptures do we find anything comparable?
Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah to preach repentance, but he simply ran away. Any LDS readers of this blog will recall Enoch’s call as a prophet in the Pearl of Great Price. Enoch was worried about an apparent speech impediment, but when he queried this with the Lord, and the Lord responded by saying effectively, “Don’t worry about it”, Enoch accepted that and simply, “went forth…testifying” (Moses 6:37). Isaiah felt unworthy, but after a symbolic cleansing, he felt perfectly capable of volunteering, “Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:5-8).
Moses was different from all of these. When the Lord first tells him of his calling to go to Pharaoh Moses responds, “Who am I, that I should go…?” (Exodus 3:11). The Lord’s reassurance is not sufficient, and he remains feeling inadequate as he basically says, “But Israel won’t believe I’ve come in Thy name” (see Exodus 3:11). After the Lord next describes further powers that will be shown, Moses still resists, “…they will not believe me.” (Exodus 4:1), and even after the Lord responds to this with further promises of displays of power, Moses says, “I am not eloquent… I am slow of speech.” (Exodus 4:10). When all of the reasons why he feels inadequate have been answered, he still can’t bring himself to think he is capable, “O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send.” (Exodus 4:13). As I read this, I can visualise Moses suffering an internal agony which he vocalises, effectively saying, “Please send anyone but me. I just can’t do it.”
If seen in the light of someone who suffered at the very least from significant self-worth issues, if not bouts of clinical depression, Exodus 4:18 becomes one of the greatest examples of courage in all of scripture, “And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt…”
How did he manage such courage? I find an answer in a different episode in Moses’ life, in the book of Moses.
In the next post I’ll look at another incident where Moses displays depressive symptoms, as well as another of the great Old Testament prophets. We’ll also look at how Moses survived his own darkness – relying on the Saviour.
Please see here for the next post on this topic