College students, military recruits and LDS missionaries are experiencing more bouts with mental illness than in the past, and the trend is likely to continue, so Mormon mental health professionals willing to volunteer their services will be more in demand than ever before.
That's the message that scores of therapists and social workers heard Thursday from Dr. Donald Doty, chairman of the LDS Missionary Department's health services division. Speaking as part of the semiannual convention of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, Doty said on any given day, about 450 million people worldwide are dealing with a mental health disorder, including about 25 percent of the U.S. population.
Among college-age students in the U.S., about 40 percent become depressed during their four years at school, and 38 percent of those take psychotropic drugs to deal with the problem. In addition, about 21 percent of students drop out of college their first year.
Military recruits exhibit similar mental health issues, and about 17 percent of them drop out of the armed services, he said.
Those two populations provide the bulk of missionaries sent out by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and because mental illness knows no boundary lines, those who find themselves with mental illness while serving a mission need help from trained providers, he said. "I'm quite sure these disorders among missionaries will continue to increase over time, and it will require additional attention and resources."
The total number of missionaries who suffer from some form of mental disorder wasn't disclosed, but of those who return home early because of mental health issues, 40 percent suffer from depression, 23 percent from anxiety, 14 percent are suicidal and 9 percent exhibit obsessive compulsive disorder, or a "perfectionism higher than expected for their age group," he said.
There are 22 questions on the church's missionary recommendation application regarding mental health, he said, and about 16 percent of those who apply say they have some type of mental health issue, either currently, in the past, or stabilized through intervention or medication. Three percent are either not called to serve, or the call is postponed until they are stable enough to proceed, he said.
In the past, nearly all of those with such issues have been assigned within the U.S., where treatment would be available if necessary. "That means mission presidents in the U.S. are getting five of every six" with such issues.
Yet among those who reveal a
history of mental health disorder, 91 percent complete their missions, Doty said. "Of those released for emotional causes, 60 percent had mental health disorders that occurred in the field or were not revealed on the application."
The church's First Presidency recently reissued the letter sent to stake and ward leaders in 2003 that asked them to "raise the bar" for prospective missionaries, making sure they are qualified physically and mentally and are emotionally mature, he said.
Doty recommended three ways to better deal with mental health issues in the mission field, including:
• Preparing mission presidents to expect that missionaries will have issues that need attention, rather than thinking they shouldn't have problems. "We're not apologizing for sending them. Presidents just have to be aware of that and may have to give them some special attention," he said, adding it's not reasonable to keep someone from serving because they have dealt with mental illness in the past or may have trouble adjusting to the rigors of missionary work.
• Improving resources for mission presidents to help deal with mental health issues by recruiting additional LDS volunteers who will serve as area "mental health advisers" in different parts of the world.
• Spreading the assignment of missionaries with mental health conditions more evenly to missions outside the U.S. "where there is appropriate mental health support."Because there are growing and constant needs for such support, he urged LDS mental health professionals to consider such voluntary service once they retire. Four professionals who have volunteered as mental health advisers for the church shared some of their experiences, agreeing that it was never predictable but provided a kind of fulfillment they hadn't experienced during their paid employment.