My story is about mental health. The experiences I had as a young woman with depression and anxiety in the church were traumatizing and heartbreaking. There’s a history of mental disorders in my family history, including depression, bipolar, and anxiety. I’ve been going to therapy for a variety of reasons since I was about nine years old. Therapy was always helpful, but I wanted to feel that overwhelming sense of comfort and peace that I learned about during church. If God could help my neighbor’s son find his glasses at scout camp, and if that same God could sacrifice His Son for the good of humanity, why couldn’t I feel the Holy Ghost comfort me during panic attacks and depressive episodes?
I tried so hard to feel the Spirit during church, but I almost never could. I was excluded and gossiped about by other youth my age, and occasionally picked on. And sometimes, the leaders would get in on it as well! They would forget my birthday and disregard my concerns about activities and the fact that I was having problems with the other members of the ward. One year at girls’ camp, I refused to go on the hike because I wanted to study my scriptures in my tent, and I overheard one of my favorite Mia Maid advisors saying that I just didn’t want to hike because I was fat, and that I should set a better example for the younger girls. I had been trying so hard to please everyone, and it was devastating to hear the women I looked up to gossip and laugh at a 14-year-old. I never enjoyed girls’ camp after that.
Discussing my struggles with my bishops never helped. I remember pouring my heart out to a bishop at age 16 and explaining that I was doing everything I could to feel the Holy Ghost’s comfort, and everything I could outside of church to cope with my depression. I read my scriptures, prayed multiple times a day, listened to John Bytheway and Hank Smith when I was at home instead of music. He pressed me to search my mind for anything I was doing that might be considered a sin, and I told him that I told white lies sometimes when people asked me if I was alright, and that I would sometimes swear in my mind, but never out loud. He lectured me about honesty for several minutes and told me that I had to be completely honest with others, even if it seemed like it would be detrimental. I was following his advice when I told my best friend that I was thinking about killing myself, and that led to her mom, the school’s counseling center, and my own parents finding out that I couldn’t break free of my self destructive habits.
I went fairly inactive during high school after that, although I still felt some modicum of peace when I practiced playing hymns on the piano and studied General Conference talks. I was honest about the things I didn’t know or agree with about the church, and I continued to feel ostracized by people my age because I didn’t fit into their perfect Mormon mold. Therapy and medication began helping my mental health, and I started attending church again at 18, as a sophomore at a rural Utah college. I was struggling a lot with school that semester and needed to find a therapist in the area, so when I heard that my YSA ward bishop worked as an administrator in the mental health field, I scheduled an appointment with him. Instead of referring me to people he knew that I could meet with, he dismissed my concerns about my depression and struggles in school. He said that because I was on medication (that wasn’t working for me), I must be okay, and that the way I was feeling must be a result of the fact that I didn’t try hard enough to feel the Spirit. He recommended accepting another calling and preparing to serve a mission.
I went home after that and broke down, because I had been trying for almost a decade to understand why my mind was broken, and why God didn’t think I was important enough to comfort. I had tried so hard, and I had already overcome so many obstacles in my spiritual development. I remained a believing member even when I couldn’t get out of bed or step foot into a chapel because I was afraid of my Young Women’s leaders, and yet I was expected to “snap out of it” and serve a mission for 18 months with limited contact with my support system? I felt small and insignificant for the entirety of my teenage years because I couldn’t feel the Spirit, so how was I supposed to help others feel the Spirit? My mind was broken, but I was convinced that I just wasn’t good enough, honest enough, faithful enough. I felt like a fraud.
It wasn’t until I had a faith crisis unrelated to my mental health that I was finally able to accept myself for who I am, and that I was able to find healthy coping strategies for my depression and anxiety. LDS culture and leadership taught me that something was wrong with me for being depressed, and that God would fix me if I tried hard enough. Once I let go of that toxic mindset, I was able to understand that I am a human being who is capable of so much good and deserves all of the joy and peace in the world. I’m doing much better now, but I wish that I hadn’t grown up in a religion that convinced me that my depression was my fault. No child should be raised in an institution that tells them time and time again that they are never good enough to find peace and happiness.