Thomas Ferrin of Provo knew serving a mission would be difficult.
He had a history of mental illness, which he indicated on his mission papers. For 15 months, Ferrin went to interview after interview while professionals and Church officials assessed his mental health and gauged his likelihood of success in the mission field.
In the end, he spent more time waiting for his call than he spent in the field.
The anxiety that had troubled him in his teens amplified in the mission environment. He was cut off from communication with his family, which was one of the things that had helped him successfully manage anxiety in the past. He also struggled serving in the Bible Belt where his belief system was constantly challenged.
“After 10 months of being in Virginia in three different areas, I was finally so debilitated that just getting up and studying was terrifying,” Ferrin said. “I was just broken.”
Chad Eckersell of Rigby, Idaho, also struggled with anxiety and depression in his teen years. He and his leaders were confident he was successfully managing the problem and was prepared to serve. In 2005, he put in his mission papers at age 19 and was called to serve in the New York Rochester Mission. He entered the MTC in a strong mental state.
“I felt really good,” Eckersell said. “The first few days I didn’t feel at all anxious or depressed. I didn’t feel any type of homesickness. I was made a district leader the first day in and had a really good experience with my district and my companion. And then at the end of the first week it just hit me. I was feeling super anxious, getting all those symptoms back again. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Eckersell’s MTC teacher was the first to ask him what was wrong. Then he met with the MTC president, who brought Eckersell’s parents into the conversation. Ultimately, the MTC president suggested Eckersell pray about what to do.
The day before his district flew to New York, Eckersell went home.
“I came home and I was like, ‘This is super weird,'” Eckersell said. “I hadn’t had the whole two-year experience by any means. I felt out of place. It was difficult seeing my family because I don’t think they understood what I was going through, what depression and anxiety were or how I was dealing with it.”
Dr. Kris Doty, assistant professor of social work at Utah Valley University, is the mother of two early-returned missionaries. When one of her students, who also came home early, told her about his experience, the two of them decided to do some research on the little-understood topic.
They started by interviewing 12 young men who came home early from their LDS missions. Then they used the responses from those interviews to generate questions for an anonymous survey that garnered 348 responses from both men and women.
The study revealed that despite social stigma, most early-returned missionaries don’t come home because of unresolved transgression. More than a third — 36 percent — came home because of mental health concerns, 34 percent for physical health concerns, 12 percent for unresolved transgression and 11 percent for disobedience to mission rules. Of the total respondents, 39 percent reported that coming home was their personal choice.
The length of time served also varied widely. Of the early-returned missionaries who took the survey, 40 percent served for longer than a year before they came home. Fifty percent said they “loved their missions.” Nearly two-thirds — 62 percent — reported they had strong spiritual experiences on their mission.
Despite success during their missions, however, 73 percent of early-returned missionaries in the survey experienced feelings of failure. A third (34 percent) had a period of inactivity in the Church when they came home, and one third of those missionaries stayed inactive and never returned to church activity.
“The wording in the missionary call is interesting,” said Dr. Geret Giles, a psychologist at Giles & Associates Family Psychology. “It says, ‘It is anticipated that you will serve for a period of (18 to 24 months).’ I think that’s an interesting way of wording the call that helps early-returned missionaries understand that regardless of the length of time they serve, the important things are their desires and intentions.”
Missionaries who return before their anticipated release date usually do so after counseling with their mission president, parents, and ward and stake leaders. Sometimes they also talk to therapists from LDS Family Services or doctors. It’s a difficult decision, and another important question often follows: Will the missionary return to the field?
“Sometimes people assume that when a missionary comes home, they just need to fix something so they can go back out,” Doty said. “But that’s not always possible or even appropriate. A lot of the young people we surveyed said people applied pressure for them to go back. It was embarrassing and difficult for them to say, ‘I don’t know if that’s what I want to do.’ Some therapists have even approached this with a goal date of when the missionary can go back out. It’s counterintuitive to what they’re supposed to do. They need to allow the client to drive the process.”
“Sometimes people assume that when a missionary comes home, they just need to fix something so they can go back out. But that’s not always possible or even appropriate.” —Dr. Kris Doty
“Only in the Church do we get excited when we send somebody out for full-time service, then mourn if they serve for only eight months,” she said. “What about the eight months he gave? That’s eight months of his entire life! We gloss over it like it’s not important.”
Giles has worked extensively with early-returned missionaries. He says most of them experience three significant challenges: how coming home early has changed the missionary’s view of himself, how it has changed his relationship with God, and how it has changed his relationship with others.
“I know I was kind of recluse when I got home because I felt like if I were to see people, they were probably going to question why I was home,” Eckersell said. “Maybe they’d think I wasn’t worthy to be out there, or maybe they’d stereotype. I was apprehensive about going to church, too. No one wanted to approach or talk to me at first.”
Eckersell’s fears of being judged are common among early-returned missionaries. In some cases, their concerns are valid. But in many cases, people just don’t know what to say.
“The most common problem is that people don’t know what’s going on, so they assume the worst,” Giles said. “Ward members, even friends, often don’t know what to say to someone who’s come home early, so they don’t say anything. That’s probably the worst thing that they could do. Early-returned missionaries often feel judged even if other people aren’t judging them, because they’re judging themselves pretty harshly.”
Doty’s research shows that missionaries who don’t feel welcome at church are more likely to experience a period of inactivity. Conversely, if ward members receive missionaries with warmth and friendliness, the adjustment is easier and missionaries are more likely to remain active in the Church.
“Greet them,” Giles says. “Say ‘It’s good to see you! How are you feeling?’ Be warm and solicitous. Early-returned missionaries often don’t get a chance to share positive experiences they had on their mission. They have stories of conversion and personal experiences with the Spirit, but a lot of them don’t get to share. Asking about their mission is really helpful for missionaries.”
