On Physical/Mental Illness and George Albert Smith


George Albert Smit

I recently read an article on George Albert Smith, the 8th president of the LDS church, that pointed me to a longer article on George Albert Smith, the 8th president of the LDS church. The longer article was written by Mary Jane Woodger, a woman that I know. She was my Teaching of the Living Prophets professor when I was a sophomore at BYU and is more conservative than me, and much more not-a-feminist than me, but is also devoted, sincere, and kind. All in all: I like her.

I was eager to read her article for a few reasons, the strongest being that mental illness is an issue that is near to me. I have seen close family members and friends struggle with this. I have seen myself struggle with this. When I read it (beginning on about page 120), I learned that George Albert Smith was bedridden for long periods of time, including year periods of time. There were also expansive periods when he (as an apostle) was not only incapable of performing his services in the church, but was incapable of attending church services altgoether. During such periods he would occasionally try to do his perceived duty, but any attempt would bring his illness on even stronger. This eager, willing man would be filled with anxiety and nervousness to the point of shaking and near collapse. He would then be taken home in shame and loneliness, where he would wait out the latest episode, or receive a Priesthood blessing to seemingly no avail. At one point, and at a doctor’s order, he traveled to California from Utah in an effort to heal. He would stay there for a long time, and his family would visit on occasion.

On one such visit, they all went for a swim in the grand Pacific Ocean. Later he went by himself, with disastrous consequences. He was not a strong swimmer. He was not strong–physically or mentally. Thus, it was probably not the best idea for him to venture out unattended. He almost drowned, but was spotted by someone on shore, and rescued. During his long bouts of depression he felt inadequate and troubled, like he was letting God and the church down, as well as his friends and family. Despite all of the things he tried, he was unable to bring himself out of his depression. It eventually did get better (and he eventually became the prophet), but he waded through the murkiness of an overly anxious life for many, many years.

These stories are absent from the manual that we will study every Sunday for this entire year. I wish that they were present. Can you imagine if they were? What if there was a lesson entirely devoted to this prophet’s mental anguish? What could that do for those who similarly suffer? What self love might increase? What guilt and unnecessary anxiety would decrease? Would such individuals not see (even a small glimpse) of the truth that they are still loved by God and are still worthy of inspiration and direction? What could it do for those who live with and love those who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses? What greater measure of compassion and understanding might be brought about?

I have been thinking extra hard about these things, because at this moment, one of my relatives is struggling with mental illness in very deep ways (even more than normal ways), while another relative, sharing the exact same relation, is struggling with physical illness in very deep ways. Both need help. Both are in pain, but it is a different kind of pain. And each is responded to differently. This disparity has caused me to reflect on both the parallels and inconsistencies between mental and physical illness. Mental illness is not as easy to understand. It is more quiet, more private. It is much easier for people to have compassion for those who are outwardly ill. In my church (the LDS church), it is common for individuals to bring meals to families after births, deaths, and illnesses. This has been true in the case of the second relative. I want to emphasize that I am happy that this is the case: I am happy that this relative is receiving external support from those who love her.

But, I wonder: What about people who have conditions of the brain? Do they receive the support that they need? It is also a sickness, but one that we still don’t know very much about. One that seems so different. The first relative is not receiving meals or visitors willing to help her clean her home. Maybe she doesn’t need those things, but she may need something else, like a listening ear or simply love, that thing that all of us need and that none of us receives enough. She probably needs those closest to her not to give up on her, or be frustrated with her when she can’t be as calm or as good at decision making as before. We do not become frustrated or angry with those who are afflicted by physical maladies. Why would we do so here? Is it any more her fault?

I asked the first relative why she thought there were these differences. She answered that the other is in danger of dying. While I admit that that is true, I also submit that depression is death. Depression makes life feel like death so that the person wants to die. When someone is depressed, it is hard to get help. It is hard to believe that help is possible. It is hard to have even that small hope. It is even harder to have the big hope, that sadness can give way to happiness. The only way that I can explain it is to recall my Oregon days. Boston, Massachusetts does not work, because there when it rains, it rains all day, pours all day. But Oregon (at least in Cottage Grove, Oregon), when it is raining it rains for a comparatively little while, before becoming sunny again: fully sunny. Even though I knew this, it was difficult when I was walking home from school in the gray, cold downpour to believe that it would ever be bright again. The sky looked as if it could never be sunny again with that bright clear blue that I loved. But it happened. Every time. And the reverse was also true: When it was sunny, it was hard to believe that it could ever be rainy. Depression feels like that: when you are happy, you are happy, but when you are sad, it seems like you will always be sad.

