I want to talk openly and candidly about some of the things that I encountered emotionally in my mission. With the hoard of early release missionaries, I often wonder if many who come home early...
“Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life.” -3 Nephi 5:12
When Sore Trials Come Upon You…
Missionaries and Mental Health
By Jeremy C. Holm
I’ll never forget the cry of anguish I heard that Belizean afternoon. I was nearing the end of my mission and I, along with eleven other missionaries stood, shocked to silence, next to a river ferry as a heart-broken father climbed out of the water. His shoulders shuddered as agony wracked his body and soul after unsuccessfully trying to find his baby boy who had been inside a car now floating under the surface. Because he neglected to follow the ferry’s rules and park a passenger-less vehicle on the ramp (probably for occasions such as this), when another car’s parking brake failed it pushed his, and therefore his precious son, into the raging torrent of water.
He and his brother escaped out the open windows. His son did not.
Several of us were Eagle Scouts and felt the urge to throw off our shoes and leap into the water. But something held us back. My thoughts quickly turned to 1 Nephi 17 verse 50 where Nephi tells his brethren that if needs be, he could command the very oceans to turn to dry earth. I knew we held the Priesthood power to do so, and wondered if it was the Lord’s will.
In that moment, the Spirit whispered, “Stay; it is in the Lord’s hands.”
That afternoon I was reminded that although God can do all things, sometimes his hand is stayed for his own eternal purposes.
Purified as By Fire
I learned that lesson in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah over a year and a half earlier. Like so many of our wonderful Elders and Sisters, I had done my best to prepare for service to the Lord. I knew the “field [was] white already to harvest” (D&C 4:4), so after graduating high school and earning a few medals in the sport of bobsled, I was ready to thrust in my sickle with all my might.
I knew the mission would be wonderful and hard at the same time. That I would experience tremendous joys and challenges, blessings and trials. To believe that it would all be smooth sailing was contrary to mortality, yet the hardships that awaited me during those first two months were…surprising.
Anxiety and depression. I never heard those words growing up, yet I quickly learned what they felt like. As the days wore on, and the light of the Spirit increased, so, too, did the opposition. There were days that I sat reading my scriptures and pled with God to please let this cup pass. I did not understand why I was hurting so badly inside, why my heart felt so weighed down and why I could not be healed. I wept tears of pain as I reached out to the very God I had come to serve.
I admit, I questioned why I had to ache so much when I was there as an ordained Elder of the restored Gospel. In my youthful understanding, perhaps I thought that I would be protected from all sadness, afflictions and struggles as a missionary. But in this, as we all sometimes are, I was wrong.
I wanted healing from the wounds, reprieve from the fiery furnace of affliction, and a quenching of the thirst my soul craved for relief. Like that Belizean father who so desperately searched for the outcome he wanted, I was madly trying to obey, pray and fast my way out of the challenge.
But sometimes the only way out is through. The Lord taught his servants in an earlier day, “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). Like that Belizean father, I prayed for a different outcome, yet I learned that salvation comes in the way we need, not always the way we want.
He parts the sea in the way that will best lead us toward exaltation, not just temporary respite.
Missionaries and Mental Health
The MTC and the mission field are sacred gardens where the Lord’s mortal servants can learn and grow and become more like the master they are called to serve. Yet therein lies the key: every missionary who is set apart is still mortal with all the trials and weaknesses of this world. The Savior enables us to perform his work, but that does not mean our labors will be challenge-free.
It is estimated that between 20-30% of adolescents have at least one major depressive episode before they reach adulthood and 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental illness. And when the additional trials and stressful tests of a mission combine to challenge a youth who faithfully seeks to serve a mission, it can potentially be overwhelming and create circumstances ripe for anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions and mood disorders.
These young men and women faithfully accepted their calls, they prepared with honor and went forth to serve with all their “heart, might, mind and strength.” (D&C 4:2) and should always be honored as such. Yet, this is a mortal world and while their spirits may be willing, perhaps their flesh for one genetic or life-experience reason or another is weak (Matthew 26:41).
And just as we do not think less of a missionary who comes home after developing cancer or some other “familiar” affliction, we should never cast a wary glance towards an Elder or Sister who seeks medical help to either return to the field or to move forward with their lives. I pray we will reach out with loving hearts and warm hands and welcome these young brothers or sisters into our wards, our neighborhoods, and our homes in the spirit of true brotherhood. Though we may not fully understand their circumstances, we can extend the “balm of Gilead” (Jeremiah 8:22).
I feel that missionaries whose bodies or minds develop such tests should be viewed as Helaman’s Stripling Warriors. Now, that comparison may not be new, but perhaps my elucidation is.
