We have had many missionaries who have gone home on medical releases in our years here. I have gained a greater understanding of pain as I have watched these good young people want to serve, struggle to feel well, reach out for help and understanding, but just feel physically and emotionally sick with different kinds of anxiety.
Missionary anxiety comes in many forms:
Social anxiety at having to actually talk to people, extend themselves outward to start conversations with complete strangers, and worrying about what people are going to think. Situational anxiety at having to be with a companion 24/7 and they can’t escape them. And Performance anxiety; they feel so much pressure to find well, teach well, plan well, work with members, know scriptures and-- love everyone while you’re doing it! Think about it. This generation is wonderful, but have their own specific challenges unlike any other generation has ever had. Our councilors describe it like this: This generation has access to computer, TV, and phone constantly so they can escape whenever they feel the need. The demands placed on them are geared to their own achievements instead of serving or doing for someone else. In many cases they aren’t use to getting outside their comfort zones so they don’t know they are coping when they are spending hours in the gym or all day in their bedrooms on the computer or watching TV. They are able to escape easily, so instead of facing feelings of boredom, sadness, fear or disappointment, and dealing with those feelings, they turn to distraction and entertainment without even realizing that that is what they are doing. It can be a total shock to get on a mission and have a bad day and have to live with it and figure out what to do with it.
Missions are quite demanding. Missionaries are in an unfamiliar environment; learning new skills, being with new people, eating weird food, learning new languages all while very high expectations are being placed on them. Those are a lot of stressors to be going through.
There can be a lot of anxiety wondering constantly, “Am I obeying every rule exactly”, “Have I filled up my planner so every second is being used”, “Did I talk to everyone so that someone’s eternal salvation wasn’t ruined because of me”, “What did I do wrong that my investigator didn’t come to church, keep their commitment or dropped us”, “Did I teach to needs”, “Did I establish my purpose”, “Did I ask inspired questions”, and “Why haven’t I progressed anyone to baptism”.
When a missionary is thrust into a situation that causes anxiety over and over again they develop physical symptoms: headaches, back aches, stomach aches, joint pain, etc. They feel so sick. We have found we can help missionaries get over homesickness and depression, but those who suffer from acute anxiety tend to get sicker and sicker until it’s just pain for them, everyday all day long. We try to help them but many of them get to the point that they are in so much pain they become non-functioning. I feel like they have fought a war and are coming home with post traumatic stress disorder. I’m not a professional; that is just how I feel.
If there is any message I could send it would be to put your arms around any missionary who comes home for any reason early. They are struggling. They need people to not ask, “When are you going back out?” You really have no idea what they’ve gone through, how they have felt, or the situation they have been in. They need everyone to smile, laugh with them, love and support them in their recovery, no matter what the reason is. Those who are suffering from anxiety are probably going to associate church with pain for awhile. They need to have time to heal.
My son Jordan came home from his mission on a medical release a few weeks ago. What a hard experience his mission was. He had horrible back pain the entire year from an old gymnastics injury. He had physical therapy and injections in field but finally came home for a nerve oblation. He had allergies and asthma we could never get under control in his particular mission. And to top it all off he couldn’t sleep at all and became horribly sleep deprived. He seemed to get it from all sides and there were no breaks in site. We are so sad at his experience. We don’t really have any answers as to why this turned out the way it did. But we are glad to have him home and hope to take care of him the best we can.
I don’t have all the answers of why missionaries struggle. But, this is what I know:
They want to serve the Lord, but life, (and missions) aren’t perfect, and people aren’t perfect. Why couldn’t we just know everything at the beginning, have everything fall into place and be skilled and talented right from the get go. I guess it’s because that wasn’t our Heavenly Fathers plan. We were meant to not be perfect missionaries, children, spouses, parents and providers. We were actually meant to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. We would have to learn to love and forgive, even when things would be done that were hurtful and damaging. We would have a savior who would be able to make us clean and free if we would stay soft, open and humble. He could make us worthy of the spirit and that spirit would make everything be turned to our good because we would progress and grow from our new found knowledge.
I know we can recover from every pain in life if we will repent of hardness, doubt, fear and pride. If we will be open to the Lord and the spirit He will get us there. If we will hold on to Him He will show us the way. If we will stay humble, clean and worthy of the spirit He will work all things together for our good and it will come out ok. That is His promise to us, and I have felt it’s truthfulness over and over.
I really can’t express my love well enough for these good young people and their good hearts and desires. Their desire to work and sacrifice for the Lord is a testimony to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Very few young people in this world would give this much. And for those who struggle it is not in vain. There is a plan and purpose for all God’s children, the trick is to accept and love His individual plan.
PS This blog doesn't deal with the therapy and medication side of emotional issues but let me just say that I believe it's good to fix problems and counseling and medication can really help when applicable.