Branden Estrada returned home only eight weeks into his two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because of severe depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
It’s how his fellow church members treated Estrada when he got home that surprised him the most. Despite a supportive family, Estrada’s friends and other members of the LDS faith didn’t understand why he was home.
“People would give talks in church and mention me and say something like, ‘We all have a good feeling that you’ll be going back out,’” Estrada said. “And that really stunned me because I was really sick.”
Estrada, like many other early-returned missionaries, felt guilty for not serving the full mission time.
Seventy-three percent of missionaries who come home early feel shame and failure, according a study by Kristine Doty-Yells, associate professor and department chair of social work at Utah Valley University.
“That’s regardless of the reason they came home. It could be that they came home for knee surgery. It didn’t matter,” Doty-Yells said. “And here’s the shocker: less than 23 percent came home early for anything related to rule violations or unresolved transgressions. Most are coming home for mental or physical health issues.”
The Universe speaks with Kristine Doty-Yells, associate professor and department chair of social work at Utah Valley University, who studies the effects of returning home early on LDS missionaries. (Blakely Gull)
Estrada said he received harsh remarks from others.
“Some of my friends told me God would never bless me life again if I didn’t make it back to my mission and that I’m unworthy for blessings,” Estrada said.
Doty-Yells said LDS church culture is the major culprit for the feelings of failure early-returned missionaries experience.
“It’s not the doctrine and it’s not the brethren at all,” Doty-Yells said. “It’s something about our culture. We just don’t do a good job of welcoming and loving those early-returned missionaries.”
“Mormon culture” is comprised of typical ideas or behaviors a large percentage of Latter-day Saints accept and perpetuate.
A former mission president who also works in the LDS Church’s missionary department said church culture surrounding treatment of early-returned missionaries could change.
“It’s got to be the people in the church. It starts even with parents and brothers and sisters rallying around the individual, rather than, ‘How dare you come home early,'” said the former mission president. “We hear some horror stories (in the church’s mission department) of how people treat them when they come home, and sometimes it’s the people closest to them.”
Elder Brent H. Nielson of the LDS Church Missionary Department said a small percentage of missionaries return home early because of medical needs or other concerns in an interview posted on Mormon Newsroom.
“Missionaries don’t necessarily want to come home from their mission early, so this is always a difficult time, and our hope would be that our church culture would be that we love them and care for them as they come home early from their missions,” Elder Nielson said.
The former mission president said missionaries who return home on medical or emotional release are entitled to a release certificate.
“There should be no shame, or sense of failure, or you didn’t do it well enough,” he said. “For whatever reason you needed to go home early and we thank you for your service and pray that you’ll move on with your life and go make a great success out of it.”
Another finding from the UVU study, which was based on results from an online survey filled out by 348 men and women who returned early from their LDS missions, found 46 percent of those surveyed didn’t feel they were “true” returned missionaries.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church spoke directly to missionaries who returned home early in a video released in March 2016. He said they should trust their desire to serve and serving as long as they could was enough.
“I want you to take the dignity and the strength and the faith that came from your four months and cherish that forever,” Elder Holland said in the video. “I don’t want you to apologize for coming home. When someone asks you if you have served a mission, you say yes. You do not need to follow that up with, ‘But it was only four months.’ Just forget that part and say yes you served a mission, and be proud of the time that you spent.”
Doty-Yells said people should give early-returned missionaries opportunities to share stories about their missions and bring balloons and banners to the airport — regardless of why they came home — and invite them to give a talk in sacrament about their missions.
“Priesthood leaders should really wrap their arms around them,” the former mission president. “It’s important for those closure things to happen … especially for missionaries who really have given all they can give.”
The UVU study also found mental health was the top reason early-returned missionaries came home, with 36 percent of those surveyed citing it as the reason. Physical ailments was the next top reason at 34 percent, and 38 percent said stress was a contributing factor to their early return.
“Part of the problem is some missionaries have never experienced stress before their mission,” the former mission president said. “They haven’t had to do hard things.”
Former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said good physical and mental health is vital to being a full-time missionary in a 2003 Worldwide Leadership Training broadcast.
“There must be health and strength, both physical and mental, for the work is demanding, the hours are long and the stress can be heavy,” President Hinckley said.
The LDS Church has made efforts to help future missionaries prepare for the rigors of missionary work. Church leaders encourage youth to take a missionary preparation course.
The class follows a missionary preparation student manual, which includes a chapter on physical and emotional health. It also includes counsel that missions are not for everyone.
The church also offers a resource booklet, “Adjusting to Missionary Life,” to missionaries for help coping with the new changes.
Our source inside the mission department said youth programs in the church use the “Come Follow Me” program to encourage youth to have more experiences in their late teen years to help them know what mission life is like.
Doty-Yells is launching a fourth study in January 2017 focusing on a mission president’s role in sending a missionary home early.
“I’m trying to get a feeling from them on how missionaries can better prepare,” Doty-Yells said. “Maybe we can stop a few from coming home early because not all of them need to. And the ones that need to, fine, let’s get them home and let’s help them out. But those that can stay, how can they avoid being at risk to begin with? How can we help them better prepare?”
Doty-Yell’s found 39 percent of early-returned missionaries surveyed said they had some input in the decision to return home.
Estrada said he had no input in returning home.
“I didn’t understand, … I was completely worthy to be on my mission. I had repented. I had a clean conscience. I was ready to serve, but being told I was being sent home was a huge slap in the face,” Estrada said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t in control of my own life and my own choices.”
Estrada, like the majority of those surveyed in UVU’s study, said they wouldn’t change what happened.
“Although I was very miserable and it was the hardest and most trying time in my life, … I think I would have been happier in ignorance if I served full time but not genuinely happy,” Estrada said. “I feel like my whole being gained the ability to love more deeply, be more understanding and really care about people.”
More of Estrada’s story and those of six other early-returned missionaries are included in another Daily Universe story titled “Voice of early-returned LDS missionaries.”
The Daily Universe reached out to Karlie Brand, a public affairs associate for the LDS Church, for this story. Brand said the LDS Church “does not keep track of the number of missionaries who return early” and “that the church does not set up interviews,” but referred the Daily Universe to Mormon Newsroom.