Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: Anxiety and depression, along with the social stigma they carry, continue to vex and plague the nation. Many needlessly suffer in silence. America and countries around the world need to engage in a different kind of conversation about mental health. Former CBS and ABC News journalist Jane Clayson Johnson shares her personal experience and critical insight from her book, "Silent Souls Weeping: Depression — Sharing stories, finding hope," on this episode of Therefore, What?
We are very pleased today to be joined by Jane Clayson Johnson and really looking forward to this conversation that is one of those critical conversations I think we need to have around the country and around our dinner tables. Jane, thanks for joining us today. Well, this is such an important topic. And we often talk on this show about the need for courageous vulnerability, for that willingness to go beyond kind of our superficial. I know this was a book that you didn't plan on writing. And I think it required a great deal of courageous vulnerability even to begin it.
Jane Clayson Johnson: No, that's exactly right. I like that phrase, courageous vulnerability. You know, this is not a book I ever expected to write. I had never really experienced depression until it sort of hit me like a freight train, if you will. And after I had, you know, had a long, difficult journey and had come out of it, I started talking with people and realizing how widespread the problem is, and more importantly, how many people are suffering in silence, not talking about it, not sharing their experience for a variety of reasons. And I decided that I wanted to do something about that. It is a very vulnerable place to be, to tell your story, to share it with others. But I felt like I could maybe help some people. And so that's why I wrote this book.
BM: Yeah, it's such an important topic there. One of the things that I love that you address is just how this kind of pain and suffering is so isolating. I think we often forget that we do sort of live in this lonely crowd, especially with those that are dealing, as you said, silently with this. And whether it's emotional pain or physical pain, there is an element to that kind of suffering that really does isolate you and creates all kinds of problems.
JCJ: That's exactly right. I mean, if there's anything I've learned over the three years that I worked on this book, interviewing more than 150 people across the country, it is that we must reach out and we must help each other and share our stories. Because so many people are struggling in silence. I think, to me, the worst part of depression is the isolation that it brings. Not just from family and friends, but from community, from our church, even from our God. And I think that through the power of story, the dialogue can be opened and renewed and extended. And we can have a new level of honesty and authenticity and hope for those who suffer. I mean, I have to tell you, I heard so many times, "I've never talked about this with anyone," or "my parents don't even know this," or "I can't believe I'm telling you this." So, you know, let's shine some light on this. One of the great quotes that I heard from one of the many people that I interviewed for my book was, "depression thrives in secrecy, but shrinks in empathy." Depression thrives in secrecy, but shrinks in empathy. So let's have empathy with each other. Let's talk about our story, share our experiences, so that we can help those that are struggling.
BM: I love that, in sharing those stories, I love that shrinking in empathy. That's such a great term. And I think it's part of this idea that we have to start getting comfortable having uncomfortable conversations about a host of things. As you had the chance to interview over 150 people across the country, how were you able to get them to get comfortable having that uncomfortable conversation?
JCJ: Well, it's funny, you know, this was a journalistic exercise for me. I have been a journalist for 25 years. And when I decided I was going to write this book I wanted to hear people's experiences, I wanted to hear from others. And so when I would call someone that I didn't know, out of the blue, and explain to them what my project was, and explain to them a little bit of my own experience, I think they heard that what I was doing here was going to be an authentic representation of what depression is. This is not a sugar-coated portrayal of this disease, this illness. And so I think that they trusted that I had been through it, that I knew what I was talking about, and that I was going to portray their experience in a very authentic manner. So you know, it's surprising, I certainly interviewed people that I know and have known for a long time. But I interviewed many people that I don't know and didn't know. And people started calling me in the middle of this project, Boyd, because they had heard that I was working on this, and they wanted to share their own experience with me. So that was really striking.
And I think, you know, people wanted their difficult experiences to be validated, they wanted to share with somebody else so that it could help another who was suffering. So yeah, was it was an incredible experience actually hearing all of this, and I felt tremendous vulnerability and responsibility for the experiences that I heard.
BM: That's great. We'll come back to this a little later on. But while we're hot on this portion, what are some things that we should all be thinking about in terms of people we interact with every day in terms of creating space for that uncomfortable conversation, or that moment of courageous vulnerability to happen?
