Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormons and Depression

Last year's manual on George Albert Smith mentions his physical illnesses but not his three-year nervous breakdown.
Last year's manual on George Albert Smith mentions his physical illnesses but not his three-year nervous breakdown.

Last year’s manual on George Albert Smith mentions his physical illnesses but not his three-year nervous breakdown.

Some questions have come up in blog comments on the Emma Smith thread about LDS President George Albert Smith and depression.

I’m traveling today, so this will have to be short, but I wanted to provide a link to the 2008 article in the Journal of Mormon History that chronicles George Albert Smith’s mental health struggles. (You’ll have to scroll through the issue to get to p. 113 where that article begins.) In the piece, BYU religion professor Mary Jane Woodger details the three-year nervous breakdown Smith suffered from 1909 to 1912, when he was in his late thirties and early forties. During those years he had to take an unofficial leave of absence from his duties as an apostle, seeking rest cures in California, St. George, and elsewhere.

For five of those months, he did not leave his bed or wear clothes other than pajamas.

Mental health struggles often “run in the family,” and the article looks briefly to the entire Smith clan and their suggested history of mental health struggles. “Debilitating fatigue without an obvious cause and depression can be traced back as far as Asael Smith, Joseph Sr.’s father, and coming forward to John, Joseph Sr.’s brother,” it notes. I’d also point out that David Hyrum Smith (1844-1904), youngest son of Joseph Jr. and Emma, succumbed to serious mental illness after a brilliant career as a missionary, painter, and poet, spending the last 27 years of his life in custodial care in an insane asylum.

According to the article, George Albert exhibited six of the nine diagnostic criteria for a mood disorder. For example, he “either slept poorly or slept constantly.” He suffered from crippling guilt and a loss of any pleasure in life. An uncle, a physician, worried that “it is only a step from nervous frustration to insanity” and urged the apostle to take a long rest. His nephew, he said, should “Dump [his] responsibility for a while before the hearse dumps [his] bones.” George Albert took this advice with the prolonged rest cure, but despite repeated blessings from fellow general authorities, the sweet and patient love of his wife, and even a special prophetic dispensation to drink English beer for his health, he failed to get better.

The crisis point came when he asked the Lord to release him from this life and “take him home and put someone else more suitable in his place.” He was worried that the other apostles had too much of a burden to carry with him being out of commission, and knew that no one else could be called to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve until he died. He begged his wife Lucy to pray with him for such a release from life, which she did only very reluctantly.

But then, unexpectedly, he began to get better. The hopelessness began to ease. Having let go of his claim to mortal life, he found that the Lord still had work for him to do.

Reading this story made me cry. To hear of President Smith’s desperation and human struggles made him more inspiring and prophetic to me, not less. Why don’t we tell this story?

I mentioned the JMH article last weekend when speaking in Nauvoo, when our discussion turned to the question of how today’s LDS Church curriculum deals with thorny historical problems of the past. I expressed the view that by mentioning only George Albert Smith’s physical illnesses and not the comorbid mental ones, the 2012 Relief Society/Priesthood manual missed an opportunity to offer comfort and hope to church members who struggle with mental health issues. They and those who love them may be inspired to know how George Albert Smith recovered from this terribly dark place. He was never “cured” or fully without struggle, but he recovered enough to function normally for the last four decades of his life as an apostle and ultimately as president and prophet of the church.


* Mary Jane Woodger, who wrote the JMH article, has also written a biography of George Albert Smith that I have not read yet. It’s on the ever-growing list . . . . although the lone review on Amazon says that unlike the JMH article, the biography does not address Smith’s mental health problems.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Thank you so much for this article. Many of my LDS clients find their way to my office seeking legal counsel because of the challenges they, or more typically a loved one, face from mental health issues.

    It is imperative to understand that not all mental health challenges are illnesses. Illness implies that there is a “cure.” Disorder have different causes, e.g. genetics, environment, brain injury, substance abuse, trauma, and even diet.

    Sin and mental health are complicated. There are no rules of thumb with mental disorders and what appears to be sin. A person with Tourette’s syndrome is unlikely to be sinning during a fit of profanity. However, I do not know how the Lord will judge those individuals with access to helpful medications, or therapy, and deliberately choose not to take precautions. I suppose He, who is all-knowing, will consider each individual’s ability to obey His commandments.

    As for those of us affected by those with mental health challenges, remember charity and compassion are the hallmarks of a true disciple of Christ. The rule of thumb for tangentially associated persons: Judge not, lest ye be judged by the standard wherewith ye judge. Indirectly affected individuals ought to refrain from demoning those directly affected and show mercy or kindness to the extent you are able. However, only Jesus is the Savior; you do no favors to the challenged, your family, others, and especially yourself acting the role of martyr. To the those who directly suffer from mental disorders, seek professional counseling, keep the faith, and do not let your disorder become your crutch.

  • For those who may be interested, I put together a rather lengthy chronology of the life of George Albert Smith’s last year. Among other things, it contains some of his journal entries about his illness.

    This query should hit most of those entries:

  • I think the church has the lesson manuals be aimed at a worldwide audience to teach principles and help members become more holy. To add that bit in about depression in places like Africa would confuse the members and take away from his words. I know several amazing members from Africa and they just have no idea what to do with depression. I think the point is that if the manuals can bring us closer to Christ and cement our relationship with him, it will provide for filling the gaps in understanding our own lives. I have always dealt with depression but I have had enough answers to my prayers to not feel guilty and know that my mental health is in gods hands and I am just good and exactly where he wants me.

