Understanding and Helping Early Returned Missionaries

Reasons Why Missionaries Return Home Early
This website is dedicated to helping young people be better prepared to serve the Lord as full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While we want every missionary that goes on a mission to complete their term of service fully and honorably, we know that a percentage of missionaries will need to come home early for one reason or another. In this article, I’d like to talk about the reasons why missionaries come home early, how to help those missionaries adjust to that reality, and what we as their friends, family, and fellow church members can do to help and support them.

Elder Holland once said this to a missionary who came home early because of mental health issues:

“Obviously we want everyone to have a full and complete mission. We’re anxious that no one succumb to homesickness or battle fatigue and truncate their mission, come home early. …But listen. Understand, this young man and anybody else out there in the audience who is concerned. There are reasons that people can’t serve a mission. There are reasons that people can’t go on a mission in the first place. We know that. We understand that. …So I say commendation to you, and the love of the Lord to you, and the blessings of the Church to you for trying to go, for wanting to go, and for the fact that you successfully served for four months.” (see Elder Holland’s Counsel for Early Returned Missionaries, March 2016)

I’ve heard many news stories in recent years about the increasing number of missionaries returning home early. While the Church doesn’t publish the exact number or percentage of missionaries returning home early, anecdotal evidence does seem to indicate the figures may be on the rise. Regardless of those trends, we know some missionaries do return home early and the brethren have taught us to love and support those individuals. As this 2014 Church News article reminds us, “Returned Missionaries Need a Friend, a Responsibility, and Spiritual Nourishment” regardless of why or when they come home.

Why Missionaries Return Home Early

Missionaries return home early from their missions for a variety of reasons—physical health issues, mental health, transgression, and other issues. A 2012 survey of 348 ERMs was published by BYU in a 2015 article called Return with Trauma: Understanding the Experiences of Early Returned Missionaries (see “Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy” Volume 37 | Number 1 | Article 9 by Kristine J. Doty of Utah Valley University and S. Zachary Bullock of Brigham Young University) examined the reason why missionaries come home early. It found that:

  • “Thirty-six percent reported that mental health issues were a factor in their return”
  • “Thirty-four percent returned due to physical health issues.”
  • “12% of the respondents came home due to unresolved transgression”
  • “11% for breaking mission rules” (see p40 of the article referenced above)

Another study of early returned missionaries (ERMs) conducted by Drake and Drake (2014) corroborated those results showing “38% of early releases were for mental illness diagnoses alone” and “34% who were released due to physical reasons” (p36). That leaves 28% for other reasons including transgression before or during mission.

That makes two studies within a two-year period that show basically the same results—the vast majority of early returned missionaries come home because of health reasons and only around a quarter of all ERMs are home early because of inappropriate behavior such as breaking the mission rules or entering the mission field with previous transgressions still unresolved.

Regardless of why missionaries come home early, almost all of them feel like they have failed at their mission and are uncomfortable talking about it. “Of the ERMs responding to the quantitative survey, 73% said they had feelings of failure. Two-thirds of ERMs felt uncomfortable in social settings, and 44% felt uncomfortable answering questions about their missions” (p 41). These feeling are prevalent among ERMs, “regardless of whether their early return was related to personal conduct” (p 41) or if it was due to health or other issues. Due to the fact that mental health issues is the biggest reason young people come home early from their missions, and due to many misunderstandings about this issue in our society, I, and the authors of the study we are examining, think it deserves a deeper exploration.

Returning for Mental Health Issues

The biggest reason missionaries are returning home early is due to mental health related issues. The authors of the study we’ve been discussing say, “mental illness is overrepresented in early returned missionaries (ERMs) compared to their peers who complete their full term of expected missionary service. For ERMs, the challenges and hardships missionaries face may overwhelm their coping resources and exacerbate the turmoil, anxiety, and crises of emerging adulthood.” (p36)

Mental illness situations, like physical illness, are sometimes unavoidable though sometimes there are steps that can be taken to mitigate their impact. There are things missionaries can do to help themselves as well as steps family, friends, and church leaders can take to help prepare young people to handle the mental and emotional stress of going on a mission.

Internal Testimony rather than External Pressure for Good Mental Health

One thing that can be done to help reduce mental health stress on missionaries is to help them develop their own testimony instead of relying on the testimonies of others. The study we’ve been discussing found that missionaries who have a strong personal testimony and desire to serve the Lord without outside pressure from family or church leaders are more likely to have good mental health during their mission. Said the authors, “A high degree of intrinsic (internal) commitment to religion tends to correlate with good mental health better than an extrinsic (external) commitment” (p 36).

This reminded me of the oft-quoted statement from Heber C. Kimball, former apostle and member of the First Presidency:

“To meet the difficulties that are coming, it will be necessary for you to have a knowledge of the truth of this work for yourselves. The difficulties will be of such a character that the man or woman who does not possess his personal knowledge or witness will fall. … The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 3d. ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1945, pp. 449–50)

borrowed light Heber C. Kimball

 

Preparing for Transitions and Realities of Mission Life for Good Mental Health

The other suggestion from the authors to help lessen the likelihood of mental health issue by missionaries is to prepare them for the frequent transitions that occur in the mission field. Going on a mission is a big life style change for all missionaries. They transition from school or work or playing full-time, to full-time service of the Lord. They leave their family and friends and go to far off places, often having to learn a new language and culture. Every few months, they move from city to city and often have even more frequent changes in the companions they live with. There are a lot of transitions involved in missionary work, and young people will have better mental and emotional health if they know what they are getting into and are prepared for those transitions.

“A person’s mental health may be affected, however, if preparation for a transition is inadequate, if there is discontinuity between the roles, if there is too much change in too little time, or if those transitioning experience culture shock or role shock service—discrepancies between a person’s expectations and the realities of their new environments and responsibilities” (p36).