JCJ: One thing that's really busted the stigma in my mind in some of the conversations that I have had, is to start talking about brain health. Not just mental health, but brain health. The brain is another organ of the body, you know, there's nothing special or different, it's brain health. And brain health is just as important as, say, heart health, which we're all so fast to talk about and to be concerned about. So I talked about brain health, just in a very straightforward manner. And I have found that kind of helps people kind of lower the stigma a little bit. I mean, I think more often than not we just have to dive right into our stories. I think we have to feel vulnerable enough. And we have to feel open enough to just share what we've been through. And it's not just those who are experiencing depression, it's those who have lived with someone who has experienced depression. That's a story too. And I tell that in the book, I tell my husband's story about going through my experience with me, and I hadn't really understood how much frustration and pain and loneliness and even anger there is attached to the experience of living with someone who is depressed. So no matter the perspective that you have on this, I think just opening up and start talking about it is a really good first step. Because you know what, everyone has a story.
I gave a speech the other night, Boyd, and I asked folks at the very beginning of my speech, if they would stand up if they or someone that they know or love has experienced depression. And I thought maybe 50, 60 percent of the room would stand. Ninety percent of that room was standing. So you know, it's a prevalent issue, it's a widespread problem. And I think just sharing our stories will be a good first step toward encouraging others to share theirs.
BM: Wow, that's stunning. That's also a good way to get a standing ovation right off the bat. I hadn't thought of that. That's genius on your part. But it's also so enveloping, though, that it does immediately — I mean, talk about breaking down the stigma, for that audience to immediately look around and say what, whether they are the person suffering, or I love that you bring out those that live with someone or love someone that is suffering that is also can be very isolating.
So I love that you attack that. I want to drill down for a minute on what I think is such an important concept that you drive, Jane, and that is that depression is not a character flaw. It's not a fatal moral flaw. Just tell us a little bit more about that.
JCJ: Well, from the many people that I've interviewed for this book, you know, I heard over and over again, the embarrassment or shame attached to not only a mental health diagnosis, but to the medication prescribed, or the therapy required for treatment. I think our historical misconceptions have led us to a very judgmental view of depression, and whether the stigma is self-induced or culturally imposed, it's really unhealthy and very unhelpful. I said this in the book. You know, depression is just like any other physical illness, it requires treatment. It is not the result of some sort of personal inadequacy. It's not a black mark on your character. Nobody thinks that battling cancer, or diabetes, or heart disease or any other serious illness is just a matter of pulling up your bootstraps, and, you know, going at it alone. You're not going to fix clinical depression with work and discipline. It requires treatment. And, you know, I'm not a doctor or an MD or a Ph.D, but I am a journalist, and I can tell you from the many, many people that have told me their stories. The one thing over and over that I heard was the stigma associated with with depression. And that's what I try and conquer in this book.
BM: So good. And I think because of that stigma, I think that does cause so many people to — I always call it trying to white-knuckle your way through it. To say, "Oh, it's just me," or "I just got to be tougher. I gotta pull up my bootstraps," but that really just compounds the problem in the end, doesn't it?
JCJ: Yeah, that's right. I think about so many people that I interviewed. One woman telling me that she had tried to talk to her father about her feelings of depression and anxiety. And her father just told her to, you know, put that all in a box, put that all in a box and just ignore it. You know, I mean, I cannot stress enough — depression requires treatment and treatment works. Treatment works. If you have heart disease, you go to the cardiologist, if you have diabetes, you take insulin, if you break your arm, you get a cast, you know, and sometimes you have physical therapy. Same with depression, it's the same thing, it requires treatment.
I loved a woman who told me, "too bad, you can't wear a cast on your head, because something is broken in there." And that's really hard for people to understand. So, you know, thank you for inviting me on to talk about this, we've got to change the narrative about depression, we've got to end the isolating and potentially dangerous stigma that's attached to depression.
BM: Yeah, and I think so much of that happens in our homes and around our kitchen tables. And even around the water cooler, and lunch breaks. I think the conversation — again, we're not courageously vulnerable and so we do often just say, oh, you'll get over it, or this will pass or you'll be OK. Just, you know, tough it out a little longer. And instead of really modeling the behavior, I think of how many times with my kids, I just told him to, you know, "buck up, and it'll be OK," when I could have shown some empathy and said, "well, I had to deal with this with my boss today. And when we were done, I wanted to go curl up under my desk and hide out." To say, I get it, I understand. But that requires us to model behavior in a different way as well.
