Missionaries and Stress

I am copying (with permission) a message from the Exponent II list-serve that deserves a larger circulation.


Dr. Judi Moore is currently serving a mission as area medical supervisor in Argentina. She has been concerned about the number of stress-related health problems that she has seen, and wants to learn more about the causes and try to find some solutions to pass on to mission leaders in hopes that she can help reduce these problems for missionaries in the future. She is looking for returned missionaries who would be willing to first read a rough draft of a paper that she is writing on missionary stress and then complete a brief questionnaire about their own mission experience

You can e-mail the completed questionnaire as an attachment to:
judimoore [at] tech-edge [dot] com

Or, if you prefer to remain anonymous, you can print out the completed questionnaire and mail it to her at:

Hna. Judith Moore
Area Medical Advisor
Buenos Aires Arg. (pouch)
150 E. North Temple St.
Salt Lake City, UT 84150-5273

Please take the time, if you are a returned missionary, to respond, and also feel free to forward this request on to other returned missionaries.

I’d also invite you to share you thoughts in this forum. I did not serve a mission, but know at least two people who returned early because of stress-related health issues — and it seems like a worthwhile topic to study for the sake of future missionaries. I’ll e-mail Dr. Moore a link to this thread.


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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31 Responses

  1. Justin B. says:

    I didn’t find a questionnaire here. Both links go to the paper.

  2. Deborah says:

    Fixed — thanks.

  3. Caroline says:

    I also didn’t serve a mission, but I know one woman who served in South America. I believe she completed her mission, but suffered an emotional/mental breakdown immediately afterwards because of it. Apparently she saw so much devastating poverty and unfairness that it just about did her in. That and the fact that she was sexually harrassed by a branch president and her mission president didn’t believe her (or simply didn’t do anything about it).

    She became inactive for quite a few years, but is just now starting to become involved again.

    I read Dr. Moore’s article and found it interesting. One suggestion – if I could be so bold – would be to not make this so firmly centered around male missionaries. She refers a few times to missionaries missing “girlfriends” or dating “girls.” Seems like it would be a good idea to acknowledge that 20% of the missionary force is female, and thus use some more inclusive language.

  4. annegb says:

    Did you guys read about the women who were attacked and raped in south Africa? LDS sister missionaries, I mean. Quite horrifying.

    I think there is a huge social study in the making for somebody who wants to do it about sister missionaries. I categorize them unconsciously. There are some who are totally on the ball, but a lot of girls go on missions because they haven’t married yet.

    I think there is a particular dysfunction in sister missionaries who have problems on their mission that isn’t explained away by chauvinism or the abusive tendencies of the men around them.

    I’ve asked this before, but I have heard many stories of girls on missions who are dealing with childhood sexual abuse issues. Either they remember it on their mission or they have a breakdown over it during their mission.

    Anybody have a clue what’s up with that?

  5. VirtualM says:

    I will definitely read the paper and do the questionaire when I’m not at work. But I wanted to post…
    I’m not sure if this is what she’s going for, but I did serve a mission in Australia some years ago. About 9 months out, I had a nervous breakdown, was diagnosed with depression, went on medication, and went to therapy for several months. I improved, but I knew of missionaries that were not so fortunate. Being a missionary is EXTREMELY hard and I don’t think anyone who hasn’t actually done it can truly understand. One doctor told me that I needed to cultivate relationships with members of the opposite sex to help with my self-image. Little did she know…missions leave no opportunities for any kind of real therapy or treatment; the problem must be masked and the work has to continue. Twelve hour days, six and a half days a week for someone who can barely function mentally is torture. (And we had to work 70 hour weeks back then.)

    My brother-in-law left for his mission yesterday and I couldn’t do enough to try and warn him that it’s hard and that stress and depression often come out when people are put in mission circumstances. I think a part of the problem is the rosy-colored glasses that missionaries are sent out wearing, which come off quickly once they are out of the MTC.
    And I think that Sisters get pointed out more as being depressed, having disorders, etc., because there are less of them. It’s much easier to ‘hide’ a troubled elder somewhere with many areas and a hundred companions to choose from. Hiding a troubled sister? Next to impossible.

