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Depression and the Plan of Happiness: A Discussion with Jane Clayson Johnson
Depression and the Plan of Happiness: A Discussion with Jane Clayson Johnson

Faith Matters

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In this episode, we spoke with Jane Clayson Johnson about a really tough and important topic.

Jane is an award-winning journalist widely known for her work at CBS News, ABC News, and on the nationally syndicated NPR program, On Point. At CBS News, Jane was co-anchor of The Early Show, a regular correspondent for 48 Hours, and an investigative reporter for “Eye on America” segments for the CBS Evening News.

We spoke with Jane about her 2018 book Silent Souls Weeping, an incredibly important book that addresses depression, specifically within a Latter-day Saint context. In our discussion, Jane shared her own moving story about her struggle with depression, along with insights about how depression relates to missionaries and missionary work, a culture of perfectionism, social media usage, suicidality, and the stigma that still remains around mental health issues.

We’re so grateful to Jane for coming on and for her vulnerability and openness. If you or anyone you know struggles with depression, we invite you to listen to Jane’s message of hope, survival and resilience.

You can find Jane’s book, “Silent Souls Weeping: Depression—Sharing Stories, Finding Hope” at Deseret Book and Amazon.

Tim Chaves: Hi, everybody. This is Tim Chaves from Faith Matters. In this episode, we spoke with Jane Clayson Johnson about a really tough and important topic. Jane is an award-winning journalist, widely known for her work on CBS News, ABC News and on the nationally syndicated NPR program, On Point. At CBS News, Jane was co-anchor of The Early Show, a regular correspondent for 48 Hours, and an investigative reporter for Eye on America segments for The CBS Evening News.

We spoke with Jane about her 2018 book, Silent Souls Weeping, an incredibly important book that addresses depression, specifically within a Latter Day Saint context. In our discussion, Jane shared her own moving story about her struggle with depression, along with insights about how depression relates to missionaries and missionary work, the culture of perfectionism, social media usage, suicidality and the stigma that still remains around mental health issues. We’re so grateful to Jane for coming on and for her vulnerability and openness. If you, or anyone you know struggles with depression, we invite you to listen to Jane’s message of hope, survival and resilience.

Tim Chaves: Okay, Jane Clayson Johnson, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Jane Clayson Johnson: It’s nice to be with you, Tim and Aubrey. Thank you for having me.

Tim Chaves: It’s our pleasure. We’re just so excited to have you on, because we feel like the discussion that we’re going to have around depression and the book that you’ve written are so important. It’s something that has affected both of us personally in our families, and with our loved ones. We also thought that this is a really timely discussion, because as you point out in the book several times, the fact is that isolation, it sounds like, can really affect and aggravate symptoms of depression. Obviously, for the past few months, there has been perhaps increased isolation in almost everyone’s life due to the pandemic. So we thought, this is something that’s probably affecting a lot of people really heavily, and we wanted to have that discussion.

I was really touched at the very, very beginning of the book, on the dedication page. What you wrote was, “Just so my children will understand.” That really moved me. Then you open up with a really personal story about your experience with depression. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind, as we get started, just maybe sharing some of your story.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Well, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. I will say, I’m grateful for your willingness to talk about this and to tackle this important subject, especially during this time when a lot of people feel alone and lonely and isolated. I think mental health issues have really come to the fore for a lot of people, even more so now, so thank you.

Yes, I started my book with a very … just with it all out there. I wanted people to know that I get it. I understand and appreciate how devastating depression can be. Because when it impacted me and it affected me, it came as a surprise. I’d been through what I call situational sadness, just the ups and downs of life, but nothing that I couldn’t get out of, and nothing that a good cry or two or three couldn’t lift me out. But depression was different. It just felt so heavy and dark and it felt like someone had put me in a burlap sack and tied the top and thrown me in a deep hole. I couldn’t figure out where I was and I couldn’t get out. The harder I tried and the more I struggled, the worse it got, because I felt so guilty for having these feelings. Because I had a life that I’d always planned on and hoped for and wanted, yet I was experiencing a clinical depression unlike anything I had experienced before or have experienced since.

In the midst of it, I started to feel like I shouldn’t be here anymore, and that my husband deserved so much more than this, and that my children needed a different, better mother than me, because I can’t possibly provide for them and serve them and love them in the way that I should be able to. Because I’m just in such a dark, terrible place. I started planning, in my head, my funeral and the flower arrangements in the chapel and who would attend and the musical numbers. As ridiculous as it sounds to me now, at the time it was perfectly reasonable and rational. I just wanted to fall asleep and fade away.

I tell that story because I know many, many people have been through it and are going through it. I just want people to know that there is hope, and that you can climb out and you can find peace and you can find happiness once again.

