Q&A: Jane Clayson Johnson talks about depression — her own, and what she learned by writing ‘a record of resilience and survival’
SALT LAKE CITY — Clinical depression isn't a moral failing, a personal weakness or a sign that God isn't listening to heartfelt prayers, says award-winning journalist and author Jane Clayson Johnson in her new book, "Silent Souls Weeping: Depression, Sharing Stories, Finding Hope."
And Johnson would know.
Having overcome her own "bleak void," Johnson, a broadcast journalist who started her career at KSL-TV and is known for her work at CBS News and ABC News and also is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began a journey to share her story — and the stories of others — as a way to build networks of support and break down feelings of shame and sinfulness that often surround mental health challenges.
The Deseret News asked Johnson about her own experience, what she learned while writing this book and what advice she has for others. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
DN: You’ve been working on this book for three years. The Deseret News just finished a yearlong series on teens and anxiety, and celebrities like Michael Phelps, Pete Davidson and Demi Lovato are opening up about their own mental health challenges. Yet people continue to feel like “I’m the only one” who deals with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. Why is that?
JCJ: I think we all feel tremendous vulnerability in opening up and sharing difficult personal experiences. It’s not easy. But another big problem is that depression has been perceived for so long as a character flaw — something we could control or overcome if we just tried harder. Clinical depression is not the result of personal inadequacy. It’s not a black mark on your character. Nobody thinks battling cancer or diabetes or heart disease is a matter of ‘pulling up your bootstraps’ and going it alone. Our whole mindset has to change. If you’re clinically depressed, you’re not going to ‘fix’ it with work and discipline.
DN: You open the book by sharing your own wrestle with clinical depression. What was it like to open yourself up publicly in such a raw, personal way?
JCJ: This is not a book I ever expected to write. My journey through depression was unexpected and harrowing, and I chose to write about it in a very honest way. I knew that I had to become more open about my own struggles if I was going to invite others to become more open about theirs. And I truly believe that once you’ve experienced the trial of depression, you have a particular responsibility to show greater love and empathy for others who suffer. We have to reach out and help each other and share our stories so no one feels alone in this struggle. That’s what this book is about.
DN: Following your recovery, you interviewed more than 150 Latter-day Saint men, women and teenagers about their own experiences with depression and mental health challenges. What common themes emerged?
JCJ: Two themes I heard over and over. The first is stigma. Virtually everyone I interviewed expressed embarrassment and even shame, not just about a mental health diagnosis, but also about taking medication and receiving therapy for treatment. So many times in my conversations someone would say, “I’ve never talked about this with anyone” or “My parents don’t even know this.” It doesn’t matter if the stigma of depression is self-induced or culturally imposed. Either way, it’s unhealthy and unhelpful.
I also discovered a lot of shame associated with the byproducts of depression. A student who misses a semester of school because of their illness. Someone who is out of step, socially or employment-wise, because of depression. That holds stigma, as well. And many people I interviewed believe they must have done something to cause their depression. Just imagine if we blamed people for having cancer? Or blamed ourselves for having it? One woman told me she wished she could wear a cast on her head because something is wrong in there and it’s really hard for people to understand. I’m so passionate about busting this stigma! We can’t hide these struggles anymore. Too many people are suffering in silence.
DN: What was the second theme you heard in your interviews?
JCJ: How depression impacts the ability to feel the Spirit. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we face a unique struggle trying to fit a disease that manifests through sorrow into a religion centered on a “plan of happiness.” Some believe, for example, that if you just pray harder, depression will go away. Miracles are possible. But let’s be clear: depression is a disease, not a spiritual deficit. When you have heart disease, you pray and you go to the cardiologist. The same principle applies to depression.
One woman told me she felt certain that she had not only lost the ability to feel the Spirit, but that she wasn’t worthy to feel it. I understand this completely. For me, depression blocked all feelings, including feeling the Spirit. I didn’t feel God’s love for long stretches of time. It was as if the most important part of my soul had been cut out of me. This is perhaps the most distressing aspect of depression and why getting treatment is so critical.
