I was on my mission when we all heard the announcement that young men and women would be able to begin their missions earlier. Grins and cheers went around the room, but I wasn’t among those grinning. While I was surprised and excited by the announcement I couldn’t help but wonder if the Church was truly ready for this change.
1.5% of missionaries come home early for health- related issues per year. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, remember that the number of missionaries currently serving is around 74,900. That number is expected to peak around 95,000 over the next couple of years. That means over 1100 come home every year, and that number will increase to over 1400 each year. As the attention of mission presidents and doctors is spread thinner, I expect the rate to increase. With the lower age requirements, we can also expect higher instances of emotional and mental illness from those unprepared for missionary service.
Missions can be more complicated than our enthusiastic youth think. My mission was a trying time of my life. I knew beforehand that it would be hard, but I thought the challenges would be different. I always heard stories about pastors yelling at us in the street, dog attacks, weird food, and it sounded like a challenging fun adventure. While I did experience all of that and more, I never expected the health problems that I developed.
While in the field, a strange clicking sound started in my spine. At first I tried my best to ignore it. When my torso began to droop to the right and twist it became impossible. Walking was difficult; something that is really hard not to do in Brazil.
I dealt with this problem for over a year of my mission. I was frustrated by what I feel was inadequate treatment. While I had contact with our “mission doctor”, I was not receiving the treatment that I needed to be happy and successful. The mission doctor did his check ups and prescriptions by phone. He was oddly unfazed by the report that my body was twisting. Literally hundreds of Elders and Sisters called him with their health issues, he was responsible for half the Brazilian missions.
Eventually I couldn’t leave my bed for more than 10 minutes without shaking in pain and realized that I needed to visit a doctor who could examine my spine more thoroughly no matter what the phone doctor said.
A quick doctor’s visit and physical therapy were well within my mission’s grasp. However, I received none of this treatment. I was told that I should pray with more faith and fast with more purpose. Rest less and work harder. I would faithfully follow my doctor’s and president’s orders each time but after a few days without rest I always would inevitably collapse. It was made very clear to me by the Mission President that I was to blame because I had not truly confessed and forsaken my sins. If I could do this and overcome my “laziness” my problem would go away.
I still remember the scripture my Missionary President cited to justify my ailment.
D&C 88:67 – And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.
“So why isn’t your eye single to the lord’s glory?” he asked me, “when this happens, your body will be filled with light and you will be healed.” When I responded that I was working as hard as I physically could he told me to work harder and start fasting and I would be healed. He accused me of lying and my request for an X-ray and treatment was denied. I felt bullied, unworthy, and still had no idea what was happening to my twisted body.
I was denied real medical treatment until the end of my mission and am still recovering one year later. I feel extremely blessed that I was able to finish my mission and continue helping people until the end. I believe missions can be really great experiences. However, my experience, and others like it, are reminders that we can do much better at handling missionaries with health issues.
As I’ve shared my experience with others I’ve learned how common similar issues are.
Many have had problematic treatment for mental illnesses. It’s common for missionaries to only be prescribed an anti-depressant or similar drug and left alone. Medication helps, but in most cases further help is needed. Counseling, therapy, and changes in lifestyle are not always available or easily obtainable options for missionaries suffering from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
Many who come home early face harsh judgment and are pressured to get better quickly so they can finish their missions, often at the expense of proper recovery.
BYU has an interview system in place to make sure that missionaries who came home early “weren’t faking it” before being allowed back to study. One man who came home early after nearly dying from Lyme disease left his second interview in tears. His father, a BYU professor, had to come with him to the third interview to show BYU that his son was not faking his deadly illness.
Our mission presidents and their wives are human. I wish we didn’t place so much responsibility for our missionaries’ health on their untrained judgment. I believe that inspiration goes only as far as our knowledge allows. Most mission presidents and their wives are not medically trained; they shouldn’t have to make medical decisions.
Our missionaries are human as well, and less experienced. I wish they were always taken care of. They sacrifice more than enough to deserve decent health care. I wish they weren’t made to feel unworthy or weak for their reactions to stress, foreign diets and environments, and an extremely demanding schedule. No one says a mission is easy, but for those who get sick or injured it can become difficult in a very frightening way.
The current system is inadequate. We need better training and more open conversation about this problem. As more and more young men and women answer the call to serve at younger ages, we will see more and more come home early or suffer handicapped with serious health issues.
With the help of others we are creating a plan to help improve the quality of missionaries’ health. We have created a website for people to share their stories. We’ve created a survey for returned missionaries about their experiences that will be presented to the Church Mission Department. We aim to raise awareness about the imperfect system of treating missionaries with health issues, both through regular members and through direct contact with church leadership. Some specific long-term goals for this project include:
– Provide an online resource for missionaries and families of missionaries to share their experiences dealing with health issues openly. Build a community to support them.
– Collect stories for a meeting with the Church Mission department.
– Decrease the number of injured or sick returned missionaries who become disaffected from the church due to misunderstandings with leaders and members.
– Provide better health-related training for the mission president and his wife in the MTC and during their missions.
– Call for an increased number of mission doctors. They are overworked.
– Provide better training for local ward and stake leaders for supporting missionaries who have had serious health issues.
– More pre-mission screening and treatment of physical and mental health issues.
To learn more about this project please visit www.purpleheartrms.com. If you experienced mild to severe health issues on your mission please take our 10-minute survey or submit your story to us. Also, consider sharing this information with people you know who may have an interest in this project by liking and sharing our Facebook page (Purple Heart RMs).