I have not been bedridden for years like George Albert Smith, but I have been for days, and have sometimes wanted to be for more than days: weeks, months, etc. The first time I realized I had depression I was 18. I was living away from home for the first time and I was more homesick than I ever thought possible. I cried every day. Multiple times a day. My mom pled with me to seek help, giving me lecture after lecture about how we don’t judge people who are coughing for taking cough syrup. She tried to convince me that it was the same thing, even though it felt so different. She said it was the responsible thing, to get help.

For that entire year, I refused, though I continued to struggle. I thought many things, none of which were true. The first of these untruths was that it was a matter of faith. “If I just had enough faith I would be healed!” The second untruth took the form of a feeling: I felt weak because I could not take care of the problem by myself when I wanted to so desperately. I didn’t think God loved me anymore, and I didn’t feel worth. Likely because of these first two things, I couldn’t feel love and I couldn’t love. I still remember my best friend hugging me for a long time, mourning with one who mourned, and me as the original mourner feeling nothing. She couldn’t break her way in, and I could not accept her love. The one thing I could do was school. I could still go to class, I could still do my homework, I could still get my usual B+’s and A-‘s, but that was all. Someone else close to me could not do school during her own time of great struggle, but could do work.

The next most terrible time was in Boston, after the worst heartbreak I have ever experienced. When my heart broke, it felt as if the rest of me broke too, my mind as well as my body. I could not sleep without pills, and I didn’t eat fruits or vegetables for two weeks. I was vegan at the time, so I am not even sure what I lived on. I can only assume that it was mostly candy. Three dear women took me into their apartment for days. They had me sleep on their couch. They gave me tea and nutritious meals. One serenaded me on the violin. Another friend flew me to her North Carolina city, and then called me every day for a long time afterward to make sure I was (reasonably) okay. It was only after their boosts of love and care that I was able to start making good choices by myself again. I started exercising daily. I picked up books after a long setting down. Scripture books and poetry books. I read every day for two hours. I returned to fruits and vegetables. I went on walks and listened to Noah and the Whale and Fanfarlo on repeat. I stopped listening to Bright Eyes and my usual sad music for awhile. I started going to a Jewish therapist. And with all of those things together, I stayed alive.

One and a half years after that, I am doing much better, though I still have bad days, bad hours, and bad minutes. Occasionally dark thoughts still creep into my mind. I do my best to shut them out. I do my best to do the things that help me be happy, but I remember that when I am overly sad, it is not my fault. It does not demonstrate a lack of faith or a human failing. It only demonstrates a human being with a human brain and heart, who sometimes gets depressed as part of possessing that human brain and heart. I don’t question God’s love for me in the ways I did ten years ago. I don’t wonder if my worthiness or ability to receive inspiration is dependent on my happiness.

I get frustrated with the impatience of people who don’t understand depression, and who carelessly affirm, “You can just choose to be happy!” (I should probably try to increase my patience for them.) Choosing happiness has never been that simple for me, and is not that simple for others like me. There is no happiness switch. While I do not believe that depressed or anxious people can simply “choose to be happy,” I do believe that there are things that they (we) can do to work to be happy. Even still, it is often not possible to engage in these tasks until first receiving the requisite love and support necessary, as my time in Boston so clearly taught me. With that said, please let us be a little kinder to those with physical and mental illnesses. Please let us remember George Albert Smith, that he a prophet, a man chosen by God, also suffered in these ways. I think we will see a growth of love and understanding capable of healing heart and mind wounds, and it assuredly will help us keep our covenants to strengthen feeble knees and lift up the hands which hang so sorrowfully down.


  1. Rachel, my dear, you are lovely. Your thoughts are clear and strong, your will is even stronger, and your desire to encourage, enlighten, and empower is beautiful. Thank you for sharing just a little snippet of the amazing woman you are with the world. Love, your sister in the gospel, and for real…Cumorah

  2. Such an important post, Rachel. I’m going to immediately link this post to the Relief Society lesson posts, with the hope that our RS teachers will bring some of these points into their George Albert Smith lessons.

