Mental Illness and Mormon Mothers

The Mormon Women Project is a website that publishes interviews they have conducted with a wide variety of active Mormon women all of whom have different experiences, philosophies, and lives outside of the normal Mormon female stereotype.  This interview was conducted with Kathryn Lynard Soper and in it they discuss her lifelong struggle with depression, how it’s affected her marriage and family, and how, as a mother, she addresses mental illness in her children.

First of all, Soper describes the time she experienced a severe bought of depression during college, “In my junior year of college I was a total wreck. During my engagement, I cried every single night, much to Reed’s [her fiancé/husband] bewilderment. That was the first time I was ever seriously depressed. I was in therapy and I started taking medication for the first time. I would cry for hours. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, it was just this disconnected sadness and sense of despair and darkness that would descend on me. I’d just weep and weep and I felt like I could cry forever and never be done. It was a terrible, hopeless, awful feeling.” She started taking anti-depressants, until she became pregnant with her first child. But despite the love she had for her child, she still struggled with depression. She said, “After Elizabeth was born, the Spirit was really strong. I wanted to be an awesome mom for this little baby and I wanted things to be perfect for her, to do everything right. Seeing Elizabeth struggle with the normal things about being alive was psychically really painful for me. It hurt a lot. I felt sad and worried a lot about the normal things of life. I wasn’t having the bouts of weeping I did when I was engaged, but I was still depressed and I didn’t recognize it.” This quote illustrates that often when women are experiencing depression, they don’t even recognize it.   This creates lots of personal issues such as confusion, frustration, and self-judgment and creates additional conflicts for mothers, especially Mormon mothers. There is a major disconnect with the ideal of motherhood and the reality of it for depressed mothers.  The ideal seems to be that a good Mormon girl gets married young to a good Priesthood holder, marries in the temple, has plenty of children who she works hard to raise, and lives happily ever after surrounded by legions of grandchildren until the day she dies in her rocking chair and goes to heaven. Soper’s experience is that while she loved and cared deeply for her children and felt the Spirit, she was incredibly worried about life.

What Soper doesn’t really talk about is the common belief that when life doesn’t match up to the ideal, women tend to blame themselves.  For instance, if a woman grows up learning about what she’s expected to achieve and taught it in a way that aligns motherhood and wifehood with her divine worth, she is going to experience some turmoil when those ideals don’t play out perfectly.  This turmoil might manifest itself through increased self-judgment, lower self-worth, shame, confusion, deeper sadness, and a sense of failure as a person.   In order to overcome these negative influences, women are often told, if not explicitly, than at least culturally, that they just need to work harder to overcome them.  This philosophy is reflected in Soper’s life. She said that, “For about ten years, I was “turbo mom” and a zealous Mormon. My motivation kind of like wanting to be a straight-A student. It was very externally-oriented and although I felt the Spirit a lot, it was an immature way of approaching the gospel.”  It seems that Soper tried to self-medicate her depression by being a perfect mother and daughter of God. This may also reveal the anxiety that to be someone of worth to God, a woman is only as good a mother or person as the woman next door.  With so many stigmas about motherhood and mental illness it may seem that you’re a failure if you struggle when your neighbor has it all together.  We start to judge ourselves by the stigmas of society and we forget to believe in our own value.  Soper’s experience shows how much power the cultural narrative has over us, it shows how it becomes internalized to the point where it can cause significant difficulties and exacerbate mental health problems like anxiety.  Soper was trying to correct what she felt society said was culturally wrong about her.  She was also trying to fix herself spiritually, not knowing that depression was a medical condition that required professional help, and not some self-deficiency that could be overcome with the power of prayer.  Does this impulse to seek outward control over inner feeling have to do with the patriarchal view that women were inherently less capable of self-control and logic, therefore, they were more emotional? Is there a social need we have to prove ourselves? These judgments that women who struggle with depression are just not spiritual or faithful enough must have come about because of the stigmas in society and they can be incredibly damaging to the mental and spiritual well being of women. It is difficult for the woman to separate what society tells her she should be from what her depression is telling her she is from who she really is. Perhaps another reason that women have a hard time recognizing and accepting mental illness is that severe symptoms of things like depression are written off as women just being emotional.  This was definitely the case in post-war American society and the newspaper article on Valium said that doctors would write off women’s medical problems as being emotional even if they weren’t. It’s possible that women felt it was unnecessary to seek real help for mental illness because they thought they were just being “emotional”. Whatever the reasons, it seems depression was an internal, solitary experience for Soper for many years and it is for many women, in and out of the Church. We also see that once depressed or anxious women in the church accept their illness and get help, they can improve deepen their spiritual relationship with God by letting go of the external things and focusing on what really will make them happy.