  6. Anonymous says:

    A few points:

    1) If mental illness is going to surface, it often surfaces in a person’s late teens through early twenties, and is often catalyzed by extreme stress. So, we can all do the math with mental illness and missions.

    2) The working conditions of missions are not conducive to maintaining mental health. Here are the specs: 75 hour workweek (that is 12 hours a days for 6 days, and about 4 hours on P-day), high emotional rejection on a daily basis, limited contact with loved ones, and often poor diet and little exercise. By the way, the other 8 hours on p-days are generally spent “working” – laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, washing the car, etc.

    3) Annegb – your comment that many women serve missions because they aren’t married implies that it is these women who are “problem” sisters or are the ones that this study is targeting. In essence, what you seem to be saying is that a woman’s choice to serve a mission rather than wait around for someone to marry her leads to depression and mental illness while she is on her mission. Is that what you are saying?

    4) From anecdotal evidence, I found that missionaries who bent the rules and didn’t work 12 hours a day were happier and more successful.

  7. mullingandmusing says:

    The working conditions of missions are not conducive to maintaining mental health.

    This analysis overlooks the compensatory blessings that can come from the Spirit. Missionary work is a different kind of work, so you can’t put it in the context of a “workweek” and examine it the same way you would a for-pay job. (As a sidenote, motherhood involves more intense hours and demands than missionary work!)

  8. annegb says:

    virtualm, that makes sense to me. I’m sorry you went through that.

    anonymous, you make sense, too. I don’t know exactly what I was trying to say. I was actually reflecting a comment from a kid across the street who observed that sister missionaries were either screwed up or spectacular. I think he didn’t see any middle ground on his mission.

    I was more wondering than making a blanket statement. A young girl that I know recently came home from her mission with panic attacks and I wonder if she may have been abused.

    I’ve asked this question before because I seem to hear the story rather frequently from sister missionaries, discussing a companion who was abused and troubled. I can’t pin it down more than an impression rather than a specific incident.

    But I’ll tell you, after being on the blog for a year and a half, I don’t want to serve a mission. The MTC sounds like from hell to me and whenever anybody says they loved their mission, I just look at them speculatively.

    Like my son-in-law, he loved his mission. But he’s one of those happy to be alive people. He probably likes me. I asked this kid the other day, though, from my newly found perspective, “hey, Les, how did you like the MTC?” His response was a sort of shy smile and shrug (he was rocking his baby) and said, “it was okay.”

    I said, “really? because I’ve heard some horror stories. I’ve heard it’s hard.”

    And again he shrugged and admitted it had been rough. But his father-in-law is a black belt priesthood holder, so I don’t think he’d be advertising that he didn’t enjoy the MTC.

    The paper had a small blurb about those two women, but didn’t say they’d been raped. They’re probably trying to keep the story quiet here. Rape is something that never crossed my mind in relation to sister missionaries. How dumb is that? That it never crossed my mind.

  9. mullingandmusing says:

    For what it’s worth, I loved the MTC. The mission was hard to be sure, and the MTC was super intense (I was surprised how intense it was, and this coming from an intense student), but the Spirit is SO STRONG. I know not all people like it, but I know SO MANY who do!

    As a general comment, missions ARE hard, and there are some people who would be best served by not serving — that is why leaders are encouraged to screen better. But I don’t think this paper or survey should leave us thinking that missionary work is mostly negative. I’m afraid that by focusing on the problems, all Dr. Moore will get is perspective on problems, not a representative view of how many people truly love their missions. And part of the reason they love it is because they work hard – harder than they ever had — and it’s work for the Lord and for others. It’s work unlike any other.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I agree. Missions are hard and for me, a time of unsurpassed personal growth. I’m not sure I would agree that serving as a missionary is not conducive to good mental health, but it is demanding enough that those with mental illnesses may not be able to do it. The spirit truly is ennabling, and I always felt that what my companions and I accomplished was really the Lord working through us. As a mother now, I feel the same way. Motherhood is also very demanding and yet rewarding in ways I couldn’t have imagined before becoming one.