    • Hi Michelle. Thanks for pointing it out. I sent the post to a few different sites after my friend suggested it, but didn’t hear back from FMH, so didn’t know that they also decided to post it. I suppose a very pleasant surprise/coincidence that it happens to be on the same day.

  3. Thank you, Rachel, this is an amazing and necessary post. I don’t know why but the violin serenade really struck me… What a beautiful thing for your friend to do. I’m glad you have such a good support system.

    The more I think about this, the more acutely I feel the missed opportunity here (and hope that the Bloggernacle has enough real-life influence that many wards will get to hear this message anyway through lovely teachers who incorporate it in). Does church leadership know about the kinds of problems people with depression and anxiety often have in talking to their bishops? In which really wonderful, well-meaning but just untrained men don’t recognize the signs and give people assignments to do service and pray more and read their scriptures, as though these things were a matter of not doing enough? It occurs to me that they might actually not know, because who’s going to tell them? Certainly not the bishops who don’t know what they don’t know… I don’t see how they couldn’t have at least heard about the issue, but maybe they don’t know the extent? In any case, can you imagine how much good it could do to have this idea out there and visible? Then we could start countering this:

    (This is known as the abstinence only approach to teaching about depression: Don’t get depressed!) By not talking about it, though, they send the opposite message: depression is evil, wrong, and shameful.

    As though depression is something you can not do, as though anxiety can be fixed by taking a deep breath.

    You don’t even have to be in danger of dying–a person with a broken bone will almost inevitably get more understanding and acceptance than a person with a mental illness. What is behind this bias? I can’t figure it out. I thought it was visual at first, but is sickle-cell anemia visible? Diabetes? Then on the other hand, Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects the mind, but it’s respected as a “real” disease in ways that many psychiatric ones aren’t. Why? Again there’s a question of visibility–it’s not to the naked eye, but the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s is visibly different. Well, so is the brain of a person with schizophrenia. So really, where does this come from?

    I don’t know. This is such a hard issue. There’s mental illness in my family too, and I have some combination of depression, anxiety, and social phobia myself. And if there’s one thing I can say about it, it’s that having experienced it yourself doesn’t automatically make you more understanding of it in others. It’s a conscious effort for me, and I feel ashamed of myself for not being naturally better at it than all the ridiculous, well-meaning souls with their mantras of “Just think positive!” and “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle.”

    In other news, have any of you read annegb’s post on this at Mormon Mentality? It’s not my favorite. I just saw that there’s another post in response, but I haven’t read it yet.

    • I applaude your courage Rachel; few would speak out about depression in such an insightful way. We have to get through it the best way we can and not judge one another. Thank the Lord for the gospel; it saves me time and time again when the darkness descends.

  4. I hate that you can’t delete comments here, and also that I keep spacing out when trying to post links. If you click on that last link and then erase “another from the url you should get to the post. Also, sorry for the novel. 🙂

    [Admin Edit, fixed that for you!]

  5. Dear Rachel
    Kim sent us your blog post and we found it very enlightening . It would be nice for all members to have not only a better understanding of depression and how it can effect lives but also a greater compassion for those who deal with it on a day to day basis. We should have an advantage in our understanding but unfortunatly we also feel that with greater faith we should be able to overcome all things. You may be aware of Brent L tops recent book When you can’t do it alone. This is about his experience as a mission president suffering from depression and not even able to get out of bed. its a good read. We are grateful for the good people who were with you and gives us a greater desire to be more sensitive to those around us and what they are going through. We can make a difference and need to. Sorry to hear about your grandmothers passing .We love the Hunts
    Love ya Bud and Pam Olsen

    • Thank you. Thank you. Bud, I miss sitting by you at track meets in Oregon. My dad was so grateful to talk to you recently. He is nervous to be a bishop. Pam, from what I have been told, you are already immensely sensitive to this issue and those who suffer from it. My family member told me many nice things you did for her in Klamath Falls, when she first started to struggle with these things. I cried as she told me, and felt similarly grateful that she had good women in her life to love her and care for her. Thank you. (And Suzanne Cook.)

  6. My husband has been diagnosed with panic disorder. This post gave us both comfort. I have to say that our ward has given us meals and notes of encouragement. Every Sunday several people ask how he is and what they can do for us. It has been a tremendous blessing.