Aubrey Chaves: Wow, thank you. So you decided to write this book after this experience that you had, and you do all these interviews, I think you say 150 teens and men and women who are members of the Church. I love that, you talk about at the beginning that the symptoms really look different for everyone. I think a lot of people may think of depression as this deep sadness. I think there was somewhere, I don’t remember, it was a friend that you quoted who said that depression is a ball and chain, and some people drag it and some people swing it.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Right.

Aubrey Chaves: I thought that was so helpful to know. Maybe would you talk about how symptoms look for different people?

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yes, thank you. Maybe I’ll just back up and say that I’m a journalist by trade, and I worked two networks, at ABC and CBS and now I fill in on a nationally syndicated NPR program. I wanted to understand people’s experiences with depression. When I called up Deseret Book and asked them if I could write a book about depression, or would they be interested, there was a silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds, and then they said, “Sure. Let’s see.”

To that point, we hadn’t really had anything like that before. So I put my journalism skills to work and I spent three years interviewing more than 150 people, as you say, men, women, teenagers, children, all members of the Church, all who struggle with depression. I interviewed them. Many I had never met before. Most, I had never met before. I did it as a journalistic exercise where I would start with one person and then that person would say, “You should talk to this and such.” By the end of it, I had this massive tree, this massive spreadsheet of people, one who led me to the next.

I categorized the interviews by topic. So there’s a chapter on kids and teens who suffer, what that looks like. There’s a chapter on missionaries who come home early, what that is like, what that experience is like. Postpartum depression, new moms, what that feels like. Suicide, what it feels like for those who have lost someone and for those who tried to commit suicide but didn’t, were not successful, and now have moved on and now look back.

To your question about what it looks like and what it is for different people, I chronicled and categorized people’s experiences. I’m not an MD or a PhD. But for different people, I think that I would say that some people feel dark and sad. Other people feel totally alone. Other people are very functioning. People can go to work and they can go to school and they can come home and collapse. They can settle into bed for 12 hours and then get back up and pull themselves together and try to do it again.

I think for everybody, the experience is different. The symptoms are different. And, Aubrey, the treatment is different, right?

Aubrey Chaves: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jane Clayson Johnson: You can’t pigeonhole one person into a set of medication or to a set of therapy skills. What works for one doesn’t work for another. I was very open about that in my book, and tried to give a lot of different perspectives, not only about the experience of what people went through, but also how they tried to get out of it, and what worked for them. Because again, what works for one doesn’t work for another.

Aubrey Chaves: Right.

Tim Chaves: So if there is such a variety of symptoms and ways that this can apply to different people, is there still a bright line between what you would call situational sadness and depression? At what point does it become depression?

Jane Clayson Johnson: Well, I think when you cannot function. I think for me, in my situation, when you’re starting to have suicidal ideation and you’re starting to feel like you would rather not be around, that’s a real problem. In my circumstance, I didn’t share my experience with anyone. I didn’t tell friends. I didn’t tell girlfriends at church. I didn’t tell my relief society ministering. I barely revealed the deepest and darkest feelings to my husband, until one day, as I say in the book, I just came to the breaking point. Then I drove off on a Sunday afternoon and I really felt like that was going to be it.

I tell the story in the book about how I was sitting in my car and crying my eyes out, and what am I going to do, and this is it. A stranger came up to my window and knocked on my window and could clearly see it was in distress, and asked, “Is there someone you can call?” That was the moment where I did call my husband. He’d been trying to get ahold of me, and I finally called him. He took over. He took me to two doctors, and the process of healing began.

I think, again, some people are very good at hiding it and situational sadness can turn into depression on the turn of a dime. It can happen very quickly, or it can happen over a long period of time. Again, everyone is different. Every situation is different.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, that makes sense. I felt like one of the most important messages of your book is this idea that depression can really change your ability to feel the Spirit. It was in Relief Society where I heard about your book for the first time. It was a discussion about this fact, that if you are depressed, you may not be able to feel the Spirit. I wonder if you would share the metaphor of the circuit breaker? Because I feel like that really worked for me. It was a way to reconcile this idea that we can believe in the promise of the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, and be really honest about the fact that we can’t feel anything when we’re depressed.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up. A wonderful woman, Louise Jorgensen, gave me this metaphor. She’s a PhD clinician. She said to me, “Having depression is like the circuit breakers in your brain have turned off.” She likened it to the circuit breakers in your house. If the lights go out and you are trying to figure out how to turn them back on, sometimes you go to the circuit breaker and it’s a circuit breaker issue. It’s not that the energy or the power has stopped coming into the house. It’s not like God has turned off His love or has stopped trying to get through to you or has stopped extending His Spirit. It’s just that the circuit breakers are down. The same thing happens in our brain. That was her analogy.

I think sometimes in the Church, as members of the Church, this was a common theme that ran through every conversation, really, that, “I’m depressed. I can’t feel the Spirit. It must be my fault.” I think as members of the Church, we face struggles that are unique to us in this area, because we’re trying to fit a disease manifests through sorrow into a religion centered on a plan of happiness. Right?