  11. Deborah says:

    I beg ignorance on most things mission related. However, many many friends have talked about the companion or two who lapsed into a deep depression and the difficulty this posed for that missionary and the companionship. I think it’s great that Dr. Moore, in her position as a medical missionary, is exploring the effects of stress on missionary health.

    Recently, one of the women in my ward described how her multi-year struggle with chemical depression first manifest itself on her mission — and how paralyzing and scary it was to feel such darkness during a time where she was supposed to feel spiritually alive. I wonder how much training mission presidents get in mental health counseling, and what resources are available to them — a bishop can write a referal for professional counseling . . . Are counselors/psychologists/social workers ever sent on service missions to work with missionaries? Most missions have a doctor/nurse, yes?

  12. annegb says:

    But again, this seems to be more of a feminine trait, this depression onset or escalation at the mission.

    I’m not a doctor, but I would sure check into it statistically for a systemic problem.

  13. Dave says:

    These days, missions are not a place to go and “Learn” like in the past. Missions are now places to go and “Work”. That is why so much emphasis is placed on preparation. The people that have the most trouble are usually the ones that are the most ill prepared to go. Unfortunately, some dont know how ill prepared they are until it is too late.

  14. Eve says:

    Thanks for this post, Deborah. I think as with so many things in the church, the culture of the relentless positive attitude ultimately shrivels faith. One of my companions told me that she’d come on a mission because she loved homecoming stories, and of course she was disappointed to find that a mission is anything but a steady succession of marvelous experiences. I was so glad to see the article in this month’s Ensign entitled “Yelled At, Barked At, and Rained On,” which I thought gave quite a balanced and realistic account of mission life.

    I had very mixed feelings about the MTC. I had some beautiful personal spiritual experiences there, and I had some excellent teachers and heard some good speakers. Some, however, propogated the culture of guilt and manipulation that too often characterized the mission field as well. (“If you don’t get up at exactly 6:00, you must not love your Heavenly Father very much.”) And I found the standing and reciting in unison extremely distasteful. I remember being instructed to stand recite our mission (“To bring souls to Christ through the ordinances of bapitsm and confirmation”) at the top of our lungs the second day I was there and wondering in dismay what kind of bizarre cult I had signed up for.

    I adored my mission. I absolutely adored it. It was an experience that changed me forever. But it, like all missions, was hard. Sometimes, for various reasons, it was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I think it’s important that prospective missionaries know that high levels of stress and discouragement are an inevitable part of missionary life. I found my mission absolutely worth every bit of the struggle. But the struggle is very real, and we ought not to gloss over it too quickly in our haste to tell faith-promoting homecoming stories.

  15. Wes says:

    I served a mission in Argentina for one year. Before I left I had some problems that neither I nor my parents understood. I was plagued with uncommon guilt and self hate. I would cut myself with knives and try to hurt myself. I was not suicidal and only gave death a very fleeting thought once in a while. There is a lot known now about self injury that wasn’t known when I left for my mission in January 1991. I was known as the good kid and I was. I obeyed my parents and kept the commandments better than most teens. But I did not believe I was ever quite good enough for the Lord and I pushed myself for perfection. If I failed, I would punish myself. That behavior began when I was about 12 years old and magnified on my mission. I didn’t get a hold on it until last year at 33 years old. I became very sick in the field, probably due to stress, and I had many missionaries tell me I was unfaithful or didn’t have a testimony. I hated myself badly and I destroyed my first marraige while trying to punish myself for not being good enough. Thankfully, I am doing much better now. In spite of my first experience, I do have regret that I came home early. I would like to go back again when I am older now that I have a much healthier perspective on life. There is a lot I could write I guess, but I think I’ll stop here.

