Mormon Culture: Missionary Mental Health Resources

If you’re the parent of a son or daughter going on a mission, you probably worry about their health when they write home saying something is amiss. And if it’s related to mental health, you might not know what resources are available to them.

According to psychologist Wendy Ulrich, who provides council for the missionary mental health committee, in general, we can expect one in five people at any time to struggle with depression. And missions connect to depression through stress.

“Stress isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when we get overstressed, we start dealing with depression and anxiety,” Ulrich said.

Not all mission presidents will be very versed in mental health or know all the proper ways of dealing with mental health, but the Church provides them and missionaries with resources.

Here’s a breakdown of what exists to help missionaries with mental health:

Missionary Mental health committee

The church has a mental health committee that works to think of ways to help missionaries and their mental health while in the field. This committee has put together things like the “Adjusting to Missionary Life” booklet and “My Plan.”

Adjusting to missionary life” booklet

This is a booklet that missionaries receive in the MTC as of 2013. It talks about stress and how to manage it. Also included are resources for managing physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual demands.

Ulrich helped put together this resource. She said the missionary mental health committee was concerned about the amount of stress put on missionaries and decided to create a resource to help missionaries deal with the new stress.

She said in an interview, “People maybe are not supposed to admit when they’re involved in these sorts of projects. I think we want to believe they just descend from heaven.”

They worked on this booklet for about two years. It was meant to be given to missionaries after they’d already been in the field for a while, but Ulrich said bishops are starting to give the booklets to priests and laurels so that the transition isn’t so “dramatic.” The booklet provides resources for the missionaries.

Before a mission, people can do things like talk to parents or friends or go to the movies, Ulrich said, but when they’re on a mission, they can’t do those things. Ulrich said once people learn to manage their stress in a missionary environment, their stress levels will go down.

According to Ulrich, for the past two years, there was an effort to teach mission presidents how to use the “Adjusting to Missionary Life” booklet — which is apparently a big deal since they spent several hours out of the short time the mission presidents are trained to go over this booklet.

My Plan

My Plan is a booklet structured to help returned missionaries learn to set goals when they get home and help with the transition from mission life to home life.

“It’s really a time when people are trying to gain a sense of independence, and that’s the important thing for them to be doing,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich said the committee in charge of My Plan is now reworking the program.

It seems as though there will soon be an online portal as well to help “strengthen returning full-time missionaries.” Missionaries will work with the material before, during, and after their missions.

mental health and medical advisors

There are mental health and medical advisors assigned to various missions. They work under the missionary department organization and help provide mental health counseling to missionaries.

Senior missionaries can also serve providing mental health counseling. In the  Senior Missionaries Opportunity Bulletin, updated May 19, 2017,  it says mental health counselors are needed to advise mission presidents on missionary health.

Ulrich said there was a spike  in concern about mental health right at the beginning of the missionary age change in 2012, but percentage-wise, things have stabilized again.

Mission presidents have resources to help missionaries, but Ulrich said she thinks they are reluctant to use them.

“I think most of them are probably pretty reluctant to make use of them because you’re trying really hard to pretend that you know what you’re doing,” Ulrich said, her husband having served as a mission president in Canada.

However, she said some do reach out, and she’s done consultations with them. She said one of the reasons mission presidents might not reach out is because people of her generation aren’t accustomed to reaching out about mental health issues.

in-field representatives

Every mission president is assigned an “in-field representative.” There are about 20 representatives in Salt Lake City that are available full-time to mission presidents and their wives. They are the people who can connect mission presidents to medical help and other such resources.

mission president portal

Mission presidents have access to resources on various topics, including mental health, through a mission president portal.

Mormon Culture: Transitioning From Mission to Real Life

Coming home from a mission is not as easy as you expect it to be. Sure, you learned how to study and make goals, but missions are extremely structured in a way that life is not.