  • Personally, I found this information very helpful, and not because of mental health issues. For me, it had to do with faith and wondering what is wrong with my level of faith. On occasion, I suffer from migraines. Debilitating, inducing vomiting, migraines. As a single mother, debilitating anything does not work for me. At one particularly important time I had a particularly rough episode, and I finally asked for a blessing. I felt like I was full of faith, and my desires were righteous–I needed to take care of my responsibilities. Not only did I not get better, I got worse because I tried to keep going anyway, and I eventually ended up in the emergency room as several days of dry heaves were rapidly adding dehydration to my situation.

    Why couldn’t I be healed? Why wasn’t my faith enough? I wondered then, and I occasionally look back on that time with the same questions, wondering what is wrong with my faith and what I should be doing to increase my capacity for “faith to be healed.” I especially wondered about this because it seemed such a small thing to heal in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t a chronic illness or terrible trauma. Two liters of fluids, a dose of demerol, and two doses of phenergan in the ER took care of it–and a hefty bill and time I did not have.

    So, this post gave me comfort. I am sure President Smith and those who administered to him had great faith. I still don’t know why I could not be healed, but I don’t feel as if there must be something so wrong with my faith now. Other people likely need to know the same thing about their faith, too.

    For that, I thank you.

  • Katharine Welby, daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote this blog post
    this blog post earlier this week on her experience of depression and how her faith intersects with it. It’s been reported in various news sources in the UK – I picked it up from the Daily Telegraph. I thought this might be of interest to you.

  • Thank you for your comment. I completely agree even though I have not worked with people who suffer from mental illnesses in a large way. It is to our great disadvantage as a society (at least in the United States) and as Latter-day Saints that we associate such stigma with talking about mental illnesses. It does no one good to not talk about or come to understand the different kinds of struggles people face.

  • I vote for the human approach. We quote the depression verses of Nephi to help comfort those who need to see that it is not a sin to feel discouraged at times.
    Pres Smith’s battle with feelings of unworthiness gives us hope that with the enabling power of the atonement we can all battle our humanness and come out winners. If prophets can feel unworthy then it gives me hope that the good news of the Gospel is real.
    Pres Kimball’s battle with depression and his leave of absence to live on the Navajo reservation while he was healing is another hopeful example. It’s not “what’s the matter with me”, it’s “I’m thankful I can build the same spiritual muscle that the prophets have built”.

  • After our brain damaged at five, epileptic, personality disordered oldest daughter made yet another suicide attempt at 18, her Bishop visited her in ICU. She was asleep, so he left a written invitation to a disciplinary council on her bed. We were living in a different area, but we attended the council with her medical records and a written opinion from her psychiatrist that her depression would be adversely affected by such action. She was excommunicated from the church for behavior unbecoming to a member of the Church. As predicted, her self destructive behavior deteriorated precipitously, and then came a day whe I had to meet with a team of social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists to try to have her committed to a long term psychiatric hospital. In the course of our discussion, I was asked, “How could your Church excommunicate someone in her mental condition?” I had no answer for them, but I thought about who’s rigidity had truly cast a bad light on the Church. I am grateful that I have a strong testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his Restored Gospel. I know the Attonement cover mistakes made by his Bishops as well. I am very grateful that we as a people are beginning to realize that the brain is an organ subject to disease and sickness just like any organ. It is just as harsh to expect one to snap out of depression as it would be to tell one in kidney failure to go sit on the toilet and run water til their kidneys work. This needs to contine being discussed, as does the plight of those affected by mental challenges.

  • Wow, Wendy – what a terrible story. I am sorry to learn of your experience.
    Sadly I have heard too many stories of over-enthusiastic priesthood leaders and disciplinary councils which seem motivated by anything other than godly concern for the person for whom the council is being held. I can’t help but wonder – whose interests were served by this act? It didn’t help your daughter to repent and progress, it didn’t help the Church. Of course, I only know the little you have related but it just seemed unnecessary.
    Having suffered depression/anxiety issues myself I was encouraged by the article. I had thought Pres GA Smith’s recuperation was a result of nervous exhaustion and hadn’t actually linked it to a bout of depression. As an apostle your life is pretty much mapped out for you – something I would have thought would have reduced situational depression/anxiety issues.

  • Wendy, I feel your pain and admire your faith. It is tragic when the people who are called to serve, fall below the mark of compassion. Console yourself in the knowledge that this Bishop has a long journey ahead of him in developing that oh so important Christ-like attribute of charity–he deserves our pity and our prayers. Hold to the faith my friend.

  • Thanks for sharing this! I first came across it earlier this year (or maybe last) and it was the first time I ever knew that a General Authority suffered from depression. I read the article you linked to and for the first time, realized that maybe what I was going through was real, not my fault, and that I wasn’t just and unworthy, ungrateful saint who was failing in matters of not feeling the spirit nor being of “good cheer.” What a relief to me! I come back to this article from time to time to remind myself that God still chose a vessel with mental illness to do his work. I appreciate your comments about why people don’t mention his mental illness in church instead of skipping over it, like it’s something to be ashamed of. I am tired of hiding. I’ve hid for over 20 years now and after reading this and hearing Elder Holland’s conference talk in Oct 2013, I knew sone changes had to be made. Although I still haven’t told people I know, I did start a blog to “practice” being public and contribute to public awareness. I refuse to contribute to the stigma anymore. I will pave the way for others to be able to not feel like they must suffer and hide in shame all alone. Little by little; I’m working on it!

  • I was taking prescription drugs to no avail. I was desperate to try anything. I still wanted to live. My suggestion to anyone facing deep depression is to try anything that will help. There are a variety natural supplements , that can help for you it could be something different. Now my marriage is slowly getting stronger each day. I found a good paying job. And my kids now have their dad back.

    Just don’t give up, it’s a battle worth fighting for!!

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