Friday, January 23, 2009

Rethinking Depression: Early Release Missionaries

I have been rethinking my hardline stand on depression and LDS missionaries I took last year. As I was perusing the Internet I came across the blog of Minnesota Brent's Mission. His mother as most good parents kept the blog up until November 2008. Her son came home unexpectedly from his mission and lasted only a month. Her site is a place to find some support for missionaries suffering from depression. She helped me consider being more sensitive to missionaries suffering depression. He was given a a medical release from his mission with possibility of returning if he is able to overcome his problem I did a general post on Missionaries and Depression last year but I didn't really deal with the ramifications of what individual missionaries faced. It was more of a generalized treatment. I found her post instructive and helpful and a different take on the subject. I think she should expand what she has done with some research and followup on what the family is facing.

The bar has been raised physically and emotionally for missionaries. Better screening needs to be done by stake presidents before a young person goes out on a mission. I have been thinking about what President Gordon B. Hinckley said in a Worldwide Training meeting in 2003 about raising the bar for missionary work:

This work is rigorous. It demands strength and vitality. It demands mental sharpness and capacity. . . .

. . . Missionary work is not a rite of passage in the Church. It is a call extended by the President of the Church to those who are worthy and able to accomplish it. . . .

Good physical and mental health is vital. . . .

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.

We simply must face up to the facts. We are spending millions of dollars on medical care and countless hours assisting those with problems that make it impossible for them to perform the work. . . .

. . . There are other areas where those with serious limitations may work and have a satisfying experience. And the Lord will bless them for what they are able to do. . . .

Permit me to emphasize that we need missionaries, but they must be capable of doing the work. . . .

There should be an eagerness and a desire to serve the Lord as His ambassadors to the world. And 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. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Missionary Service,” First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, Jan. 2003, 17–18).
In a post entitled Wounded Warriors this good sister wrote:

We don't know if he will recover enough to be sent back out or not but if not I know the Lord just has a different plan for Brent. It was enough for him to show he was willing to serve as with most missionaries who's service is cut short. It is very hard on missionaries and their families when a mission is cut short for any reason. Many of our missionaries have dreamed about their missions all their life, and the unexpected termination is shattering.
I appreciated her boldness in posting a letter she called Medical Release which I felt took courage and made me rethink my position:

Dear Family and Friends,

We wanted to let you know that Elder B. will be returning home this week on a medical release for depression. We tried to work with mental healthcare professionals in Minnesota to resolve this for Brent but it is not working so we are bringing him home to his family where it will be easier and quicker to overcome this difficult challenge.

I am sure he would appreciate hearing words of encouragement from you in the coming weeks and months.

He has the option of going back, being reassigned or being honorably released once his is in a better frame of mind to make that decision.

Our wonderful stake president told Brent that he did not choose this and he did nothing to cause it and he left on his mission with his heart and mind in the right place. There is no disgrace in needing to come home to overcome depression. It is as real a medical problem the same as needing to have surgery.

We know that in time with our love and support Brent will recover and he will be a better person for this experience.


I read over the elder's posts in September but even though he was transferred three times in three transfers which could have been an indicator of his having a possible problem, his emails home didn't clearly show a pattern of depression. It would be hard for a parent to help your child if you have little indication before they come home or that they are in trouble. It is not clear from the blog what happened on the back-end.

According to my daughter who came home a few months ago from the Italy Rome Mission one of the rules for missionaries, is that missionaries are not to discuss negative things with their families or friends. When one of my daughter's told me her mission president was going to send a Korean sister home if my daughter felt she couldn't work with her anymore I told her "Don't be the cause of any other missionary going home or you will regret it for the rest of your life." One day she determined to help her companion and one day a small kindness such as braiding the sister's hair touched her so the struggling sister could have the strength to go on. She said later when she went home she knew Sister B. loved her.

I am of a mind that if a missionary is struggling that mission presidents should contact their family and let them know if it gets severe enough. My own non-member father wrote me a letter when I was transferred from one mission to another. I am not sure that severely depressed missionaries will be able to overcome their debilitating condition in every case but it might help mildly depressed missionaries get over a rough spot or two. Generally I agree with the policy about negativity but sometimes people react too slowly to ameliorate problems that could possibly be overcome. No one says it is easy dealing with people with emotional problems but I feel everyone working together could remove the barriers if we all helped. A mission is a hard and tedious undertaking and sometimes a missionary can't hack it. I don't feel we should ostracize a boy or girl that has a real medical condition after everyone has done what they can. In this case the proper authorities, the parents and the missionaries did what was best for the young man.

I am not a professional mental health person just a lay person expressing my views but there are many throughout the Church who can discuss this more cogently than me. I have yet to seem many of them step up to the plate however. I guess we live in a litigious society that is afraid of legal problems or they are just too busy or uninterested. I do realize unless you can actually meet with a person it would be hard to say much about their problem. Even this treatment by me is a generalized reaction to something I read.