Aubrey Chaves: Okay.

Jane Clayson Johnson: You read in the scriptures, “If there be no righteousness, there be no happiness.” We learn in Mosiah that the blessed and happy state of those who keep the commandments, right?

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: The fruit of the Spirit is love and joy and peace. When I was a kid, it was confusing, because I had been taught and I read in the scriptures that if you’re doing what’s right and you’re following the commandments and you’re living by the Spirit, then you’re happy, right?

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: If you’re dark or sad or not social or whatever, then you must be doing something wrong in your life, and you need to repent. This was a huge, huge theme that I explore in the book. I discovered so many people who, like me, bring that burden back onto themselves, because they don’t feel the Spirit. Because they don’t feel the Spirit because they’re in a clinical depression, because the circuit breakers are haywire in their brain, they feel unworthy. So they say, “I’ve got to pray more.” Or, “I’ve just got to serve more.” Or, “I’ve got to go to the temple more. If I do that, then the depression will go away,” right?

Aubrey Chaves: Right.

Jane Clayson Johnson: To which many clinicians and MDs said to me, “Would you sit in a corner and pray your heart disease away? No, you would not do that. You would pray and you would go to the cardiologist,” right?

Aubrey Chaves: Right.

Jane Clayson Johnson: So the same principle applies to depression.

Aubrey Chaves: I love that.

Tim Chaves: Wow.

Aubrey Chaves: And I love in that chapter that you, I think it was Sue Clark, in that interview where she says that whenever she has the thought, “I’m a bad person,” then she knows that she needs to reach out for help, because that’s what depression says to her.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yeah, I love Sue Clark. Sue Clark was our neighbor in Boston for many years and then of course they went on to their tremendous service at BYU Idaho, and President Clark is the commissioner of church education. They reason I love Sue’s story and her openness is because she struggled for so many years, through seven children and very serious bouts of depression, which she talked about as I interviewed her for my book. But she knows now what to do, and she’s not afraid to do it. And she’s not afraid to talk about it. I love the story that she told me in her book about the first Family Home Evening meeting that she had with President Clark, in the president’s home, the first week. Remember this story? Remember the first week when they were presidents of the university?

Aubrey Chaves: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Jane Clayson Johnson: A young woman raised her hand and said, “Isn’t it true that if I’m more righteous and if I pray more, that my depression will go away?”

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Here’s Sister Clark, brand new and hadn’t really decided what … but she was willing to step up and say, “Let me tell you what has happened to me.” That’s really such an important part of my book and the message I always want to share is, the more that we’re willing to open up, as people who have struggled, as people who understand what … the experience of depression, the more we’re willing to share and open up, especially about how depression impacts the ability to feel the Spirit, I think the more we’re going to help people and save people and save testimonies, right, save people’s testimonies.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Tim Chaves: That idea of sharing as an antidote, I think makes sense. Because isolation is such a strong theme throughout the book, and marginalization, how those things can lead to aggravated depression. It seems like that can happen, obviously, within our communities and our families. But also, like you’re describing, when you feel like you can no longer feel the Spirit, that could be described as an isolation from God. It’s almost as if everything that you knew and loved has become separate from you. Is that an accurate way to describe how one might feel?

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yes. I think it’s a good question. I think every person that I interviewed for this book, Tim, every person, said that talking about their depression not only helped them, but it helped those around them. I can bear testimony to that, too. When you talk about your experience, and when you talk about your depression, and I’m not saying that you should walk around with a big flag on your arm, talking … a big sign on your sleeve, “I have depression. Let me unload.” I’m talking about judiciously and carefully finding opportunities to share and to open up and to share your experience with someone else. Because it not only helps you, but it helps them.

Before the pandemic and since my book came out, I would go around the country, different speaking engagements. At every engagement, whether it was 100 people or 5,000 people, I would ask the people in the room to stand up if they or someone that they know and love suffers with depression. Without fail, without fail, at every event, 98% of the room stands up.

Aubrey Chaves: Wow.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Everyone has a story, and everyone knows someone who has a story. You think you’re the only one? You are not the only one.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. This is reminding me of the story about the two sisters who, I can’t remember the details specifically, but one sister was diagnosed with some form of very serious cancer, and the other had a … was in the middle of a deep, clinical depression. The sister that you talked to, who was depressed, said, “I wish I could trade places with her. Because then, it would be this honorable fight.” The world was rallying around her and bringing meals and taking care of her children, and she felt like there was this shame associated with the depression that made her unable to talk about it. I think that’s just such an important point, that this really is a disease. It’s not a, like you say, not a spiritual deficit. We should rally around people in the same way that we would for any other sickness. I love that you call it your brain health. Because, it shows you that there may still be a little bit of stigma attached to this idea of mental health. It’s the same. It’s your body. It’s physical. It’s a need, just like any other part of your body.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Right. We would never hesitate to go to the doctor and get medication or treatment for asthma or for a thyroid dysfunction or for liver disease. Just go down the list, right?

