Nate Clyde lost 18 pounds in the Missionary Training Center.
Suzy Thornock developed an eating disorder a few weeks into her mission.
And Maurice Melligan found himself confronting suicidal thoughts.
From Utah to New Zealand, these young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are just a few of the “early-returned missionaries” who have come home from missions due to mental health challenges that cropped up unexpectedly, or resurfaced during their time “in the field.”
Missionaries, typically ages 18 to 26, are part of an increasingly anxious generation. Diagnoses for anxiety in adolescents are up 17 percent from 10 years ago, nearly 30 percent of today’s kids and teens will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder at some point, according to the Child Mind Institute, and anxiety is the top concern for incoming college students.
Add these statistics to the already soul-stretching experience of serving for 18 or 24 months away from home, cut off from familiar comforts and facing constant rejection from people who are uninterested in joining a new church — and experts say it’s no wonder many missionaries are having a hard time.
“A mission can be a trigger, and to say it isn’t ... is disingenuous,” said Randy K. Moss, psychologist and principal of Integrated Counseling and Consulting LLC., in Kaysville, Utah, who has worked with adolescents for 30 years, including early-returned missionaries. But, he added, it’s also incorrect to say that missions cause mental illness or that missions are harmful because they are stressful.
As part of a yearlong series on teens and anxiety, the Deseret News talked with mental health experts, former mission presidents, religious scholars and 20 returned missionaries who dealt with mental health challenges while serving — exploring the global problem of anxiety in the unique context of religious service within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.