  16. Eve says:

    Wes, wow. I’m really sorry to hear about your struggles. I think your experience, and the experiences of others I know whose missions ground them into a sense of constant self-torment and inadequacy, illustrates the pitfalls of the guilt-and-manipulation approach. I imagine it’s aimed at more jaunty, self-confident types who are inclined to rationalize their misbehavior, but I have to wonder if it does even them any good.

    It would be nice if we could establish once and for all that problems and pain are not always the result of sin. Sometimes they are just the result of life.

  17. VirtualM says:

    I remember in one ward I was in as a missionary, a teacher handed out a paper that listed “when you don’t have the spirit.” I read down the list and that was me – and I realized that the list was wrong. I always say that depression is hard, but I’m thankful that I have the spirit (at least I have it sometimes) to help me get through the really low times.
    I was blessed when I had my breakdown to have the most amazing companion. I was also in one of the three countries outside of the US that has LDS Family Services and my companion and I would trek there every preparation day so I could see the therapist. I actually consider my treatment one of the blessings of my mission, as though God was giving me the necessary tools to deal with stress that would fall upon my throughout my life. By the time I finished my mission, I was a really great missionary.
    M&M, I’m afraid that your description of “compensatory blessings” only works for some missionaries. I knew I was in for problems when I seriously considered, for the first time in my life, ending it all by riding my bike in front of a semi truck. Unfortunately for me, it was a struggle to get through most days, I counted the hours (up to 8 hours a day tracting in the middle of nowhere sometimes), but I wanted to keep my commitment to the Lord and I had people who were willing to help me rather than giving up and sending me home. Luckily my case was mild enough that I was able to overcome my depression without having to leave. I am not quiet about this because I wish that more missionaries were equiped with the tools to deal with whatever health concerns might surface while serving. In fact, I helped a sister missionary in our ward seek help when she was struggling with depression. She is now an excellent missionary (back in our ward several months later) and thanks me constantly for helping her stay.
    And yes, I also think that many missionaries who are more ‘relaxed’ about the work tend to do better. Both my husband and I agree that if we could go back, we’d be less strict with the rules and enjoy our time more.
    Given my family disposition towards depression/anxiety, I’m not sure I’ll encourage my son (in utero for a few more weeks) to serve a mission. However, even with the ‘raising of the bar,’ the social pressure is still there, at least for now. What is more difficult to cope with as someone with untreated depression: mission life or believing that you are failing at your social/spiritual/church-imposed expectations? I think that both can be devastating on many levels. Currently there are no good options for many young men. At least many women are free from this imposed social pressure.

  18. VirtualM says:

    And the MTC was one of my favorite parts of the mission – we were all new, inexperienced, and I excelled quickly (good for my perfectionism tendencies). I was hot stuff there. It wasn’t until I hit the field that I realized I had NO IDEA what I was doing and I felt absolutely and utterly inadequate and like a failure.

  19. Deborah says:


    Thanks for sharing your story. I was particularly struck by this: “I remember in one ward I was in as a missionary, a teacher handed out a paper that listed “when you don’t have the spirit.” I read down the list and that was me – and I realized that the list was wrong”

    I’ve had a similar list handed out to me three or four times in the last ten years of RS lessons (how-you-know-you-have-the-spirit checklists). While I was in the Relief Society presidency, I encountered too many women who believed her depression was a result of not praying hard enough, not reading scriptures enough, etc. On the positive side, I think the church has become more sensitive to mental illness AS AN ILLNESS in the last few years — I’m thinking of some Ensign articles, Gordon Smith’s new book about his son’s suicide, a conference talk by a seventy about his daughter’s depression, Ballard’s book, etc.

    Also, how cool that you were able receive professional counseling on P-Days — how widely is this available to missionaries?

  20. Wes says:


    I think it was great that you could get counseling on your mission. I wish I had. I think that given the stress of missions that should be available to all missionaries.