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: I remember one woman who said, “I wish I could wear a cast on my head, because something is broken in there, and it’s just really hard for people to understand.” The more we can talk about brain health, as I call it in the book … Thank you for bringing that up, because I think it’s a really important point, brain health. Brain health, not mental health. Not mental health, brain health, right?

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: We talk so openly about heart health, and you got to keep your heart healthy. Well guess what? We got to keep our brain healthy, too. I think especially for kids, who may not know what’s happening in their brains, adolescents, who really struggle with this. One in five adolescents will experience depression in severe form, before adulthood. If we can talk about and open up and just, like any other issue, I talk about my heart, I have a healthy diet, I do such-and-such. Well, brain health is important, too. That includes taking care of yourself. That includes getting good sleep, getting good nutrition. That includes exercise. That includes therapy when needed. That includes medication when needed. Brain health. Let’s talk about it.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. I love that. This makes me think of the word, you bring up this idea of traction, that when you’re depressed, sometimes what you really need is just to get some traction, and that for a lot of people, medication may be the traction that they need to just get going and to establish some kind of regimen to stay healthier. Would you talk about that? Or maybe other ways that you can find traction when you really are in … when it’s already started, when you’re already in that dark place.

Jane Clayson Johnson: No, I appreciate it. Let me just say quickly, to compliment you both, you’re very prepared. It’s so nice when interviewers are prepared and have done their homework. You guys are great.

Tim Chaves: Oh, thanks.

Aubrey Chaves: Thank you.

Jane Clayson Johnson: I talk about in the book about sometimes … well, I’ll stop. I am not a big medication person. My whole life, I try to … I don’t really need that extra whatever. I just don’t like medication. I’m a naturalist kind of person. But when I was in the depths of my depression, I knew. I just knew that I had to do something that included pharmaceutical drugs, medication. I had to do it. A doctor talked to me and said, “It’s like you’re on ice. It’s like you’re on ice with a pair of shoes, and you just can’t get it. You can’t get your foothold. You can’t get traction.” What medication does is, and therapy does, it helps you to be able to grab onto something and take one more step. I likened it in the book to, in the worst of my depression, I got to the top of a big, steep flight of stairs and the stair in front of me was so far away, I couldn’t reach it. Below me was this dark, awful abyss.

What medication did for me was, it helped me be able to reach that next step. It brought that next step closer to me, so that I could reach out and grab on, and then take another step, when I was ready. I think people, and that’s the other big theme of my book, is stigma, the stigma attached to mental illness issues, and how people are afraid to talk about it or embarrassed to talk about it. And not just embarrassed for a mental health diagnosis, not just embarrassed that they have this problem, but that they need treatment for it, and that treatment might include seeing a therapist, seeing a psychiatrist, seeing a psychologist, and taking medication. Thank you for that question.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: Yeah. I have a bit of personal experience, too, that I think this reminds me of. When I was on my mission, I’ve talked about this just a little bit on the podcast, but I suffered from, I would say, very severe OCD. There were two things, I think, that really kept me from talking about it with anyone. The first one was that I didn’t … I had my own religious explanations for it, and as a 19, 20 year old, I did not … OCD was not in my vocabulary, at least in that sense, as something that could be diagnosable and could actually affect me in the way it was affecting me. So I thought that what I was experiencing was either the Spirit or the lack of the Spirit or Satan in some way tempting me, or putting these thoughts in my head or whatever it was. It didn’t occur to me to talk about this as a mental health issue.

The second one, like you bring up, is that stigma. Once I got home from my mission, and I think that this is the first time that I really started to get a little bit of my own traction with this was, when I started to date Aubrey and opened up to her about my issues a little bit. It was like a huge relief, just to say the words. We’re talking about a process of years, obviously, but that was what set me on the road to eventually being able to get treated and start to recover from that.

Jane Clayson Johnson: I love that you share that. Gosh, Tim, thank you so much. I know you’ve talked about it on your podcast, but it just warms my heart to hear you share that. Can I ask you a question?

Tim Chaves: Please.

Jane Clayson Johnson: How did your OCD impact your mission experience? Were you able to fully function? Was it harder for you to have, quote unquote, a good experience on your mission?

Tim Chaves: I think it was. Honestly, the number one most important thing for me was to hide it.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Right, right.

Tim Chaves: I did not want anyone to know that I was feeling what I was feeling. And it was-

Jane Clayson Johnson: And why not? Why not?

Tim Chaves: I was ashamed.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yep.

Tim Chaves: The thing is with OCD, too, it puts such dark thoughts in your head. It can, at least, depending on-

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yes.

Tim Chaves: It can affect people in so many different ways. But there are things that would be really embarrassing, especially when there’s such a constant emphasis on worthiness. That’ll really get you as a missionary, that’s trying to keep all the rules as best you can, and it’s making you feel constantly unworthy. But the idea that if you’re being righteous, you should feel happy. As a missionary, they even tell you, at least back in my day, we’re now talking 15 years ago or whatever, but it’s like, “You should be walking down the street with a smile on your face, because people should see the joy that the gospel brings to your life.”