If future missionaries can be taught about the nature of missionary work and hear stories from others who have gone before them on a mission, they can be better prepared for the transitions of missionary work. And, say the authors of the study, “Mastering those transitions can lead to enhanced self-esteem, personal growth, and maturity” –all aspects of good mental health.

The benefits of emotional preparation to serve a mission cannot be understated. The study clearly showed that “missionaries who were emotionally prepared to serve and believed missionary work was the work of the Lord were more likely to have strong spiritual experiences while on the mission.”

Reception of ERMs by Home Ward Members

One aspect of the ERM experience upon which the study dwelt heavily, and which also deserves our attention, is how he or she was received by their home ward upon returning from the mission. “Fifty-eight percent [of ERMs] felt they were received indifferently or poorly by their congregation (ward), and almost half felt they were treated indifferently or poorly by their ward leaders. Thirty-one percent of the survey respondents indicated that their friends and family were indifferent or unkind.” (p 40)

Even without the judgement of others, “many ERMs feel like people assume they returned for worthiness issues. They feel stigmatized and ashamed, whether or not there was sin involved.” (p 40) However, “ERMs who felt their ward members received them better upon returning home had lower feelings of failure” (p 42)

“Nearly half of the survey respondents (47%) reported they are not as active in the Church as they were before they went on their mission.” In fact, one survey respondent said “I took a job on Sundays and that way I didn’t have to explain things to people anymore.” But again, there are things we are ward members can do to lessen the likelihood of ERMs falling away from the Church. Say the study authors, “ERMs who felt their ward members received them well upon their early return were less likely to experience a period of inactivity” (p 42).

Having said that, we should also remember to give ward members the benefit of the doubt on their reception of ERMs as often times ERMs perceive prejudice from ward members, whether or not it intended or even really there. “There appears to be a strong perceptual component to these reactions. Of the interviewees who stated they were poorly received, few had specific or concrete examples they could recall” (p 41). However, if we go out of our way to let ERMs know that they are loved and welcomed back into our wards, then we can dispel that doubt and they can enjoy the blessings of our ward families.

How to Help Early Returned Missionaries

In addition to the other helpful items we have discussed, the authors of the ERM study offer several other suggestions to help early returned missionaries. “The quick release [of an ERM] does not leave time for a young adult in the identity development phase to emotionally, mentally, or spiritually adjust to the change and consider the impact it will have on his or her immediate future.” They recommend these steps to help ERMs adjust and have a higher likelihood of remain happy, healthy, engaged with the Church and living the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • Allow the ERM to share his full story. “We were surprised at how many ERMs did not feel encouraged, or even comfortable, to talk about their missions to anyone.”
  • Promote empowerment. “The majority of ERMs were not given the choice whether they returned home, they feel a loss of control. …The ERM will need to feel empowered to own his or her healing journey.”
  • Teach communication skills. “Work with them to gain assertiveness skills so they can comfortably express what they need to their family members and church leaders.”
  • Encourage the use of spiritual strategies. “Fasting, prayer, temple attendance, scripture study, and most importantly application of the Atonement can provide them continued emotional and spiritual strength to find their new path.”
  • Encourage good emotional coping resources. “Help ERMs learn to reject shame and embarrassment. Many choose church inactivity as a way to cope with shame and embarrassment.”
  • Avoid urging them to return to the mission quickly. “The ERM should be empowered to focus on resolving the reason for coming home before engaging in any discussion about returning to the field. Moving on with his or her future by securing employment or attending college or vocational training may be the path he or she prefers or feels inspired to take.”
  • Consider a Church-Service Mission. “Not all ERMs can finish the full term of their proselyting missions, but many want to successfully complete their service. …[therefore] investigate whether the CSM program is an appropriate option.”

Conclusion

I’ll conclude with a word for the study authors and another great quote from Elder Holland. The study authors say, “Therapists, church leaders, family members and friends can offer support in a meaningful way to help ERMs make the needed adjustment to their unexpected return. …If ERMs can focus on being refined rather than defined by their experience, they will be much stronger to meet the future life challenges that most certainly lie ahead.”

And finally, this is what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said to one early returned missionary:

“[Your mission] wasn’t a full term, but it was missionary service. It was honest. You were loyally participating and testifying. And I want you to take credit for that. I want you to take the appropriate dignity that you deserve from that and to know that the Lord loves you and the Church loves you for serving. … I want you to be proud. Appropriately proud. I want you to take the dignity and the strength and the faith that came from your four months and cherish that forever. I don’t want you to apologize for coming home. When someone asks you if you’ve served a mission, you say yes. You do not need to follow that up with ‘But it was only four months.’ Just forget that part and say yes, you served a mission. And be proud of the time that you spent. … Cherish the service you rendered. Be grateful for the opportunity to have testified, to have been out in the name of the Lord, to have worn that missionary name plaque.”

1 reply
  1. Marni
    Marni says:

    A lot of interesting information and data. As the mother of an ERM, it’s definitely not as simple as it sounds. I made it very open, mentioning he’d been struggling and then posting airport pictures on FB. I texted a few ward members who had been his leaders and friends and asked them to be sure to find him at church and give him a hug. We’ve had others come home and it was a surprise and people don’t know how to react.

    As for supporting the missionary, it’s hard to prepare them for real situations. Things like rejection and putting yourself out to people all day is already difficult, but a companion should be a companion and not a bully, but that really happens. I don’t know how you help a young man or woman prepare for that, when things are already tough and far away from home.

    I’m grateful for the ability to communicate more with family. When I told my son about the change, he said it would have helped him a lot. It would be interesting to revisit the statistics again a year or so after that change.

    Reply

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