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

"A lot of these show up at this age because of the combination of a predisposition and the stress of that period of life of emancipating and being on your own and becoming an adult in your own right," she said.

"The same goes," Sandberg said, "for joining the military, for going to college for the first time, for when you first get married."

Nearly three-quarters of those with an anxiety disorder will have their first episode before they turn 22, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The median age of onset for OCD is 19. It's 20 for agoraphobia, a specific anxiety disorder.

The new UVU study is based on 348 men and women who filled out an Internet questionnaire about returning early from LDS missions. Of those, 36 percent said they came home because of mental health issues, the top reason.

Next on the list was physical problems, at 34 percent.

And 38 percent said stress was a contributing factor to their early return.

This isn't news to LDS Church leaders. Sandberg said the best statement he's seen on this subject was made by late church President Gordon B. Hinckley in a 2003 Worldwide Leadership Training broadcast.

"Good physical and mental health is vital," President Hinckley said. "There are parents who say, ‘If only we can get Johnny on a mission, then the Lord will bless him with health.’ 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."

Mission prep

In the same training, President Hinckley said "there must be health and strength, both physical and mental, for the work is demanding, the hours are long, and the stress can be heavy."

The church emphasized emotional and mental preparation alongside spiritual readiness before 2002, when church leaders first called for "raising the bar" on mission qualifications. Since then, they have developed new resources.

The missionary preparation student manual, published in 2005 and available in its entirety online at lds.org, includes a chapter on physical and emotional preparation. It also includes counsel that missions are not for everyone. In a 2003 general conference talk, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said young men and women who have suffered from depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive behavior can be called on missions but may need to prepare by seeking professional treatment and medication.

LDS Family Services offers mission prescreening, said Sandberg, now a BYU professor.

"Their job is to help prepare people, so when this happens in the mission field they have been asked, 'What are you going to do?' They help them write down a plan: 'I'm going to talk to the mission president. I'm going to do these relaxation exercises.' Most just need a plan."

Others are redirected to different types of service.

Sandberg's advice echoed that of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles, who announced his own past struggle with clinical depression during a general conference talk in October.

"These afflictions are some of the realities of mortal life, and there should be no more shame in acknowledging them then in acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor," Elder Holland said.

He provided a list of more than 20 suggestions for working with depression, including remaining faithful, seeking spiritual help, watching for stress indicators, making adjustments and seeking professional help when necessary.

New manual

More recently, the church has started to provide freshly called missionaries with videos to watch before they leave that include advice on emotional preparation.

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