  21. MichelleMS says:

    Thanks for sharing your stories. Like some other commenters, I had a much easier time with the MTC than I did once I got out in the mission field. I liked the structure of it…knowing that I could be a perfectly obedient missionary by simply by going where I was told at the appointed times and studying hard. I was at a complete loss a few days out in the field when my trainer started expecting me to come up with ideas of how we could effectively spend our time. I had been told throughout my time in the MTC (and continued to be reminded at zone conferences and such) that I should be doing what I could to spread the gospel in every moment as a full-time missionary. I took that, and all the other missionary “commandments” very seriously, and this feeling that I was on duty every waking minute of the day was the biggest source of stress on my mission. Striking up conversations with strangers is not something I’ve ever been comfortable doing, and I felt guilty every time I waited at a metro stop or took a 15 minute bus ride and didn’t try to chat with the person next to me. We were instructed to start with small talk, then try to build on common beliefs, then find a way to introduce the gospel into the conversation. Doing this just made me feel slimy and manipulative, so I was damned either way. I’m not a person who’s prone to depression (though I and at least half of those I served with had the thought, at least once, of jumping in front of a trolleybus so that we could get out of missionary service, either by death or injury), but the only time in my life I’ve ever felt the need to constantly pop Tums was on my mission.

    Compared with some, I made it through relatively unscathed, mostly by refusing to care so much anymore by the end of my mission. My husband had a much rougher time of it. He served 18 months and then came home for anxiety and depression issues. He was diagnosed bipolar after returning home and getting medical and psychological help. Today he manages his illness pretty effectively through a combination of drugs, talking through his feelings (either with loved ones or professional counselors), and letting go of some of the perfectionistic and guilt-inducing attitudes that he was raised with in the Church and that became absolutely crippling to him on his mission.

    Someone asked about whether doctors, nurses, and counselors are made available in all missions. I don’t know how much has changed in the ten years since my husband and I were missionaries (separate missions…we didn’t meet until much later), but in both our European missions we mostly had to rely on local medical facilities, which were reasonably good. I met on a couple of occasions, for recurring bronchitis, with a regional medical consultant–a retired LDS doctor, I think, who was serving in a missionary capacity and roved around Eastern Europe helping missionaries. In my husband’s mission, they had formed a relationship with a local non-LDS doctor, who worked with many missionaries, including my husband.

    My husband and I both feel really blessed by many of the experiences on our missions. I, for one, wouldn’t trade mine for the world. But I have to agree with Eve when she talks about getting away from the guilt-and-manipulation cycle that is used so much in the Church.

  22. annegb says:

    I’ve seen that list and it always made me feel bad! Until today. Honestly. I thought “I never have the spirit.”

  23. Anonymous says:

    I was one of those guilt-ridden missionaries who was on duty 24/7. I was so driven that a couple of my companions confessed that they cried when they found out they were going to be my companions because the whole mission knew that I never took breaks to sleep, eat, go to the bathroom or read my mail. That wasn’t much of an exaggeration either. I was a workaholic, and I hurt some feelings. I’d do things differently if I could do it again.

    That said, I experienced some of the most amazing spiritual understandings on my mission. They still sustain me.

    And I broke down into depression into my early thirties – once I started studying depression I recognized that my symptoms went clear back into my early teen years. Except for my mission. During my mission, I had no suicidal thoughts and no self-hatred. I was guilt-ridden for not doing enough, but I knew God loved me.

    So my mission was actually good for my mental health, despite the stress.

  24. Melinda says:

    Whoops, that anonymous comment was me.

    And I wanted to add that I really liked the MTC. It was so focused and disciplined and I really thrived in that atmosphere.


  25. Eve says:

    Wow, I’m amazed at all of the people who found the MTC easier than the field. No doubt partly because if my intractible little rebellious streak, I found the mission field itself much more to my taste than the MTC. It was like being let out of a cage to be off the tiny dreary treadmill of class-gym-dorm and out in the world again. Driving to the airport and seeing–streets! stoplights! people! cars! mountains!–it was with some difficulty that I restrained myself from whooping and hollering out the windows for joy. (I never did get very good at that “quiet dignity” thing…)

    I’ve since wondered if the purpose of the MTC isn’t to regulate missionaries’ lives to such an intolerable degree that the regulations of actual mission life seem relatively tame.