Psychologist Wendy Ulrich has worked with the LDS Church missionary mental health committee on several projects, such as a booklet called “Adjusting to Missionary Life” and an online program to help missionaries returning home from their missions, called “My Plan.”

Adjusting to missionary life is difficult, but Ulrich said it can be just as hard transitioning back to “normal” life. There are a few reasons for this.

1. You have to make your own plans.

On a mission, you have your schedule laid out for you. You just fill in the gaps with teaching people and various ways of finding people to teach. And often, on missions you were told to not get “trunky” and to not plan for when you go home. “You feel like you surreptitiously have to sneak around and make arrangement for your classes or apartment or a job when you get home,” Ulrich said.

But Ulrich said that is changing. She’s noticed a shift with mission presidents. She said they are now “trying to move from this idea of work till you drop at the end of your mission and don’t even think about anything else” to helping missionaries anticipate the changes. Because when the mission is over, “there’s no mission president waiting for you when you get home to help you with that transition,” she said.

2. Sometimes you face depression or anxiety or maybe just plain confusion

Ulrich said the best thing for return missionaries to do is to seek out resources, like counseling, when they feel like what they’re experiencing is more than they can handle.

But she also said it’s normal to feel a little off. She said that when she talks with groups of missionaries, all the same issues come up.

“I think sometimes the best thing we can do is just open up a little more with other people around us who are dealing with the same issues,” Ulrich said. “When you’re in the middle of it, the feeling is ‘This is just me. What’s the matter with me?’ And when you get talking to people, you start realizing, ‘No, a lot of people are struggling with the same issues I am.'”

3. You’re confusing mission life with “adult spirituality”

If you’re around Mormons for long enough, you’ll probably hear a story about a mission president who told missionaries something he shouldn’t have, which caused the return missionary a lot of grief.

Ulrich said one of the biggest challenges for a mission president is that he will likely do what his own mission president did. So if his mission president said to go home and get married in six months or read the scriptures for an hour every day for the rest of your life, then he is likely to pass that on.

(Now, as we established in a previous blog, mission presidents saying things like “go home and get married in six months” or “read the scriptures for an hour every day for the rest of your life” is opinion, not doctrine. So if someone doesn’t follow that council, it doesn’t mean they are damned or “less.”)

“A mission is more like a boot camp than it is real life,” Ulrich said.

She compared the experience of a mission to learning discipline, which is helpful, but she said it’s not what “adult spirituality” looks like.

“Adult spirituality has a lot more to do with dealing with ambiguity and dealing with paradox and dealing with uncertainty and not knowing all the answers and figuring it out yourself and having to make lots of adjustments,” Ulrich said.

She laughed as she said when you have a kid, getting up at 6 a.m. just doesn’t work. But she said missions teach people to how get comfortable with the scriptures, how to get along with others, and how to testify.

What does it mean to be an adult in the Church?

  • “Learning to question and not fall apart over it.”
  • “Learning to cut people slack and to realize that your leaders are just human beings like you are, and they don’t have all the answers”
  • It can’t be prescribed.
  • You have to come up with the rules for yourself that “make spirituality alive in your life.”

Ulrich said the hardest part about coming home from a mission is “there are no clean answers” for a lot of the things people are going to encounter.

last words

I think everyone in the world can agree that life is messy and complicated. And Ulrich pointed out that the early 20s is a time when everyone is having a hard time, so transitioning from a mission to coming home is already harder because of that fact.

So if you’re transitioning from getting home from your mission, just know that it’s normal if you’re having a hard time. Cut yourself some slack and cut some slack for anyone who offended you or imposed their opinion on you.

Mormon Culture: Doctrine vs. Policy

Did you know it’s a commandment to wear a white shirt while passing the sacrament? And blue shirts evil?

It seems that sometimes there are blurred lines between what’s doctrine and what’s policy or culture. For example, it’s a policy that people don’t play brass instruments or guitars during sacrament meeting, but does that mean those instruments are bad? Nope.