Jane Clayson Johnson: Right.

Tim Chaves: It was like, “Okay, I got to have that smile on my face, otherwise other people’s salvation is at stake here, if they don’t see that smile.” That’s not just with people in the community, but also with your fellow missionaries. If you’re serving in a leadership position or whatever it is, you feel the need to set that example. Yeah, to answer your question, I did have a full mission experience from an external perspective, and I served in a lot of leadership positions. I think if somebody just had a video camera on me, they would have said, “This is a great mission.” But internally, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I was tortured. It was a constant 24-hour-a-day, just weighted blanket that I never … that I could never seem to get rid of. Like I said, I had these, I had spiritual explanations for what was really a brain health issue.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Right.

Tim Chaves: I had no idea that that’s what was going on. Actually, one more thing on this, when you were talking about suicidality, I never considered myself to be suicidal. But there were, during the darker times for sure, I started to imagine how much better it would be if I were gone.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Right.

Tim Chaves: It wasn’t like I was planning anything, but it was like, “You know, it would be good if I got hit by a bus today,” or whatever.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Chaves: Yeah, sorry. So I really, yeah, I really feel for you, and I hope that we can help get the word out that this is something that people can overcome. That darkest moment doesn’t define you.

Jane Clayson Johnson: That was really beautiful. I talk to many missionaries, returned missionaries, who shared experiences like yours. I think the value in opening up, like so many did to me and like you’ve done here and have done previously, I think the value in that is helping someone else who won’t have to go through the pain and the suffering and the stigma and the embarrassment, and perhaps even worse. I talked to, I can think of several missionaries right now, returned missionaries, one who had a similar experience to you.

She was just so dark and so sad and had multiple mental health issues that hadn’t been diagnosed before her mission. She told me she’d be walking down the street with her companion and she’d see a bus and she’s fantasize about stepping in front of the bus. She was in a very bad place. I think a lot of our missionaries are. Many are not, but there’s a percentage of our young missionaries that really struggle. I think talking about it, opening up and sharing is the antidote to helping them. It is the antidote to creating an environment where we’re not afraid and not ashamed to open up, and to make changes that are going to help our young people.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, yeah. I loved that whole chapter on missionary work. Of all the chapters, I feel like that one just, it hurt my heart to hear all of these interviews with missionaries who had tried so hard, so hard, that they had actually reached their limit and come home before their two years or their 18 months was up. There was one story that I loved about the Elder Holland. I think it was before Face to Face. He had a missionary ask him a question about what should he say when people ask if he’s a returned missionary, because he had only served for four months and then came home, anxiety and depression. Elder Holland gave the most beautiful answer, and my favorite part was just basically he said, “When someone asks you if you served a mission, you say, ‘Yes,’ and you don’t follow it up with anything. You don’t say, ‘But only for four months.’ You say, ‘Yes, I am a returned missionary.'”

I thought that was just so liberating, just this general permission to say you served a mission, and you should be proud of the time that you were there, and there should be no shame about how many days or weeks or months you were away. I think you said, only 40, something like 46, I think it was 46% of missionaries who return early felt like they could really say that they were returned missionaries, and a vast majority felt like they had had feelings of failure or felt uncomfortable being with people talking about missions. I just thought, we’ve got to do a better job welcoming these missionaries home, and not letting them assume that we are disappointed.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Exactly. Exactly right. A lot of this is how we welcome them back. It is how we bring them back into the fold, and how we include them in our community of saints again. This topic, all of it, I’m so passionate about. I can’t say enough. Elder Holland in his landmark address on mental health said, a quote that I have committed to memory and I think about it all the time, that these afflictions, mental illnesses are some of the realities of mortal life. There should be no more shame in acknowledging them than in acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure, or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor.

Tim Chaves: Wow.

Jane Clayson Johnson: An apostle of the Lord has told us, Elder Holland and others. But depression is not the result of some sort of personal inadequacy, on a mission or otherwise. It’s not a black mark on your character. Just like any other physical condition, as we have said. We have to bust the stigma of mental illness. Nobody thinks that you got to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you got a cancer diagnosis and go at it alone, you know?

Aubrey Chaves: Right.

Jane Clayson Johnson: That’s just not what we do.

Aubrey Chaves: Exactly.

Jane Clayson Johnson: We embrace and we empathize and we help. We mourn with those that mourn. We mourn with those that mourn. We can do this better.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, yeah. Let’s stay here for another second. I think there are a lot of missionaries coming home early, either because their missions were ended, and so maybe that feels a little different, but I think this is also one of the most difficult times to serve a mission. Because so many are heading out into the mission field and then into quarantine. It’s like the ultimate isolation. What does that actually look like, when a missionary in your ward or in your family comes home? How should that really look? Do you ask? Do you not ask? What do you do?