It’s important to note that despite Soper’s difficulties, she never seemed to give up in the long term.  Women are not just passive victims of mental illness– they have the ability and desire to overcome their personal difficulties and achieve their full potential.  It’s just a slow process that requires the support of understanding people in society and a loving personal support network. Nor is mental illness just some intrinsic part of female character, it’s a medical condition, which to be overcome means having to fight more than just the medical and psychological effects of depression, but also cultural stereotypes, stigmas, and treatment.  She even used her experiences with her mental illness to fuel creative projects outside of her duties as a mother.  Much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote The Yellow Wallpaper to raise awareness about the dangers of the rest cure, Soper used writing as a therapeutic way to find personal healing from her mental illness. She also started a women’s literary journal that will help herself, as well as countless other women. This continues the theme we’ve seen in women’s studies that women have talents that when applied outside of the “women’s sphere” bring fulfillment and liberation in ways motherhood can’t. The idea of having a journal that women can contribute to and read also illustrates the importance of women having a place to share ideas and experiences with one another and bond over shared experiences have their own experiences validated by others. However, this only happens when women recognize and accept that they have a medical problem that exists outside of their self-worth. While there has been an improvement in mental health treatment over the years, there is still a long way we need to go in terms of education and the de-stigmatization of these illnesses.  Soper’s project with the journal, just like Gilman’s aim in writing The Yellow Wallpaper show the impact women have in helping people understand the truth of mental illnesses and helping to educate the masses. It serves to de-stigmatize a common illness like depression and create a safe place for more women to seek help. (It also is notable that the work of women in these fields also benefits men with mental illness – men with mental illness have different experiences of course, but many of the stigmas they face and the symptoms of the illnesses themselves are the same across gender).  Of course this is not to say women can’t find fulfillment in family or that all mental illness is exacerbated by family ideals in the Mormon Church.  Soper says that her struggle with depression has taught her how to help her own children, although it does not come without difficulties as raising depressed children as a depressed parent can be incredibly challenging. In fact, the work Soper does outside the home probably brings fulfillment to her life, making her happier, which would make her function better in her role as a mother by providing more energy and hope for her life. It could also improve the family lives of the woman who learn from her example and seek help in their own lives.

Soper’s interview does show the how far the medical field and psychological field has come from the days of The Yellow Wallpaper in that psychology functions less as a way of controlling women and helps diagnose and cure them. It’s even expanded past the seventies when Valium was prescribed for everything.  Now greater care is taken in prescribing anti-depressants and monitoring the side effects of those drugs.  In this way, women’s symptoms are recognized and adequately treated rather than just swept under the rug by medical professionals, although there is always a risk involved as with any situation. Soper talked about stigmas in society against taking medication, it’s often seen as a “cop out” or a way to escape trying to deal with your problems, an attitude that was also directed toward women taking Valium before the eighties. Also, the huge number of depressed women in the church only shows that there is huge problem with categorizing depression as a solely spiritual problem and not offering adequate information and help (although if Elder Holland’s latest conference talk is anything to go by that perception is changing). It’s only when scripture and prayer don’t work that medication is brought up as a solution. The truth is that while depression affects the spirit, it is not a spiritual problem and it does require a medical answer. I loved that in her interview Soper acknowledged her struggle in accepting medication, and said, “before treatment I thought, “I want to solve my problems, not mask them with drugs.” Yet treatment is the very thing that’s enabling me to solve those problems. Different approaches to treatment work for different people—medication is not the only option. But a combination of medication and therapy has been shown to be most effective, and that’s what works for me.” I love that she acknowledges that there is no single way to find healing. The truth is that while we defeat age-old stigmas, new ones will crop up, and the best thing to do is recognize that all women are different and their experiences with mental illness are all different, but they are all equally valid, and these women deserve to be helped by society, not shamed by it.


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