On a mission, you follow a pretty strict schedule, complete with waking up at 6:30 a.m., so does that mean you’re a “bad” member if after your mission you wake up later than that? Are you living a lesser law? Nope.

But the imposed expectations that people sometimes have about these policies causes a risk for members being judgmental toward others.

And sometimes, policy even changes in the church. *Gasp* But that’s a key difference between policy and doctrine. I once had it explained to me by BYU biology professor John Kauwe. He was trying to teach us about evolution and the stance of the church. And to do so, he had to explain that doctrine includes the key truths of the gospel (scriptural cannon and official statements of the church signed by all the members of the First Presidency). Policy is something that changes; doctrine does not.

See this article for another explanation of separating doctrine from policy.

In a book review for, “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” professor Julie J. Nicols writes two essays contained in the book “place trends in Mormon history within larger American contexts, work that many Utah Mormons would benefit from studying in order to extract themselves from the mistaken notion that the evolution of Church policies and practices has come straight from the mouth of God, unattached to secular movements and political needs.”

What’s another policy that was pretty controversial? Why couldn’t Blacks have the priesthood? Now obviously that has changed, so was it doctrine or policy? It was policy. Because policy changes; doctrine doesn’t.

In the 1992 publication of The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, it says the prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve, collectively and under the inspiration of God, “are authorized to determine the position of the Church at any given time on matters of doctrine, policy, and practice.”

So when you come upon a teaching in the church that you’re not so sure about, do some homework. Who said it? What’s the context? Is it doctrine or policy?

What about the long-standing battle about whether or not caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom? In an article published in The Daily Universe, Robert Walz said when he was a kid, people said caffeine was against the Word of Wisdom, but as he got older, he realized it wasn’t. And now he’s making up for lost time. That was a culture thing. Not doctrine or policy.

Now, the For the Strength of Youth back in the day said young women shouldn’t leave the house with curlers in their hair. First off, why was that a thing that was even written in the For the Strength of Youth? Was it in fashion? It was probably just seen as improper. So it might have been a societally-influenced standard. It probably wasn’t considered a commandment though — but who knows. Step back and ask yourself something. “Will wearing curlers in my hair to the grocery store condemn me to hell?” Hmmm…..I wonder. (The answer is no if you were wondering.) How does that fit into the context of doctrine, policy, and culture?

But there are quite a few cultural things that come from the For the Strength of Youth. What’s interesting is that after so many years, the booklet changes. When I was a youth, I had the 2001 version; but when I was graduating high school, the version I had worked so tirelessly to live by was modified. LDS Living has an online article called “How ‘For the Strength of Youth’ Has Changed Over the Years.Here’s the current For the Strength of Youth pamphlet.

Scholar Wilfred Decoo sent me a Times and Seasons article he wrote that brings up an interesting point. Is it doctrine that you must have a missionary haircut? Nope, but sometimes it might be policy for certain things in the church. In Decoo’s article, he said a convert from Mali had braided hair — which was a common hairstyle for African men — and the bishop told the convert he had to cut his braids in order to attend EFY. Decoo said the bishop said he had to enforce EFY guidelines.

Now this story calls for some interesting questions. How would you feel if you wore your hair “normally,” according to your culture, and one day you were told that hairstyle would prohibit you from going to a church camp? If you were a convert who didn’t know much about the church, how would you feel that you wouldn’t be able to attend this camp because of your cultural hairstyle?

My person opinion is I don’t think God has a preference for your hairstyle. I mean, Jesus always has long hair in those videos the church makes after all. But I understand that the EFY camps might set their own policy for those who attend the camp.

What’s not so great is that the policies we have in the church sometimes lead to judging. The Daily Universe also has an articles about this: the Mormons Judging Mormon series.

On the church’s side of things, the official handbook gives guidelines on how to deal with the commandments and standards of the church:  “The commandments of the Lord and the worthiness standards of the Church are given in the scriptures and in official communications from the First Presidency. Local leaders should not alter these commandments and standards. Nor should local leaders teach their own rules or interpretations regarding the commandments.”

