Thursday, March 27, 2008

Why Depression Strikes

Due to the new "Happy Valley" documentary-type movie coming out, there has been a wash of talk about depression and Utah Mormonism. I know that not all with depression are the same, but I've gone through bouts of dark feelings myself. I've found that depression comes from one main source: an inability to cope with the world and the feeling that there is nowhere to go for help.

In my experience, there are several possible contributing factors and several possible solutions. One contributing factor is that "depression" is a buzzword. Most people don't understand it. Depression is not being sad. Depression is being disproportionally sad in either length, depth or frequency. Unfortunately, that is a bit subjective as different people cope with things differently. In my experience, however, even when I'm sad, I can ask myself if an event or circumstance is truly causing my sorrow, or if the sorrow is coming from a more nebulous source and is crossing the boundaries of normal.

Another contributing factor is perfectionism. This is where Utah culture might come into play. When expectations are set far beyond possibility, it needs to be counterweighted with a healthy understanding of one's own humanity and mortality. The gospel emphasizes both the divinity and nothingness of mankind. Reliance on the Savior reconciles this apparent dichotomy. Unfortunately, while the divinity of mankind is easy to understand (leading to pride in the extreme), and the nothingness of man is easy to understand (leading to depression in the extreme), it is incredibly difficult to truly understand the Atonement. Therefore, many people get left in either extreme. Since pride is more obviously denounced in the scriptures, usually people are left in depression.

Sometimes in order to gain proper perspective, we need another person's viewpoint. This leads us to another major contributor: society's increasing hindrance of meaningful interpersonal bonds due to the glorification of the Self. Therefore, although the first and most obvious solution is to find help, most of us are uncomfortable with depression and don't have the necessary interpersonal bonds to listen to someone who needs us.

My experience with depression is necessarily one-sided, so I'd appreciate any thoughts on what else might contribute to depression. (I'd prefer thoughts that deal with social mores and/or paradigms, not specific institutions or groups. I plan to deal with that later.)

In my next post, I want to explore depression in order to find a few ways to become someone who can help, as well as touch on other ways to overcome depression (such as an increased understanding of the Atonement).

By the way - Happy Valley actually rests in Oregon.


  1. SilverRain,
    To a large extent, I believe depression is simply part of the human condition. Overcoming it through reliance on both God and others is an important part of our personal growth. Perfectionism is huge. As children we tend to look at the world as black or white. It is an easy trap to fall into believing we "have" to be perfect or we are worthless, but this is such a false dichotomy. Part of overcoming depression involves moving beyond that type of thinking. The problem is depression builds and feeds itself, and it can easily take medication and professional counseling to help us identify this kind of faulty thinking.

  2. Sometimes depression is a medical issue with a fairly simple solution.

    I am a generally optimistic, intelligent, socially-connected person with reasonable expectations - who struggled for years with severe periodic depression. Depression does not always present as sadness, and in my case, I would have always gladly chosen sadness over depression...which feels like being unplugged, feeling nothing but hollow, dark and empty - a stranger to my own brain, in my own life. In my experience, the "inability to cope with the world and the feeling that there is nowhere to go for help" is not the cause of depression, it is the result of depression.

    After 2 decades of feeling like I must just be plagued by bouts of cripling laziness...or stupidity...or (insert any negative trait here)I began taking antidepressants. It was, in my case, like a miracle from heaven. I could just cry when I think of all the wasted time, all the lost days, weeks, months...trying to sort out what I thought surely must have been (in spite of all evidence to the contrary) an intellectual, emotional, spiritual, or moral problem.

    For almost 5 years now, I've just been myself. Fairly steady, generally optimistic, sociable with a good sense of humor. I have ups and downs, I ruminate, I struggle with the human condition and have bad times just like the next guy. But it's familiar. It's all in the continuum of my recognizable self.

    I remember a few months after I started on meds, breaking down and crying for hours and hours over a personal loss that I had experienced several months before, and how fantastic it felt to feel honest-to-goodness gut wrenching SADNESS after months of just darkness and dull, gnawing pain.

    2 cents from a random reader.

  3. anonymous - Of course not all depression is the same. The only real way to deal with one's depression is to go to a counselor and figure out a solution. (Although I think that one should be careful and get a second opinion before taking medication. Most of the antidepressants have some pretty serious side effects. That's another discussion, though.)

    I am only able to talk about my own experience, however. Your different experience would also be interesting to hear about. It sounds like your depression was biological in origin where mine was primarily situational. They do have to be approached differently. For me, the feeling of inability to cope with my life certainly caused my depression, as is evidenced by the change in myself after I learned different thought patterns.

    Should you care to write about your experiences in a way that could help others help those with your type of depression, I'd be glad to post it here, too.

    MormonMD - I think depression may be a part of the human condition at times, but it certainly doesn't need to be that way. Depression isn't merely emotion or feeling, it's being stuck in one mode of thought/feeling and being unable to get out of it.

    Although I think medication and professional counseling have their place, I also think increased understanding of the Atonement and others' concern for us both can help, too. For me, it would have been easier had I had an understanding friend to help me at the time.

    I think we too often run to medication to solve depression because no one really wants to cope with it. They are either afraid of depression, thinking that depression always leads to suicide, and that is something that MUST be IMMEDIATELY stopped, or they deep down don't want to spend the time or energy on someone who needs them so badly. People with depression can seem very parasitical because they need something they aren't getting, so they ask for more of what they don't really need. Though no one can solve biological depression without medication, even that can be helped by someone who understands the situation and is a friend. I want to discuss ways to be that friend.

    I realize that others may have different perspectives on depression. It's a very sensitive subject, and everyone has their own opinion on it. I want to put tools in the hands of loved ones to help those quietly suffering.

  4. I enjoyed your thought-provoking post as always and thought I'd share a few of my own thoughts, even though I am rather uneducated on this topic.

    The phenomena of widespread use of anti-depressants in Utah is quite interesting. I think there are factors in our culture that lead to higher levels of stress- we have larger families, on average, and there are seemingly an endless array of activities, requirements, and expectations for faithful LDS.

    What is interesting to me is the variety of responses to these stresses- from hardly recognizing that they even exist on one end of the spectrum to feeling completely overwhelmed, inadequate, and overly burdened on the other end. I would guess that any given person has probably felt the whole gamut of these emotions at some time in their life, but probably most people fall somewhere in the middle most of the time.

    I know that some feel that stress is imposed on them (by the Church in general, by leaders, etc.), and while to some extent that is true, I think ultimately we each decide how to respond to these outside forces in our lives. More often than not, the stress that we feel is self imposed, in my opinion.

    I wonder if LDS are more prone to seek help for depression. As a society in general, I think we are apt to seek quick fixes rather than investing the time and effort to understand and address root causes.

    Without question, there are people with medical conditions that require medication to treat their depression. It is amazing to me that there are such helpful medications for those that need them.

    I am impressed that you sought to understand your own depression and that you have been able to address it on your own (if I understand correctly).

    There are definitely times (many times) when we all need a good friend that really cares about us, understands us, and loves us unconditionally. Of course the Savior is that friend, and He is real. But I think a real, live mortal that we can sit with and talk to and hold is also invaluable, and the gospel is all about becoming that kind of person for others in our lives.


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