Jane Clayson Johnson: Well, I think each family, again, having said we should share and open up, each family has their own level of comfortability. I tell the story in my book of a mom whose son came home, and this could apply during pandemic, she said, “Max is coming home from his mission and he had mental health issues that we didn’t understand and please knock on the door. Please come over. Please welcome him. Don’t be shy or afraid to say, ‘You came home early. We’re glad you’re back'”

Aubrey Chaves: Yes.

Jane Clayson Johnson: “Let’s get you a calling. Let’s have you speak on a Zoom devotional to our ward. Let’s figure out a way to integrate and not be afraid and ashamed.” As Elder Holland said, “You served your time and you came back for a condition that if you broke your back on your mission, you’d come home and you’d get treatment.” There’s no difference. There’s no difference.

Aubrey Chaves: Yes, I love that. Yeah.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: Maybe we can talk about toxic perfectionism, too. I will never forget the story from Dr. Doty-Yells, who I think was a crisis worker at UVRMC in Provo.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yes.

Aubrey Chaves: You say she notices this uptake in walk-ins to the ER, mostly women, on Sundays. That was like a stab in the heart. Like these women suddenly, on Sunday afternoons, they see this big influx of people who are experiencing acute anxiety and depression. So she does her own little qualitative study to figure out what is going on and toxic perfectionism is one of the major risk factors that she finds. Would you talk about what that is and maybe how we’re especially susceptible to it?

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yes. The chapter on perfectionism in my book is really important. I confess, I’m a recovering perfectionist. I can talk about that a little bit. But I think Dr. Doty-Yells’ example is really instructive. She, as you say, was this crisis counselor and these women would come in on Sunday afternoons and they would tell her that they’d heard a talk or a lesson in church or somehow felt some guilt instilled in them, or shame. Or, they’d received a church calling and felt completely and totally inadequate, and they couldn’t measure up.

So she went out to study and understand what makes perfectionism such a recurring theme in cases of depression, especially among women. I’ll never forget what she said to me. She said, “What I found out in my research is that women especially are trying to put on their best image, their best face, their best appearance, which is a good thing. But they forget that in reality, we all struggle. We are all imperfect. And it’s okay to reveal that, too.”

I think social media has created a real problem for us all, in trying to put up the best, most perfect image of ourselves. But I talk about perfectionism as this idea that … well, I give the example of the box in the book. Do you remember that story?

Aubrey Chaves: Yes.

Jane Clayson Johnson: The box.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: One of my children had a very serious issue with anxiety.I’ll tell the story briefly. We went to a therapist, and it was a class, it was an art therapy class. The idea of the assignment, this therapist came in with a bunch of boxes and a huge pile of magazines and some scissors and tape, and she said our assignment was to create an authenticity box. On the outside of the box, we were supposed to tape all sorts of pictures and word descriptions that represent who we are and how we present ourselves to other people, essentially how we want others to view us. That was the outside. That was our image. Then on the inside of the box, we were supposed to tape more pictures and word descriptions that describe who we really are behind closed doors, when nobody is watching.

I did this with my child and after about an hour of cutting and taping and talking, we very clearly understood the lesson, that the more alike the outside and the inside of your box, the healthier your mental state. The more alike the outside and the inside of the box, the healthier your mental state.

I have since replicated this box project with youth groups and book groups. I even spoke to a group at the Harvard Business School. I was so nervous to have these business, future business leaders at Harvard Business School cutting and taping on their boxes. But I’ll tell you what, they were into it and they loved it. Because you know what? It’s a very visible, visual reminder of everything that’s wrong with perfectionism. I could go on and on about this, but the scriptures tell us, “Be therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” right?

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: The scriptural translation is to be complete or whole. It’s not without flaw right here right now. I think we have to remember that, over and over, and have our outside match our inside.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: The more we do that and the more we remember that perfectionism is a dangerous, dangerous cocktail, especially in conjunction with depression, I think the better off we’ll be.

Aubrey Chaves: I love that-

Tim Chaves: Do you have-

Aubrey Chaves: Sorry, go ahead, Tim.

Tim Chaves: I was just going to ask if you have something specific that you think can help with perfectionism? I’m super curious, because this is something that I’ve dealt with obviously. We have a child, too, that is a budding perfectionist. We’ve talked a lot about sharing, opening it up, about medication if necessary, therapy. Is there anything that you’ve seen with the subject of perfectionism in particular that you think can help get you into a different mindset?