  26. Melinda says:

    I saw this scripture this morning and thought it was appropriate to quote on this thread.

    “And any man that shall go and preach this gospel of the kingdom, and fail not to continue faithful in all things, shall not be weary in mind, neither darkened, neither in body, limb, nor joint; and a hair of his head shall not fall to the ground unnoticed.” D&C 84:80

  27. VirtualM says:

    I was able to get counseling because I was within an hour of an LDS Family Services office. I think that God knew what he was doing when I was sent as far away as I could physically go from home to one of roughly four countries in the world equipped with LDS Family Services. I doubt I’d see them now if I needed counseling, but I think that as a missionary it was very beneficial to see someone who understood my missionary lifestyle. I never knew who all actually got counseling in my mission, but I heard rumors and I knew I wasn’t the only one.
    I was only in the MTC for 2 1/2 weeks. I wasn’t there long enough to really develop the dislike discussed elsewhere in the blogernnacle. Plus, like I said, I felt in charge and on top of things there. Perhaps there is some disconnect between English-speaking missionaries who are there for a very short time and foreign language missionaries who can spend upwards of three months encased within those walls? Perhaps the MTC was also good for my rebellious side because I felt as though I could get away with more since the guilt wasn’t applied yet – the eternal salvation of the souls of others wasn’t yet riding on my ability to follow every rule 100%, and I hadn’t been told repeatedly that it was my fault if people weren’t getting baptized at least monthly in my area (this in a mission where the average companionship baptizes 2.2 people per year. One per month? Next to impossible, even for the best.)

  28. Anonymous says:

    Count me on the foreign-missionary-going- crazy-in-the-MTC side. The best thing that happened to me on my mission was when I got to Japan and they gave me a bicycle and an area so big I could ride that bike all day and not leave the assigned area. We were supposed to stop people while riding down the street, so we could count it as “proselyting time,” but you couldn’t do that nonstop and actually get anywhere, so I got a lot of time to myself on that bike. Thinking back, most of my letters that included new insights or spiritual impressions started, “I was thinking on my bike today…” It was almost like time alone, since it was also hard to talk to a companion while riding. It also, I think, gave my body the idea that it was running away from something, so the stomach acid and stress couldn’t fester like they did in those little chairs in the MTC.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I had two mission presidents who were very different in their treatment of me when I told them I get down sometimes (I had no idea of depression then). One was supportive and called me to see how I was doing, and found me to talk at every conference. The other told me to repent and snap out of it. I did not like the second one very well. I never talked to him again if I could avoid it.
    I have similar impressions as some others have shared: The happiest missionaries seemed to be the slackers, and my saddness was made worse by guilt at thinking I was not doing enough or having success. I did hear quite a few other missionaries express the desire to dissappear, get drafted or die, but it was not common.
    I did like the MTC. Maybe it felt normal given the strict rules of growing up an LDS teen.

  30. VirtualM says:

    Second anonymous, I understand the mission president divide too! Luckily I faced it the other way around…the less understanding president was for my first 9 months and the more understanding for the last 9 months. The first one essentially thought I was a spoiled brat. I had my breakdown 2 weeks after the new one began his term as mission president; the Lord is merciful after all. I was really blessed with how everything fell into place after that point. I had a great, understanding companion, a good mission president who helped me seek out help, and even a senior office couple that checked up on me and saw me through some tough moments. If only all missionaries who struggled with intense stress, anxiety, and depression could have such a strong network of understanding peers instead of those who judge or tell them to ‘repent’ or ‘get over it.’ Compassion goes a long way.

  31. Anonymous says:

    I returned home early after only 3 months in Brazil. I began in early February of this year and returned in late April. I was released for psychological/medical reasons. If there is any way I can contribute to your efforts to help those misisonaries then please e-mail me. speedlimitless@hotmail.com.

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