There are ghettos in Mormon discourse. There is the ghetto of pornography and addiction where men alone reside and there is the ghetto reserved for the women. Illustratively, talks about addiction are given in the Priesthood Session of General Conference. The women’s quarter is a discourse on self-esteem and depression. Perhaps, these districts are not as disparate as would be suggested by our rhetoric and we might better understand LDS women’s challenges through their relation to addictive behaviours.
This ghettoizing is disturbingly manifest at the Social and Emotional Strength section of ProvidentLiving.org: articles, for women or written by them. Why is self-esteem/self-worth such a gendered issue in the Church? Is this the dark corner in which female addiction hides? There are signs that the tide is turning in view of Elder Holland’s most recent talk. But for the most part, I think we are missing the boat when we ask if Mormon women are more depressed than other women instead of are they more vulnerable to an addiction to appearing perfect? It makes me wonder if we are hacking at the leaves instead of striking at the root.
While it has been hotly debated since the late 1970’s (1), Mormon women do not have rates of depression higher than that of the general population. According to Andrea Radke who wrote The Place of Mormon Women: Perceptions, Prozac, Polygamy, Priesthood, Patriarchy, and Peace:
…qualitative studies have demonstrated that Mormon women do not suffer from depression on any significantly greater level than their national counterparts. No study has successfully shown that Mormon women have a higher rate of anti-depressant use than other women. Any assessment of life satisfaction needs to reject monolithic representations of Mormon women’s so-called tendency to depression, and instead reflect diverse factors such as age, education, genetics and access to counseling services and support networks.
This is not to say that Mormon women don’t have challenges. In an essay called, “Seeking Improvement, Not Perfection” Lowell Bennion remembers:
One evening at the close of a fireside, a young mother came to me and said: “I am supposed to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, a perfect neighbor, homemaker and church worker; and I am none of these. What am I to do? I’m frustrated.” I said to her, “Don’t try to be perfect in this life. Be a good mother, a cheerful wife, a reasonably good housekeeper, a conscientious church worker….[A] reason why it is unwise to seek perfection is that we are bound to fail…This leaves us with a sense of guilt, a burden of shame and disappointment. A certain amount of remorse is good for us. It may lead to an admission of wrongdoing and repentance; but too much can enervate and discourage us, as illustrated by the remarks of the young mother at the fireside.
I suspect that it is an addiction to, or more appropriately, an obsession with the relentless pursuit of perfection that lies at the heart of much of the anxiety experienced by Mormon women.
Marleen Williams (1999), assistant clinical professor at the counseling center at Brigham Young University, examined the relationship of religious orientation, traditional family role values, and perfectionism to depression for both a LDS group and a mainline Protestant group of women. No significant differences existed in the level of depression in the LDS or Protestant groups; however, perfectionism was related to depression in both groups. In response to the question, “How do you feel your religion affects your happiness and mental well-being?” subjects offered insight into their feelings. Religious issues appeared to play a more prominent role for Mormon women than for Protestants who are mildly depressed. Notably, areas of effect were support and judgment from others, the ability to set priorities and make decisions when value conflicts exist, the need for approval and to “look good,” self-blame, and in taking responsibility for others’ behavior.
These researchers suggest that the Mormon cultural emphasis on striving for perfection causes women who experience high levels of shame and guilt to feel inadequate and unworthy, which, in turn, may lead to depression. Consequently, while there are characteristics of Mormon women who are depressed that are similar to women who are depressed in the population at large, there is also a unique interaction of these characteristics and the LDS culture.
One mental health organization declares that perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence. There are big differences between perfectionists and healthy achievers. Perfectionists believe that mistakes must never be made and that the highest standards of performance must always be achieved. Those who strive for excellence in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in trying to meet high standards. Perfectionists on the other hand are full of self-doubts and fears of disapproval, ridicule and rejection. The healthy striver has drive, while the perfectionist is driven. Perfectionists are likely to experience decreased productivity, impaired health, troubled interpersonal relationships, and low self-esteem. Perfectionists are vulnerable to depression, anxiety, obsessiveness, compulsiveness, suicidal thoughts, loneliness, frustration, and anger.
This quest for perfection is possibly the source of the distinct mental health issues experienced by Mormon women. This link between addiction to perfectionism and depression, eating disorders and co-dependency is made most explicitly in He Did Deliver Me From Bondage, an adaptation of the A.A. Twelve Step program using LDS theology and scriptures.
Church discourse is polarized. Men reside in a narrative of addiction while women reside in the area of esteem. While women do not suffer from depression at higher rates than the population in general, perhaps the unique challenges of Mormon women may be assuaged by crossing the boundaries that exist in our discourse.
- Bergin, Payne, Jenkins, & Cornwall, 1994; Jensen, Jensen, & Wiederhold, 1993; Johnson, 2004; Spendlove, 1982; Spendlove et al., 1984; Williams, 1999.