OREM — Missionaries who return early from their service need additional help from ward members and clinical professionals to cope, a new study says.
Kris Doty, Ph.D, chair of the Department of Behavioral Science at Utah Valley University and a clinical therapist, led a team of students in studying the effects of a missionary’s early return on their faith and lives. Doty found that 74 percent of participants had feelings of failure and 65 percent were uncomfortable in social settings due to early release. Tuesday, she presented her findings at UVU’s library auditorium to a standing-room only crowd.
“This is something people want to take out of the shadows,” Doty said. “They want to talk about it.”
Doty said people from all over the country – and even the world – have contacted her thanking her and telling her their stories. Overwhelmingly, she said, the response has been positive.
The 348 study participants were males and females, ages 20-29, who returned early from the mission field. Overall, most were adequately prepared for service before their mission.
The study, which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not involved in, was conducted this year after Doty saw the negative effects on loved ones and students. She began the study hoping that those she knew were the exception instead of the rule.
“Those were just the people I knew about. I knew there had to be people out there that had had good experiences,” Doty said. “We just wanted to get a really good indication of the experience.”
She was surprised to find so many early-returned missionaries experienced feelings of failure and perceived the reaction of family members, friends and ward members negatively.
In her presentation, Doty said that missionaries returning early from the field may already be hypersensitive to the situation, and the fact that early returns are handled differently from ward to ward could affect the return missionary’s perception. Those who perceived their ward members received them well from their early return had decreased feelings of failure.
“Their perception is their reality. It’s difficult to say to them ‘Really, it’s just your imagination.’ This is their reality,” Doty said.
Missionaries with mental health concerns, homesickness, physical health problems or worthiness issues who returned early felt increased feelings of failure, while those who came home because of family issues or lacked personal testimony in the church were less likely to experience feelings of failure, Doty found.
“Because I’m a clinical therapist, I care about these folks. I want to see them feel good about themselves and have a really healthy adjustment,” Doty said.
Of those who felt they were received poorly, many reported long-term effects including a period of inactivity or permanent inactivity and 47 percent surveyed reported they were less active at the time of the study than before their mission. Those who felt they were received well upon their return by ward members were less likely to become inactive. Additionally, having strong spiritual experiences on their missions increased their chances of staying active after an early return.
Drawing from her research, Doty suggests clinical as well as cultural improvements. Foremost is the need to remove the stigma of returning early, she said. From there, therapists need to create a safe place for early-returning missionaries to receive treatment without an agenda to get them back out in the field.
“Therapists need to to create a safe environment for these kids to tell their story,” she said. “A really important component for clinicians is to allow the client the opportunity to take it direction the way they want to go.”
In her initial research, Doty said, several participants said they had never been able to tell their story from start to finish in a therapy session before.
She also suggests training local leaders “to establish a welcoming and accepting ward environment.” At Tuesday’s event, several local leaders expressed interest in the study and creating a dialogue about the topic.
“We were told by people we need to remove the stigma. It needs to be socially acceptable to not serve the full two years. I’m not saying it’s something we should promote,” Doty said. “But we need to make it acceptable for whatever amount of service people can give; that it’s enough.
In response to the study, LDS Church Spokesperson Cody Craynor issued a statement encouraging members to reach out to early-returning missionaries.
“It is our hope that all Church members and visitors to our local congregations will be warmly received and feel the love and support of our faith communities," he wrote. "This extends to elders and sisters returning home and adjusting to life after their missions regardless of the duration of their service or personal circumstances.”
Doty hopes to continue her research, including reaching out to parents and former mission presidents, testing effectiveness of the new youth curriculum, among other things.