JCJ: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. Empathy, let's have more empathy. And, you know, it makes me think about the byproducts that are attached to depression too. You know, it's not just suffering from depression, but the stigma and shame and some of the embarrassment from, you know, missing a semester of school because you've been hospitalized or been in your room, because you can't come out because of depression. Because of a depressive episode, you're out of step socially, or employment wise. I mean, so many people I spoke with blame themselves for their depression. Can you imagine if we blamed somebody for having cancer, or for having heart disease, or if we blamed ourselves, you know, for that? So, again, I think the empathy here is what I was trying to get to in this book. Because if we can start telling our stories, start opening up about this, start having empathy for others who are suffering, you know, that's a good first step toward changing the dialogue about this.
BM: I want to shift now to this idea of toxic perfection. And in particular, I love that you said in the beginning how sometimes we isolate ourselves from God as well in this process. And while the gospel is surely not to be guilt-producing or creating feelings of less than, which I think is where we go. I think so many people saw you for so many years, as just the perfect, put together, everything is rolling right, you're on national TV, you're interviewing world leaders, and yet dealing with all of these things. And I think we struggle, I think particularly in religious communities, of viewing life through comparison, which we know is always fatal vision, but tell us your experience around kind of that comparison perfection and some of the challenges that come with that.
JCJ: Well, in the book, I write an entire chapter on toxic perfectionism as a contributor to depression. You know, let me start by saying, I'm a recovering perfectionist. I completely understood and related to the many people, especially women, who talked to me about how important it was to them how they look, or how their children look, or how they teach a lesson in church on Sunday, or how their home appears to others. You know, this notion of trying to be perfect in every way to hold up and adopt a standard of perfection that is just not reasonable is detrimental to mental health. When you think about the scriptures and the scripture, "Be ye therefore perfect." I think we put that scripture on steroids, that scripture in Matthew 5, we see that word perfect in there. And we think, OK, I've got to be perfect, I have to be without flaw or mistake. And since I can't be perfect, I have to at least give the illusion that I'm perfect. When we're trying to live up to some unattainable standard, we're just not authentic, we're just not authentic and, you know, the Savior's plan to my mind is to work on the inside, don't worry so much about the outside, stop comparing ourselves.
And just think about the long term. It's really an important concept to try to internalize because toxic perfectionism is a contributor to detrimental health and it's also a contributor — I found a study from the American Psychological Association about the connection between toxic perfectionism and suicide. So, you know, it's something to really consider and think about, and really consider why we're doing things and not be so perfect all the time, be more authentic, be more real.
BM: You mentioned how women tend to do this comparison thing, I think far worse than than men do. And as a guy who has seven sisters, a mother, a wife and three daughters, I've seen what that comparison, that fatal vision of comparison, can do in terms of just driving down self-esteem and creating those feelings of being less than. In your interviews with people across the country, were there any other things that jumped out in terms of how do we get in front of that, especially for our young women, for our girls and teenagers who are faced with this constant barrage of perfection on Facebook and Instagram and social media channels? How do we get out in front of that challenge?
JCJ: Well, it's a good point you know, I mean, I think this notion of toxic perfectionism among our youth and among our young women, it's challenging, because we're putting up what we think is kind of our worst against what we envision everybody else's best to be. And so when we see everybody's shiniest and prettiest and best moments of their lives on social media, it's really challenging. I tell the story in the book about a project that I did with one of our children to help overcome anxiety. And it was the authenticity box project. A psychologist came in one day, she was trying to help our child with some anxiety issues. And she gave us a box and some magazines, and some scissors and tape. And she said, what I want you to do is, I want you to cut out pictures and word descriptions that describe who you are on the outside. And I want you to take all those pictures on the outside of the box. And that will be your image. That's how you portray yourself to the world. That's who you want people to see you as. And then on the inside of the box, I want you to tape pictures and word descriptions of who you really are, when nobody else is watching, when nobody else is around. And so we finished this little project. And at the end of the hour, with a lot of cutting and pasting and talking, we really understood the psychologist's lesson, which is that the more the outside of your box matches the inside of your box, the healthier your mental state, the healthier you are mentally when you're representing yourself as your authentic self. And I think that's a very powerful exercise. I have replicated it with book groups and youth groups, and even a group at the Harvard Business School that I was speaking to on the topic of perfectionism. It's so effective because you can immediately see what you're doing and how you are portraying yourself. So if we can teach that to our young women, our young men too, to be more authentic and be more real, I think we'll all be better off.