However I have personally experienced depression and had relationship issues on my own mission which carried after that mission and which required me to occasionally visit with professional counselors at BYU when I was a student there. I don't often discuss this. One of them who befriended me and had his degree from Stanford told me that the problems I faced were like a whirlpool that would constantly try to pull me down. He postulated that the key to good mental health was to live the gospel and that would help me lessen and possibly overcome that whirlpool which would be trying to pull me down throughout my life. For me as well as many this may be the case. But there are still a handful that can't overcome. In my own family my mother suffered from early dementia and the only thing that saved her was medical intervention administering a drug that overcame genetically-induced chemical imbalance in her brain. Depression is a complex and complicated issues. We can't slap a bandage over it since every case is different. I guess that is why the Church has a team of doctors to help in evaluating missionaries. Missionaries who suffer from depression should consult family, medical providers, counselors, and ecclesiastically leaders in addressing depression.

It takes a very exceptional mission president to deal with a missionary struggling with depression since it requires enormous patience and time. I am not sure most are equipped nor have the patience to stick by a young man or woman that needs constant attention. I personally suffered depression as a missionary and was almost sent home on at least four or five occasions. My mission president became weary when I misbehaved but he never gave up on me. I hope even though this young man has gone home his mission president doesn't give up on him either.
Most mission presidents think of their missionaries like their own children. Just like our own children missionaries from time to time get sick or face a struggle. We need to be there for them.

I am praying the early release missionary has a miraculous turn around and can return to his mission in the next few months. Even if he doesn't he needs to put back the pieces of him life and move forward. I am becoming aware that there are more young missionaries coming home early for whatever reason. I feel instead of punishing them we should commend them for even trying. Most of them can live good productive lives without stigmata if we treat them with dignity. I personally am looking forward to going on a second mission in nine years when my youngest leaves home. In some ways it will be a makeup of sorts for the less than perfect mission I first served had I had a little better mental health. I take seriously the fact that we have certain individuals that only we may touch and I hope to go back and try to find them. As my mission president would say what happened to this good elder and all those who have to go home is water under the bridge. Good luck and God bless to all elders and sisters and their parents out there struggling with issues that cause them an early release. We should all be kinder and gentler and less judgmental of them. Only the Lord knows their hearts and minds.


Lucy said...

Incredibly good article. Thank you for pointing all this out.

Domestic Goddess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I realize its been nearly a year since you posted this but I still would like to leave a comment.

My daughter's boyfriend was released early due to a serious episode of bipolar 1. It was serious enough that he was in a hospital in severe delirium.

It has been nearly 10 months since he returned. He is doing well on medication though there have been some unpleasant side effects.

He is constantly thinking about going back and is now making the moves to make this happen. We are all very, very concerned.

It is very rare to find someone like this young man who not only has the desire to serve but also the talent, knowledge, preparation and disposition to become a fantastic missionary. So when he came home, it was earth-shattering in its scope.

I admit that in the past, when a missionary came home early, I questioned his faith and desire...until this young man returned early. That's when I realized what an ungrateful bunch of people we are. We send young boys of 19 to a life that is not even 'normal'. All their support systems is yanked from under them. We expect them to perform miracles, to teach people of all types, to learn a new language, to find their way around a new culture...all by themselves with a companion they barely know. And we expect that they will be able to do this without any problem because they should have faith that God will make everything good.

Well, sometimes that doesn't happen because the world is still what it is and these young boys are still humans. It would behoove us to be grateful for ANY time served. It would behoove us to love them, care for them, help them if they come home early. In my stake, I can't even think of any early release missionary whether they returned for good reason or for worthiness problems who isn't having a difficult time. They need our help, our love and our gratitude.

I hope that my daughter's missionary will stay and keep on being whole. But if he does, the stigma attached to his situation is acute. Add to that the pejorative implications that most of us have against mental disorders. Does he have a chance? I sure hope so.

And yet, if he is allowed to return, we are risking his future. Most of our priesthood leaders don't even know the first thing about his disorder.

It's scary world out there even within the missionary world. I served a mission. There were 2 sister missionaries who were already psychotic and were allowed to stay longer than they should have. I wish our leaders had more understanding or training to know about these real problems.

Spencer said...

I know this article is a little old, but I just wanted to tell you thank you. I was sent home from my mission in Florida a little over a year ago and it has been rough. I definately struggled. I felt awkward and out of place wherever I went. I have been looking for some words of support from anywhere and was hard pressed to find it. It is quite a difficult topic to find literature on, but your blog post almost brought me to tears from the relief that I felt and the spirit it brought me. Once again, thank you. You may not have intended it to affect someone this way, but it definately changed my attituce toward myself of negativity and shame.