Utah Valley University recently did a survey of 350 missionaries who had gone home early. The survey found that 36% of those missionaries went home because of mental health issues. That’s more than a third of early releases coming because of depression, anxiety, and so on.
We sometimes lump this larger percentage of missionaries who come home because of illness, be it mental or physical, with the much smaller percentage of missionaries who come home because of transgression or disobedience because the latter are easier to understand.
In general, there’s a lot of misunderstanding and social stigma around mental health issues, and we often underestimate the effects that depression and anxiety can have. Because everyone has experiences feeling temporarily down or depressed, some assume that clinical depression can be dealt with in the same way one might respond to just having a bad day.
In his talk, “Like a Broken Vessel,” Elder Holland reminds us that depression is not the “bad hair days, tax deadlines, or other discouraging moments we all have. Everyone is going to be anxious or downhearted on occasion. The Book of Mormon says Ammon and his brethren were depressed at a very difficult time, and so can the rest of us be. But today I am speaking of something more serious, of an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively.”
In addition to advocating positive thinking, in the Church, we also sometimes assume that the Atonement will fix any problem, including mental health issues, if we just have enough faith. We adopt the attitude that the Lord’s grace always makes up the difference between what people are capable of doing and what needs to be done and that trials and afflictions can be prayed away. President Hinckley told leaders in the Church that for missionaries often "it seems not to work out that way. Rather, whatever ailment or physical or mental shortcoming a missionary has when he comes into the field only becomes aggravated under the stress of the work."
Dealing with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues is hard. Dealing with those things while a full-time missionary is even harder. And because of the misunderstanding around mental illness, missionaries who struggle with mental health issues may feel frustrated, guilty, or that they haven’t done enough to qualify for the atoning grace of Christ—that they haven’t done “all [they] can do” (2 Nephi 25:23)—when their emotional and mental reserves do not match those needed for missionary work.
However that’s not to say that those who face mental health challenges can’t serve full-time missions, or that they’re destined to come home early if they do. If you’re worried about how a mental health issue might affect your missionary service, counsel with your parents, Church leaders, and the Lord. If you feel prompted to serve, I know the Lord will bless you to be able to serve the mission that He has planned for you and will support you as you do so. President Monson encouraged missionaries who might consider themselves inadequate to “remember that this is the Lord’s work, and when we are on the Lord’s errand, we are entitled to the Lord’s help. The Lord will shape the back to bear the burden placed upon it."
This article from the Ensign and this mission preparation brochure both talk about preparing emotionally for a mission. You can also work now to develop strategies for maintaining good emotional and mental health (this article has some gospel-based ideas for dealing with depression.) Creating healthy habits now will help you be healthy throughout your missionary service.
Using those healthy habits and strategies for good emotional health, there are missionaries who, through tremendous effort, serve for ten months where they might have otherwise only been able to serve for two, and they ought to be considered honorable returned missionaries just as much as any other. We can certainly be better at recognizing the personal sacrifice that the missionaries who struggle with mental health issues put forth to serve, whether they serve for eighteen days, eighteen weeks, or eighteen months. We can be kinder, more compassionate, and less judgmental toward those who do return home because of an illness as real and legitimate as a shattered bone or a heart condition.
Note: This is part four in a series about early returned missionaries. Start with part 1 on our blog.