Jane Clayson Johnson: Well, in my own life, I will tell you that for many years, I was very careful not to let anyone into my house unless it was perfectly clean. Even if we had people over for dinner, I would have my husband carry piles of our stuff upstairs to the bedroom, so that the family room and the kitchen would look perfectly spotless. Then when the guests left, we’d haul everything back downstairs to live again. We had two little kids, and I had three teenage step-kids. I was, in the Mary and Martha story, I was the overwhelmed Martha, chronically scurrying around, anxious to make it all look just right, because someone had to do it. But I had convinced myself that somehow a perfectly clean house was a reflection of my worth.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: My worth as a person, of somehow of my mothering skills or my homemaking skills or my time management skills or whatever. So it wasn’t a surprise to me, to be perfectly honest, that so many people that I interviewed, especially women, for a book about depression, repeatedly mentioned the appearance of their homes, or their children, or how they looked or what others thought of them. I think in our culture, it can be very easy and tempting to put up this façade of perfection. I think we’re susceptible to it as women in the Church, because where else is our capacity to be perfect or not more visible to others than at church, right?

Aubrey Chaves: Right.

Jane Clayson Johnson: I remember during the depths of my own depression sitting in Sunday meetings, hoping that no one would notice how dark and depurate I felt. That’s another example, the I’m fine, and happy face perfectionist façade. I’d go through church long enough to make it through, and show that happy face, and then collapse into bed for the rest of the day. I think the more we can be real and be honest and be open and be authentic, that’s-

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: I love that.

Jane Clayson Johnson: That’s an example to others. But authenticity, to me, is really a … it was really a turning point. Now when people come over, and the house is a disaster, “Okay, so what. You see us as we are.” Like, the missionaries right before pandemic came over. It was just a crazy tornado whirlwind in my house, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, guys. It’s just been a rough day.”

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: That’s so interesting. This just reminds me, in OCD treatment, there’s this concept called exposure response prevention. Basically what it means, and I don’t know if this … I’m not a therapist by any means. This may apply elsewhere. I just know this from personal experience. But the idea is that you’re exposed to some trigger that would cause one of your compulsions to come into play, and instead of reacting the way that you normally would, to try to cover yourself, you completely prevent yourself from engaging in that response. So it’s the exposure and then the response prevention. The story that you tell about hauling the clothes upstairs, to me the exposure is having people come over to your house, and the response prevention is saying, “I’m not going to haul anything upstairs.”

Jane Clayson Johnson: Right.

Tim Chaves: Like you said, another way to say that is just authenticity. But I love the idea of just getting in reps, exposing your imperfections and getting used to that feeling. I think based on my own experience over time, that can really bear fruit.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Right. I will say, because I think it’s important to add here, that perfectionism and clinical depression are a bad mix, and they’re a toxic combination. I quoted in the book, the American Psychological Association published a study on what they called toxic perfectionism. They report that it leads to, among other things, the feeling of living an inauthentic life. It contributes to a negative self view, a sense of despair and imposterism. Further, they report a link between perfectionism and suicide.

Aubrey Chaves: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jane Clayson Johnson: Perfectionism and suicide, which they said is stronger, that link is stronger than believed and really under recognized. It’s very clear on many levels that toxic perfectionism is detrimental to good mental health and as I have come to understand, it’s absolutely antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tim Chaves: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, yes. It seems like for a lot of people that you interviewed, community was either the medicine, like we’ve been talking about, that it’s a place to be vulnerable and be validated and to feel supported, but it can also be the poison, because it’s where you feel the most judged and the most inauthentic. As we get ready to go back to church, how can we make our words a safe, safe place for people who are trying to heal?

Jane Clayson Johnson: It’s a really good question. I love this question. I’ve thought a lot about this, actually, during this period of quarantine. We’re in Boston, and we locked down pretty early. We were in quarantine for three months. We have not gone back to church yet in Boston. We’re still having our Zoom devotionals every Sunday.

It’s so interesting, I have thought a lot about what it means to really worship during this time, what it means to really feel the Spirit. Not the act of going to church, but the act of worshiping when you don’t have the opportunity to go to a chapel and to partake of the sacrament in the traditional way. I’ve been thinking about it differently, and how I really have to create the most … the deepest form of worship and connection, because nobody else is going to do it for me. I feel like I have been able to really brush aside all those superficial, superfluous kind of … what would you call it, Sunday traditions, and really buckle down and focus on what it means to worship, and really develop a tighter connection and a closer relationship to my Heavenly Father.

I hope to carry that through now, as we start to come out of this period. I know many people are going back to church, but let’s think about that. How can we extend this deep period of worship? I’m not all gussied up every Sunday for our Zoom devotionals. I don’t have makeup on.

Aubrey Chaves: Right.

Jane Clayson Johnson: What does that matter? But I’m in my scriptures. But I’m in come follow me with my family, and I’m thinking about how I can serve in a unique and different way.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: That’s a really powerful thing, I think.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, yeah. I love that. I love that. I feel like before we end, we should just talk about suicide for a second. I was really blown away by the statistics that you included in the suicide chapter, especially the Utah statistics, which is where we are and where, I think you say, one-third of the members of the Church in the United States live.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yep.

