Many Mormon missionaries who return home early feel some failure

LDS missionaries developing strategies to cope with stress

Published: Friday, Dec. 6 2013 8:25 p.m. MST

OREM — Zach Bullock never opened the dark gray suitcase when he returned home early from his LDS mission to Italy in 2008.

Instead, he stashed the medium-size piece of luggage, "Italia" tag still taped around the handle, at the foot of his boyhood bed in Springville. Then he got a job working Sundays so he could avoid church meetings, where he felt uncomfortable after serving seven months of a two-year mission call.

Bullock completed a degree in social work at Utah Valley University but became fixed on the idea that he needed to complete a master's degree to prove — whether to himself or to others, he wasn't always certain — that he could finish something important.

"I didn't feel normal," said Bullock, now a BYU grad student. "I feel like I failed."

A majority of missionaries who return home earlier than expected may experience feelings of failure, according to a limited UVU study released last month. Experts say the young missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are like other men and women 18 to 23 years old who leave home for college, work or the military. Newfound independence comes with unaccustomed stress.

Prospective missionaries need to expect that and prepare for it, and the church recently released a new booklet to help them. Meanwhile, parents and congregations can play an enlightened role in helping early returning missionaries, whom experts say can do more to help themselves, too.

Major transitions

Like a lot of LDS boys, Bullock planned to serve a mission. What he hadn't planned for was his father's death, of stomach cancer, less than two years before he was to leave. His father's last wish was that his son serve a mission.

"I thought I had dealt with his death," Bullock said, "but it turned out I hadn't gotten over it."

Struggling with intensive transitions is normal for young men and women, said Jonathan Sandberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked regularly with missionaries who returned home early. While a professor at Syracuse University, Sandberg also worked with prospective missionaries and missionaries serving in the New York area. His experience is that missionaries must prepare for change.

"Let's say you are someone who can handle a stress level of seven, and you live your life at a stress level of six by going to your room and listening to your iPod or going to the gym or playing Xbox or whatever you do to handle stress," Sandberg said. "Then you add a new stress or rigor to your life. How many kids have worked a 13-hour day? They get above a level seven, and they don't know how to get back to a six."

"A mission is a stressful environment," said Wendy Ulrich, a psychologist with a unique perspective on missions. First, she returned home weeks early from her mission due to illness. Second, her husband, David Ulrich, was president of the Canada Montreal Mission from 2002 to 2005. For three years, she was much more than a "mission mom." Each "P-day," the preparation day missionaries have for doing laundry and writing letters, Ulrich worked with missionaries who were struggling.

"They work long hours with no breaks or vacations," she said, and have to learn new coping strategies. Most can and do, but sometimes the problem is exacerbated by mental illness.

Mental health

"Anxiety and depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder are the three main reasons we are seeing people coming home," Sandberg said, "and it's the inability to handle new stressors."

Age can have something to do with that, Ulrich added.

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