Asking someone how old they are seems like an innocent enough question, but for those returning home early from their missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints it can be complicated answer.
Many feel they are negatively perceived If they have to answer 19 or 20 instead of the more typical 21, often indicating an early return from their missions. This culture is one reason Drew Botcherby and Ryan Freeman founded Sick RMs to raise awareness of missionary health issues.
“I think that’s part of the culture we can change here on campus,” said Freeman, a junior from Springville.
The duo started Sick RMs after witnessing missionaries struggle to receive adequate treatment while serving and seeing elders and sisters struggle after returning home. Freeman found himself frustrated as he dealt with the anxiety, depression and migraines he was experiencing.
“A lot of (early-returned missionaries) are seen as lazy or even unworthy,” said Botcherby, a junior from Springville studying advertising. “There’s kind of a mentality that if you are doing everything right and have the Spirit, everything will work out.”
The group said they hope to combat this stereotype by raising awareness of missionary health issues and promoting community discussion.
“We’re trying to get rid of the stigma out in the mission field so people don’t feel they are less than or anything like that if they have health issues or mental health issues,” Freeman said.
Sick RMs has been gathering stories of early-returned missionaries to better understand the problem and has posted many short biographies on its website.
They are also seeking feedback through a survey, which currently has more than 600 responses. After they receive 1,000 responses they will take the findings to the Missionary Department.
“We’re not pushing or demanding change with picket signs,” Botcherby said. “But we’d like to see more mission doctors, more access to psychiatrists, more professionals on the mission. A lot of missionaries are taken care of by doctors on the phone or in Salt Lake, and that’s not very effective.”
They also hope to encourage Church leaders to allow missionaries returning home for health reasons to give a traditional homecoming talk. According to their survey, only around 50 percent actually give a talk.
This issue has gained recent attention following a study performed by UVU professor Kris Doty which found that 73 percent of early-returned missionaries experience feelings of failure when returning home. More than a third were found to experience a period of inactivity after returning home early.
The Church responded to the study with a statement from Church spokesman Cody Craynor.
“It is our hope that all Church members and visitors of our local congregations will be warmly received and feel the love and support of our faith communities,” Craynor said. “This extends to elders and sisters returning home and adjusting to life after this mission regardless of the duration of their service or personal circumstances.”
The Church is also releasing a new program for missionaries called “Adjusting to Missionary Life” to help missionaries cope with stress and mental health issues.
Botcherby and Freeman hope to work with the Church to provide information to change how sick and early-returned missionaries are treated.
“People need to be taught how to react (to missionaries with illnesses),” Freeman said. “There’s a lot of pressure, and that doesn’t always align with what we promise as members to bear each other’s burdens. … Too much of our rhetoric is performance based, and that doesn’t always work.”