  7. Amen and amen.

    I am kind of sick to death of people being uncharitable toward those with mental illness–me, in particular. A few years ago, I was blogging about how tough life seemed to be, and a neighbor of mine coincidentally blogged right after that about how sick she was of people who complained and didn’t just take control of their own lives. The specifics of the blog entry seemed to point directly at what I had blogged the day before. It felt like a slap in the face that this person could be so judgmental. It still stings sometimes, but it just makes me crusade that much more for public awareness. 🙂

  8. Dear Rachel,
    I wish I could meet you. I feel like I am at the point where I couldn’t feel love and I couldn’t love those around me. I am just going through the motions of life. While I believe that God still loves me I also feel I am not at the point where I can show love for Him. Your words are encouraging. I am able to identify myself with your words. Thank you so much for sharing and being a light for me today.

    • You are welcome. I wish that I could meet you too, because that’s what we do. We help and love each other, even if sometimes we can’t give or accept one of those things. Sometimes doing the motion is enough. Sometimes just waking up. Sometimes just breathing. Some days I have to focus on just one thing, even now: like for instance, today I told myself that if I left the house at least one time, it could count as a success. And then for me writing has also proven to be helpful, that as long as I’m writing I’m okay. I hope that you have things like that too, those normal motions of life that can get you to the more hopeful side, while at the same time not being discouraged or saddened by the time that it sometimes takes.

  9. Thanks to ClairB for listing the LDS Church History resource detailing journals/George Albert Smith’s experience with depression.
    Thanks to Erin for sharing that her ward (congregation) family has offered meals and emotional support in the wake of her husband’s recent diagnosis.

    To Rachel: we are all strengthened because of your choice to share your path!
    In my personal sea of mental illness. . . .Yes, choosing to be happy is not realistic when dealing with seratonin levels and neurology, yet I can’t discount agency as an important tool for me. I can choose to be open. Open to the fact that all I can do in the moment is get out of bed and pour myself a glass of milk, and that’s just fine. Asking my Visiting Teachers (women visiting/serving women) for something. I can fling open the door when I’m in my robe/house is trashed when a girlfriend stops by unannoucned. I can attend the LDS Church’s Addiction Recovery Meetings to better use Christ’s salve for any anguish, His Atonement — even though, perhaps the title of the program/or attendees are focused on addiction while I’m facing mental angst not caused by my choices. I can, when the president of Relief Society (LDS Women’s organization) asks me in the hall at church how I’m feeling and we’re surrounded by people – choose to be open – and respond out loud: I feel good because I’m taking an anti-depressant. Yes, meeting needs of those who suffer from mental illness is compounded by the ill person’s inability to feel/realize they are in need. However, this doesn’t diminish reality of compassion/resources extended to the mentally ill. Self-isolation usually is synonymous with depression – while those around them are often doing everything in their power to penetrate the ache they see their loved one experiencing. Compassion is there – the hands that hang so sorrowfully down, must at some point grasp the hand that’s extended to lift it. Part of the grasping for me, is to talk about it openly – just as you are doing Rachel.

    Re: LDS Church and Mental Illness – “Mental and Emotional Problems” are listed as one of the top ten challenges families face at the LDS Church’s Provident Living site. The Church also has an entire site devoted to disabilities, including mental illness – where myths are debunked and resources listed – including links to US National mental health organizations such as Prophets/Leaders focus on the doctrines of salvation in Sunday church manuals becase the Savior himself mandates that we do so – teach saving principles of His gospel (3 Nephi 11). For the First Presidency/Twelve Apostles/General Authorities/Church Curriculum Department to not have experience with mental illness would deem they’re excluded from the 6.4% (about 1 in 15) American adults who are afflicted. (see as early as 1974 – “Do Not Despair” by Pres. Benson- listing tools to live with depression). Because “depression isn’t in the manual” doesn’t negate the Church Leaders awareness, or advocacy for mental illness.

  10. Thanks for this wonderful post! I hope that we do have a conversation about this in our RS. It’s a great topic for people to ponder as we think about the meaning of the gospel in our lives.

  11. I came home early from my mission on a medical release due to uncontrollable anxiety. I discovered I had anxiety in my first area, and I distinctly remember talking to my trainer about it and hearing her tell me that maybe I just needed more faith. And I believed her. Believing that I was lacking on faith was probably more detrimental to my being an effective missionary than was my anxiety, because I convinced myself that it was something I could control and wasn’t good enough to do so successfully. I was transferred to another area and put in a three-pack with 2 other sisters. It was in that area that I decided to go home. My companions could not have been more supportive. They had no doubt that I knew how to listen to the Spirit and that Heavenly Father let me know exactly what I needed to do. They knew that God trusted my ability to make difficult decisions with His guidance, so my companions trusted me too. Any connection between my anxiety and a lack of faith was the farthest thing from their minds. I wish so much that members of the Church, and especially Church leadership, would follow the examples of those two wonderful sisters.