DN: You have a chapter about toxic perfectionism as a contributor to depression. What struck you most about that issue?
JCJ: I’m a recovering perfectionist myself, so it wasn’t a surprise how many women mentioned the appearance of their homes or their children or the way they taught a lesson in church or how they look. And technology fuels the flames with carefully filtered and curated social media feeds showing the happiest, prettiest and shiniest events in all of our lives.
Researchers have noted the link between perfectionism and suicide is stronger than previously believed and distressingly under-recognized. Toxic perfectionism fuels feelings of inadequacy and makes us inauthentic. It makes it hard for us to share our challenges with others because we’re always trying to maintain a facade. When we’re isolated, we are far more vulnerable to depression, suicidal thinking and, sadly, action. Toxic perfectionism isn’t just emotionally unhealthy, it's spiritually unhealthy and contrary to the gospel principle of perfection in Christ.
DN: You tell a story about George H. Brimhall, a devoted educator who served as president of Brigham Young University for 17 years, yet who also dealt with several family tragedies, faced discouragement and died by suicide. Having been a member of the church my entire life, I was unfamiliar with this account. How might the Latter-day Saint culture change if we shared stories like this more often, and with more compassion?
JCJ: The chapter in the book on suicide is incredibly important. I heard so many powerful and heartbreaking stories from people who have lost loved ones. We’ve got to talk about this epidemic of suicide. Every medical professional I interviewed and nearly every book, article or news story I read comes to the same conclusion: that any meaningful progress in suicide prevention starts with eradicating stigma.
Talking about suicide does not prompt people to kill themselves — that notion has been debunked by a number of studies, as well as by those who have attempted suicide and are now healing. Talking about suicide can actually help prevent it. It’s not to deny that many of these stories end tragically. But the possibility of healing and hope is always there.
DN: In our reporting on teens and anxiety, experts pointed out the importance of having parents model healthy emotional regulation for their kids, yet many of the parents you spoke with talked about how hard it can be to open up about their mental health challenges because of shame, stigma and a lack of support. As a parent yourself, what is your advice to other parents who face mental health hurdles? How can they use their experiences to help their children and strengthen their families?
JCJ: My children were my most compelling motivation for writing this book. I personally believe it’s a mistake — and potentially damaging — to hide mental health challenges from our kids. What’s the message we’re sending if we don’t want to talk about it? If they think we’re ashamed or that we should keep these things secret, how will they ever feel comfortable disclosing their challenges? How will they get the help they need? How will the cycle of silence and shame ever end? I talk to our kids all the time about ‘brain health’ and how our mental well-being is just as important as our physical health.
DN: You quote an expert in the book who commented that religious communities “need to be clear that they are mental-health friendly.” What does that look like in a religious community? How does an individual ensure they are “mental-health friendly”?
JCJ: Many religious communities have mastered the challenge of caring for people who find themselves battling poor physical health or drowning in financial trials. We must do the same for those who suffer ailments of the mind. At every level of the church, I hope for more first-person stories and simple acknowledgement of mental health issues. Understanding the symptoms and the warning signs is also critical, as is sharing effective treatments. In most cases, being helpful isn’t complex. Just being there to minister to those who are suffering can make a huge difference.
DN: We've talked about the power of telling our stories and being open, but talk to me about the power of listening and the role of those on the sidelines who are cheering on their loved ones. What is the most powerful way to support someone battling depression?
JCJ: Love and nonjudgment are our most important tools to support those who are suffering. What struck me more than anything over the last three years of working on this book is that people want to be heard. They need their experiences to be validated. The stories in this book are heartbreaking in their honesty, but also tremendously inspiring and redemptive. In every person I interviewed, I saw pain and vulnerability, but I also saw love and hope and life.
If we can just think about the ways we minister to friends and loved ones with obvious physical illnesses, and do the same with mental illnesses. Listen. Let people share their struggles and share our own more openly. I want to get the stories flowing in families, neighborhoods, classrooms, chapels. That would be a good start. And if this book helps just one person start those conversations, it will have been worth it.