For some early-returned missionaries, social problems are less significant than the spiritual challenges that come after a difficult mission experience.
“I’d never lived in a liberal Christian community before,” said Ferrin, who served in Virginia. “I was not familiar with the mainstream Christian culture. So the way they talked about Christ and explained the gospel was so foreign to me. I couldn’t give answers, especially because I didn’t feel like I could hear the whispering of the Spirit. I was basically left to my own reasoning, which wasn’t very good. Questions added up until I was so full of questions I didn’t know what the reality of life was. When somebody said ‘Jesus,’ it was like the most controversial topic anybody could talk about. I still knew in my heart that Jesus was my Savior, but giving details of that, or what it meant to me, was a black hole.”
Ferrin worked hard, was obedient to mission rules and saw great success on his mission. The mission president was genuinely surprised to hear of Ferrin’s struggles. But even with so many positive experiences, Ferrin’s feelings of inadequacy persisted when he came home.
Giles said those feelings can have a negative effect on early-returned missionaries’ ability to move forward when they come home.
“One of the things I hear all the time is that spiritual things remind them of their mission,” Giles said. “Reading the scriptures and praying reminds them of when they did that on their mission, so they develop an aversion to the very things that could be spiritually helping or healing them.”
As Ferrin found answers to his questions and sought treatment for his mental illness, things came back into focus for him and his testimony grew.
“I took a class called LDS Perspectives in Psychology at BYU,” Ferrin said. “That class is what opened the door to understanding who Christ was. I saw that there is only one way for us to really be healed and that is through the atonement. As I started to learn and experience that more, I started to see Christ as a living, breathing, caring, acting person.”
How to help
Church members can help missionaries who come home early by making the Church a safe, accepting place for them to go, Doty said. Church leaders, families and friends can welcome early-return missionaries home with the same love and enthusiasm they would if they had served the full anticipated time. As people around early-returned missionaries assure them that their missions were acceptable and beneficial, missionaries will be able to overcome their own feelings of inadequacy more easily.
“We just need to love these kids,” Doty said. “I am amazed at the early-returned missionaries I’ve met. They are so strong and so faithful, but they feel shamed. We need to stop shaming people when they come home early from their missions. Shame has no place in this church.”
Eckersell said the support of his friends and family was a great strength to him when he came home from his mission.
“When I first got home, it was kind of difficult to be around friends and family,” he said. “But my family was really understanding after I talked to them. They were really loving and supportive. Whatever I needed — even if it was to not go back out into the mission field — I knew they would love and support me either way. I also have some of the greatest friends in the world. I would write them on their missions and they were all really supportive.”
“When I first got home, it was kind of difficult to be around friends and family. But my family was really understanding after I talked to them. They were really loving and supportive. Whatever I needed — even if it was to not go back out into the mission field — I knew they would love and support me either way.” —Chad Eckersell
“If the traditional knocking-on-doors mission won’t work, there are service missions, temple missions, stake missions — lots of other ways to serve,” Doty said. “Those options should be considered thoughtfully and prayerfully with the missionary’s bishop.”
Serving a church-service mission didn’t occur to Eckersell at the time, but now that several years have passed, he wishes he’d explored the option.
“I felt at the time like that wouldn’t have been a ‘real mission,'” Eckersell said. “If I knew then what I know now, and if I had had the understanding that I could be a service missionary, I totally would have done it. Just to be able to say I had some type of experience where I was serving other people and helping them that way.”
As difficult as it can be, Doty said it’s important for parents to look beyond their own feelings and focus on their child’s.
“It’s not about you,” she said. “And I get it — I’ve had children who have come home early. But don’t focus on your pain, as legitimate as it is. We need to focus on them and what their needs are and how we can help them adjust, get treatment and care for whatever their needs are.”
Preparing youth for a mission
Meeting children’s needs comes into play long before they “grow a foot or two” and put on a missionary tag. Ideally, this begins in childhood and becomes essential as youth near mission age.
“We need to remember that when President (Thomas S.) Monson announced that male missionaries could serve at 18, he said it was an option,” Doty said. “Eighteen is not the new 19. It’s amazing how the culture — the culture, not the Church — is pressuring boys to go out at 18 and girls at 19. It’s only an option. For some, that means leaving right out of high school. They might not be prepared to cut off all contact with family and friends for two years. If they’re ready to go at 18, they should go! But I’d advise parents to back off. Don’t be helicopter parents. If your child wants to go on a mission, he can schedule his own doctor appointments and priesthood interviews. Let your kids have some ownership in the process.”
Giles also said preparation for a mission should include learning to take care of themselves.
“Three important things for the missionary are to live away from home, have experience with hard work, and know how to care for themselves,” Giles said. “And obviously, testimony is important. Elder (David A.) Bednar said a few conferences ago that we should make our homes pre-MTCs, complete with study of ‘Preach My Gospel.’ Anything we can do to approximate the demands and requirements of a mission will help prepare young men and young women to go.”
Ultimately, the end goal for all Church members — whether they serve a full-time mission for the anticipated amount of time or not — is to be missionary-minded and serve others daily.
“We’re supposed to love one another, bear each other’s burdens, and lift up children of God,” Eckersell said. “That should be each of our missions. There are people sitting by us at church who are struggling. How can we reach out to them? That’s where we’re tried and tested the most — with the people we see most often. When we’re judged and given our eternal reward, we’ll need to know that we did something to help benefit others. We can be missionaries daily. Each one of us is a missionary, no matter our situations.”
Doty will be giving the keynote address about early-returned missionaries in Pleasant Grove (North Field Stake Center, 1800 N. 105 West) on Sunday, April 27 at 7 p.m.