Helaman tells us that all his warriors were steadfast and firm and “did obey and observe to perform every word or command with exactness” (Alma 57:21), a principle that applies to most missionaries. And yet, despite their faith and faithfulness, 200 of the 2,060 fainted due to the wounds they received in battle. Helaman ordered the wounded to be cared for and had their injuries dressed. He never judged them for their hurts; he just loved and did what he could to help.
Young men and women who go forth to serve, like the Stripling Warriors, may fight for the Lord’s cause for a week, a month, or a year before succumbing to the mortal wounds of mental illness. In such circumstances, our actions and words should mirror Helaman’s and the example of the Lord’s tender mercy towards those whom he encountered during his mortal journey. Whether their “wounds” were physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, He always strengthened, always lifted, always cared, and always blessed. His concern for the one reminds us all that we truly are our “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9).
What to Do
When struggles arise for a missionary, the question of what to do naturally arises.
You wonderful sons and daughters of God who are serving, should you find that the trial of mental health has touched your mortal journey, take heart. You are not the first to face such an affliction nor will you be the last and you are most definitely not alone. Nor are you struggling because you lack faith or are disobedient or are not praying hard enough. No, some servants of the Lord battle cancer, others diabetes, while some juggle food allergies or heart conditions or visual impairment or hearing loss or any of a thousand other conditions relating to health and wellness. Mental health is a trial of this world and just like Job, you should never allow the Adversary to put thoughts of Divine displeasure into your mind.
Be open and honest about your struggles with your mission leaders and your parents. There is nothing to be ashamed of, but hiding such trials is like trying to drive a car on flat tires. You can only power forward for so long until things get worse (I learned that one the hard way). True faith motivates us to act and sometimes the action we need to take it is take care of ourselves.
There are several options available: you can move forward with faith and prayer alone as sometimes the burdens do become lighter, you may seek counseling while in the MTC or the mission field, you can go home for a time for additional treatment including medication(s) before returning to the field, or in some cases your time served will be honored by the Lord as a full mission when returning to the field is deemed too much for your health. Heaven respects a mission cut short for health reasons just as much as one served until the planned release date.
I counsel you to seek the Lord’s will and the guidance of your Priesthood leaders and your parents as you consider your options. Our Father in Heaven stands ready to bless and strengthen us in the fires of affliction, but sometimes the way forward is not the way we think we should have. Humility in all things is key, and if you strive in faith to do what is best, you will be guided in your choices.
You are not broken, you are not weak, you are not alone and you are not forgotten. While those around you may not fully understand all that you are going through, there is always One who knows exactly what you are experiencing and He will be with you every step of the way.
For Parents and Family:
I know you have prayed, sacrificed and prepared for your family member’s mission. There can be surprise, disappointment and even confusion when your Elder or Sister calls or writes to explain the circumstances surrounding their current health. While it may catch you off guard, let your first reaction be that of loving support. Even if you do not fully understand what they are feeling or thinking or going through, being there for them is the most important thing you can do. While their world may be turning upside down, you can be the firm foundation that they can rebuild stability upon.
I would encourage you to educate yourself about their condition as well. Ask your loved one’s counselor or therapist or doctor for guidance. There are countless good books and articles and journals out there to learn about the various mental illnesses. and the more you learn, the better you will be able to help.
While it is compassionate to ask, “What can I do to help?”, during a mental health crisis a person may not know what they need or cannot fully express it. The churning of their emotional whirlwind can include sadness, shame, frustration, fear, anger and even apathy. Pray and fast for guidance to know what to do or say to best help your loved one, yet be forgiving of your own limitations and mortality. It is not up to you to solve everything, as much as you may want to. To paraphrase President Thomas S. Monson, “Do [your] duty (limitations and all), that is best; leave unto [the] Lord the rest.”
Behold, I Am With Thee
While I do not have all the answers, I know who does and He will never forsake us in our times of difficulty. When the tears come, the fears mount, the confusion and frustration overflow, turn to He who calmed the raging seas, healed the wounded and lifted the downtrodden.
The solutions and healing you seek may not come overnight, but our Lord and Savior will walk this path with you. Do not limit yourself or your future’s outlook because of mortal weakness. Rather, go forward as a child of God and servant of Jesus Christ, exercising faith in His ability to guide you to greater joys and peace amidst your afflictions.
As He reminded the Nephites:
“O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted. Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.
“For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.” (3 Nephi 22: 11, 10).
As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught “Even if you cannot always see that silver lining on your clouds, God can, for He is the very source of the light you seek. He does love you, and He knows your fears. He hears your prayers. He is your Heavenly Father, and surely He matches with His own the tears His children shed.” (CR October 1999 “An High Priest of Good Things to Come”)
So, don’t give up and don’t lose hope. The answers will come. The peace, support and happiness will come. All dark storms, even those of mental illness, give way before the Light of the World.