If you came home for mental health reasons you are in good company. According to a study about missionaries who returned home early by Kris Doty, chair of Utah Valley University’s Department of Behavioral Science, “73 percent of men and women who returned home early from their missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experienced feelings of failure, and the majority came home for medical or mental health reasons.” I personally did not come home for mental health reasons, but I know of plenty missionaries who do. I will give advice as best I can in this section, but because I do not have personal experience with coming home early for mental health reasons, I am very interested in receiving stories from those who did. I am particularly interested in hearing what you went through when you came home, how you recovered (or are still recovering), and what advice you can give to others who come home for mental health reasons.
Although I wasn’t debilitated on my mission by mental health issues, I have been a sufferer of anxiety—particularly Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—for many years now. I don’t remember how old I was when OCD first manifested itself, but I know I was in elementary school when it showed up in full force. At one point, I even felt myself slipping into depression because I was so paralyzed with fear of making a wrong decision. My OCD loved to tell me that God was displeased with me; that I kept making wrong decisions; that I had to pray before I did anything; that I ought to just give up (whatever that meant for that day); and, that I’d never be good enough at or for anything. However, as I have sought help in the form of self-help books, friends and family, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, I have improved dramatically in my abilities to recognize distorted thoughts, correct my thinking patterns, and enjoy life again. Yet, because of the adaptable nature of OCD, battling against it from controlling my life will probably be something I struggle with for the rest of my life.
I recognize that my experience with mental health issues is, in some respects, less significant than what others go through who have more severe forms of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, etc. However, from what I have studied for myself in these issues (as a student minoring in Psychology at BYU), seeking help is the best thing you can do for yourself. The worst thing you can do is hide it away from others and try to “deal with it yourself.” You’re in your own head all day; you hear your own thoughts all day. And they probably aren’t very nice thoughts, are they? It makes a world of difference when you can hear other people’s thoughts and perspectives about you (and I guarantee others have nice things to say about you) and get help sifting your distorted thoughts.
I’m going to recommend what has worked for me in overcoming mental health issues. I have also seen this work for others who struggle with mental health. The best thing you can do is find a therapist (a cognitive-behavioral therapist is recommended the most for mental disorders) that you feel comfortable discussing your feelings with (I’ll talk more about therapy in the next paragraph). Then, get a support system, whether that be family, friends, and/or church leaders. Choose people who respect your beliefs and won’t try to turn you away from the Church. You don’t need that extra confusion in your life. If you feel comfortable doing so, learn more about whichever mental health issue(s) is ailing you. I’ve found that helping others has greatly increased my capacity to see good in myself and in the world around me, so I suggest you contribute to studies if you can so that those seeking to help you can learn more about what is happening in your mind, and be willing to help others who notice your struggle and come to you for help because they are also struggling.
About therapy. The following information can be found under “Some Advice:Temporal Advice: Counseling” but I’ll say it again in an effort to drive the point home.
In American culture, there is often a stigma of weakness associated with seeing a therapist. This stigma is very unfortunate because it prevents many people from getting the help they need, and often their problems just get worse. Therapists are licensed, trained professionals who spend many years studying effective ways to help others overcome difficulties. You may feel ashamed or guilty for needing to see a therapist—that is okay! That is normal! It can be nerve-wracking to open up to someone about your struggles, especially someone you do not know, but it can be very rewarding in the long run (or even the short run, really). You are not broken if you need to see a therapist. You are still okay—still a good person needing some extra help because your mind is struggling. Seeing a therapist to help organize your thoughts and to think more clearly is important to your health and well-being.
Remember that your mental health is just as important to your health and well-being as your physical health. Just like it doesn’t make you less of a person to be struggling with something physical, you are not less of a person for struggling with something that affects you mentally. Also, I recommend that you meet with a therapist that does not have an agenda in mind. In other words, if the therapist wants to set a date for when you’ll return to the field or resubmit your papers, find another therapist. The focus should not be on getting you back out to the field but rather on healing—no matter how long that healing may take.
Please find someone you can trust to talk to. Do not bottle up your feelings. Do not think that no one cares. I always suggest talking to a family member, a friend, or a church leader. If nothing else, always remember that you can talk to Heavenly Father and that He will provide answers, guidance, and comfort. Always. It may not be in the time frame you want or expect, but it will always be in the best time frame for you. That is my testimony.
One more thing I want to add: I loved the talk Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave in the October 2013 General Conference. His words offer hope, encouragement, and excellent advice for anyone suffering from any form of mental illness, spoken from first-hand experience from the apostle himself.
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