BM: That's a great exercise. And that will be happening around my dinner table tonight. That is a brilliant, brilliant concept. Great, great lesson there. Jane, as we as we roll forward here, just a couple other things that I want to make sure we hit. And that is, as you look at this in terms of how do we move forward in this, in particular, what role does faith play in all of this and our divine identity? Tell us a little bit about that.
JCJ: I'm glad you brought that up. I think it's a very important question. Because there were two themes that really rolled through every conversation that I had over the three years that I worked on my book. The first was the stigma, which we talked about, the stigma associated with mental health diagnosis. And the second is what depression does to feelings of the Spirit. And I think this is really, really important. And to me, really, the most distressing part of depression, why getting treatment is so critical for me, depression blocked all feelings of the Spirit, and it also blocked my sense of my relationship with God. And for long stretches of time I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't feel God's love. It was like, I was doing everything right. I was praying, and I was reading my scriptures, and I was going to the temple, but I didn't feel anything. It was like the most important part of my soul had been cut out of me. And I think many members of our church face this unique struggle, because we're trying to fit a disease manifest through sorrow into a religion centered on a plan of happiness, right? So when you grow up like I did, and I think many members of the church do that, if you're following the commandments, and you're living by the Spirit, and you're happy, then, you know, everything's great. And that's the way you should be living. And if you're dark and sad, and not social or whatever, then you've done something wrong in your life. And you need to repent, right? I mean, the Scriptures teach us if there be no righteousness, there be no happiness, that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace. But when you're depressed, it's very hard to feel the spirit. At least that's how I felt. And that's how many, many, many, many people whom I've interviewed described it.
So listen to this and remember this, Boyd. Depression is a disease, it is not a spiritual deficit. Depression is a disease, it is not a spiritual deficit. You would not sit in the corner and pray your heart disease away, you would pray and you would go to the cardiologist. The same is true with depression. And as I said in the beginning, the loss of the Spirit is perhaps the most distressing part of depression and why getting treatment is so critical.
BM: So important. Fantastic. Well, we're to the portion of the program now that we actually call Therefore, What? and sometimes I take this myself, and sometimes I let our guests give us a Therefore, What?, and I think you just gave us a really good insight, but I'm going to give you one more bite at the apple. People have been listening for 20 minutes here. What's the Therefore, What? What do you hope people walk away after listening to this podcast, thinking different, doing different? How do we march this thing forward?
JCJ: I think the most important thing that I learned over the course of writing this book, "Silent Souls Weeping," is that we have to reach out, we have to offer support and comfort and empathy to those who are struggling. There's so many people who are struggling in silence. And the minute we reach out and show a little vulnerability is the moment when true healing begins. Not just for the person who's struggling, but for the person who's reaching out too. I think it's a very powerful thing. You know, all my life I wanted God to know that he could trust me. And I feel like this experience with depression has given me a renewed sense of love and understanding. And I really feel like I have endured some of these things so that I can help others understand this terrible disease and strengthen their understanding of the atonement and what it means to go through this journey.
I never thought I would say it. But I'm really grateful for the journey through depression, because it's strengthened my understanding of grace. And I feel like I have a hope in the atonement that's brighter than I ever could have imagined. And so for that reason, I'm grateful for what I went through with depression. And I so hope that others will reach out to their family and friends, to those in their community that they know are suffering, so that we can all feel that love and that grace and that empathy and that hope.
BM: Jane, thanks so much for joining us today.
JCJ: Thank you, Boyd. Thank you so much. I'm really grateful for your interest in this and for giving me the opportunity to speak about it. I really do. Thank you.1 comment on this story
BM: So important. Jane Clayson Johnson, the book is "Silent Souls Weeping: Depression — sharing stories, finding hope." Really a fantastic resource. Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseret News.com slash/tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on Therefore, What?