    • That breaks my heart to know that you struggled with thinking your anxiety was your own fault, or due to a lack of your faith. Growing up I felt similarly. In primary and FHE I always learned that sin makes you feel sad. As a kid I was sad, fearful, anxious ect. a lot, so I assumed it was because I was sinful/bad.

  12. Rachel, this is an amazing post. I only found out about George Albert Smith’s mental illness recently and it was both shocking that it is never mentioned, as if we are ashamed of it, and affirming at the same time. It is encouraging to know that even those who are in charge of the church have the same struggles that we all have. I also love the fact that the Hymn ‘Where can I turn for peace?’ is underpinned by stories of mental illness as the one of the composers said about it ‘We determined this was a mental illness hymn. Emma Lou Thayne, who wrote the beautiful words to the hymn, was struggling with the mental illness of one of her daughters at the time this was written, and I was struggling myself personally with mental illness. And so we lovingly call it “The Mental Illness Hymn.” Our family has seven traceable generations of mental illness. These include chemical depression, generalized anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive, and panic disorder.”

    • Jake, thank you. That means a lot coming from you. I also didn’t know that that was the particular intent behind that hymn, but it seems fitting somehow. I love that hymn and the others directly before it and after it in the hymnbook much better than some that come later, like “Count Your Man Blessings.” The longing hymns just seem more real and more true to life.

  13. Thank you so much for this post. I too have a family member who has spent the past few years in bed holding on with all he had to just make it to the next day. We are in a recovery period at the moment, but I never really understood what it was like to have someone in your family with that illness. It is never really talked about, and the commercials on TV make it look like if you would just take our pill, you would be fine. I am grateful for all the people who have surrounded this family member and accepted that he was doing as much as he could.

  14. I’m on permanent disability due to depression/panic and anxiety disorder. My branch that I attended(when I was still a member) was not very forward in their thinking about this issue.

    I know that I’ve shared this story before, but, I think it still bears witness to people suffering in the church with the shame of depression. I was the unfortunate witness of one of the sweetest woman in my branch being bullied during the middle of F&T meeting by another sister being told that her dead son who committed suicide was filled with Satan. Although there were RSP in the room no one but myself interjected on this sister’s behalf to get this woman to shut up and let this woman bear her Testimony(It was actually quite beautiful because she had just buried another son from pancreatic cancer and said how much more peaceful she felt having the gospel in life to help her) I jumped up and pulled her out of the room once I realized that I wasn’t going to receive any support from fellow sisters with respect to getting this other moron to shut up.

    And she’s not the only one in my Branch that has bullied because of this, I know the things that set off my anxiety, and its not that I avoid them(I don’t,but, I do what I can, stay for what I can and leave, when I feel the need or it becomes to overwhelming) Yet, I was being harassed by this same person and my hometeacher to attend meetings that I knew I really did not need to attend(family home evening) finally, I just told him” You the only meeting that I’m required to attend is sacrament and if I want to go to others I can get myself there and I don’t need for you to keep calling and harassing me about it.” His response and I quote,” You have severe personality, emotional, spiritual problems that need to be addressed professionally and spiritually, and because I was Once a BP I’m allowed to say this to you.’ The BP , nor did anyone else tell him he was wrong for saying this.

    To end what I’m trying to say, I would have liked to see Joanna and especially Mitch talk about the bullying that goes on in the church by its supposedly stalwart members towards anyone who is different be they GLBT or those who have mental illness, what ever makes them difference and how the church does not tolerate this difference.

  15. Thanks for your words. A few years ago I found a Manual about G.A. Smith and I read that issue. Now my bride didn’t dare to ask her leader to release her thinking may be she is failing in her faith. I do feel angry whe i think doesn’t make any mention of it.
    I talked about it with my bride trying to console her showing her even a prophet suffered the same illness o pain.
    I’d appreciate if you could share a link with more specific info about that part of G.A Smith life, in order to show my bride she shouldn’t feel ashamed if in a moment of her life she feels she cant stand with her dutys in church.

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