Aubrey Chaves: I think you said between ages 15 and 24, it was the leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24. Could you just talk about what you do if you are having these thoughts, maybe like Tim mentioned, which is … and like you mentioned, that maybe you’re not … maybe you don’t have a plan, but you’re wishing you were gone? Anyone who’s really struggling with thoughts that dark, or if you think that a child or a friend is suffering from something like that, what do you do? Who do you call? Where do you go? Who do you reach for?

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yeah, thank you for bringing up that statistic. Can I please accentuate it again? In Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, the leading cause of death. We really have to stop and start thinking when that is a statistic that’s taking our young people.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: I interviewed Dr. Thomas Demaria. He’s a nationally recognized expert on this. He’s the director with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. I asked him specifically about this issue of our kids and our teenagers and just suicide more broadly speaking. He said something that’s really important. He said, “We’ve got to talk about this. Talking about suicide does not prompt people to kill themselves.” Research shows that asking someone about suicidal thoughts actually reduces their suicide risk. When they feel like they can’t talk about these things, when they have to stuff it down and sort of turn away from it, that’s when the trouble really comes.

Aubrey Chaves: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jane Clayson Johnson: I think that’s the first and most important thing. Secondarily, getting good clinical treatment, finding a doctor that’s really going to help you. Sometimes that means going to the emergency room. Sometimes that means just having … doing what you can in the moment. I’ll never forget, and I tell this story in the book, about a young girl from my ward a couple of years ago who was on her way … who stopped off at my house, serendipitously, on her way to jump off a bridge.

It was a January day and it was raining outside. I heard a knock at my door in the morning and I opened the door and there she was, standing with her hoodie over her face and her hands in her pockets and tears rolling down her face. We live near the Interstate, and something just said to her, “Turn and go down this street and go see Jane.”

As she and I sat on my couch that morning and talked about what was so hard and so painful that she would rather be dead, she began to open up and we talked for about an hour or so, and then I took her to the emergency room, and her mom came and met us. I think about that story and sort of this young girl’s willingness to be vulnerable and to give it one last shot. “I’m on my way to jump off a bridge, but if Jane’s not home, I’m going.” Luckily, I was home.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Talking about these things and opening up and starting conversations and recognizing when patterns change with young people, when they remove themselves from their life or their interests or when a spouse is angry or sleeping a lot more. There are lots of indicators, but we have to be willing to open conversations and to start talking about it, because if we don’t, I just, I fear that we’ll continue to lose people.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: I also, I would love to just bring up before we end, too, you mentioned that there are high levels of depression in the LGBTQ community.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yes.

Tim Chaves: The quote from your book is, “They do not feel embraced theologically or accepted culturally into the Latter Day Saint community.”

Jane Clayson Johnson: Yep.

Tim Chaves: I would love to talk about how we can be as accepting as possible and help those people as much as we can, both as ward members, leaders, parents, just allies generally. Any thoughts you have on that?

Jane Clayson Johnson: Well, I agree with you 100% and I would just add these statistics, that LGBTQ youth who are rejected by their parents are at special risk for suicide. They are 8.4 times more likely than non-rejected LGBTQ youth to attempt suicide.

Tim Chaves: Oh, my goodness.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Beyond that, they report higher levels of depression at six times the rate of non-rejected youth. These are startling numbers and should really get our attention. We have to embrace. We have to love. We have to welcome. We have to understand everyone in our community. There’s always space. There’s always room. There’s always an extra seat. There’s always a place. I just, I get chills when I say this, even right now, we have to change the way we think about and approach this, especially for our young people. Please, please make an effort. Please make an effort to embrace and love and understand those members of our community who may be different from you. The Savior loves them, and we need to love them, too.

Aubrey Chaves: Thank you.

Tim Chaves: That’s beautiful.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: Thank you so much, Jane. We really just value so much the work that you’re doing and just the hope that you’re spreading. We just love you and we love this, and can’t thank you enough for coming on.

Jane Clayson Johnson: Well, I thank both of you. I am grateful. I do a lot of podcasts and I do a lot of interviews, and you two are special. Not only are you prepared, but you have a very kind and sweet spirit about you. I’m grateful for your willingness to talk about this. I’m grateful for your insights personally and your willingness to share them. Thanks for having me on.

Aubrey Chaves: Thank you.

Jane Clayson Johnson: I wish you all the best. Thank you.

Aubrey Chaves: Thank you.

Tim Chaves: Thank you, Jane.

Tim Chaves: Thanks so much for listening, and a special thanks, again, to Jane for coming on to speak with us. If you found this conversation valuable, we really want to encourage you to pick up her book, Silent Souls Weeping, at Deseret Books or at Amazon.

Tim Chaves: As always, to everyone who’s left a positive review of our podcast or content on any platform, we really do appreciate it. We read each review and comment, are grateful for the encouragement, and for helping get the word out about Faith Matters. We hope everybody’s staying healthy and safe and as always, you can check out more at faithmatters.org.

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