Now, I’ve heard some wild stories about people making their own interpretations of the commandments. Just the other day, I heard that a bishop told his congregation that having sleepovers wasn’t allowed. I’m sure you have heard some strange ones as well. Make sure to comment and tell me some more.

The handbook also gives instruction about what to do if people are teaching “false or speculative doctrine” — which I’m sure we’ve all heard.

“Leaders should correct it promptly and sensitively,” the handbook states. “Errors can usually be corrected in private, but major or repeated errors may require public correction.”

Questions to consider

  • Is what you’re judging people on based on policy or tradition?
  • What’s the difference between doctrine and policy? How am I going to view those two things for my own life and not judge others based on them?
  • Do I pray to God and receive confirmation from the Holy Ghost when I’m confronted with a question as to whether something is true? Or do I just let other people tell me?

last words

Make sure you’re not judging people because of past policies. If someone drinks caffeine and you don’t, don’t mentally condemn them to hell. If someone comes to sacrament with a mohawk, don’t judge them; I mean, they’re worshipping God and that’s all that matters — plus mohawks are cool (hair can really stand straight up like that?!), and Mormons have totally had them.

How to deal with a crisis of faith

Just like you, I’ve had a crisis or two of faith. And I’m sure neither you or I is done with having these crises.

My first crisis was about Joseph Smith. My second was about revelation. My third was about the temple. My fourth was about non-prophet church leaders. My fifth was about Mormon culture and doctrine.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Jesse, those are pretty big-topic issues you dealt with.” If you aren’t, that’s what I would’ve thought if I had read that list. Or maybe you’re thinking, “Yep, been there,” or “Yep, I am there.”

I struggled, but I wanted to stay with my God. So how did I deal with those questions and confused thoughts? The answers are simple, but the execution of them isn’t so easy.

1. Read the scriptures every day

I recently listened to the talk, “No Greater Joy Than to Know That They Know,” by Elder K. Brett Nattress. He tells the story of how his mom would read the Book of Mormon to their family every morning. One day Elder Nattress told his mom he wasn’t even listening. And his mom responded.

“She said, ‘Son, I was at a meeting where President Marion G. Romney taught about the blessings of scripture reading. During this meeting, I received a promise that if I would read the Book of Mormon to my children every day, I would not lose them.’ She then looked me straight in the eyes and, with absolute determination, said, ‘And I will not lose you!'”

I like to think we can say the same thing for ourselves and God. Since my first crisis of faith, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve missed reading my scriptures. And I strongly believe reading the scriptures has kept me close to God.

So even though there are days where it’s just one verse, it’s still important to keep the habit so you don’t forget about your Padre Celestial.

2. Remember the testimonies you’ve recieved

The talk, “Lest Thou Forget,” by Elder Ronald A. Rasband talks about just this. That’s a shout-out because it inspired me to write this post.

Whenever I have been through a crisis of faith, I’ve thought back to the testimony I recieved from that first trial of faith. How many times have I wanted to throw in the towel and give up? I wouldn’t even know how to count. But how many times has my testimony (that God is real, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that Joseph Smith was called of God to restore the truth) gotten me through my crises? Thankfully, every time.

3. Remember these words: “If you are tempted to give up: Stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here.”

Those words come from Elder Dieter F Uchtdorf’s talk, “Come, Join With Us.”

I’ve been tempted to give up, but I know that persisting and “eduring to the end” is part of the dealio. We aren’t asked just to endure, but to joyously go forth because there’s a purpose for us here on earth. And part of that is getting through our crises of faith and coming out stronger as a result.

So in the words of Jeffrey R. Holland, “Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead … Trust God and believe in good things to come.”

I promise that good things come as you stick to your God and push through those crises of faith. It’s happened for me time and time again, and it can happen for you too.