Chapter 1 – Depression, Sadness and Loss

Returning home from a mission is a transplant. It is a change, but it is also more than that. In one sense, it is a loss. In another sense, it is a death. What some people do not understand is that you are not “getting back what you left behind” when you return from a mission. Rather, you are often “leaving that which you cherish most.” When you leave your home to serve a mission, you lose all that is familiar and that you love; when you leave your mission to return “home”, you are also leaving what is familiar and you love/cherish.

You abruptly lose the regular and familiar interaction close friends and associates. These people include companions, members, converts, investigators, and a litany of others whom you served and loved. You lost your routine and your work schedule. You may have lost meaning, responsibility, or authority. Even those missionaries who did not love their missions and counted the days until they returned home lost time. In terms of schooling or career advancement, you often find yourself 1.5-2 years scholastically behind those of your peers who did not serve missions.

It is common to feel feelings of depression, sadness and loss.

“[My greatest emotional challenges were] Feeling of loss for the people and the work.”

“I also felt a loss, I really missed the friends I had in other companions, and converts and members.”

“After four months of hitting the wall and feeling lost and miserable, I went to counseling. It was only there that I got distance, had an unbiased and sympathetic ear, and worked out my frustrations.”

It is normal to experience sadness when you get home from your mission. You miss people, companions, routines, languages, geography, being a missionary, the spiritual feelings that come from preaching the gospel, members of the church, etc. However, many missionaries experience extreme depths of sadness and even depression.

Depression is not a one-size-fits-all state. A lot of people are depressed without even knowing it. For some, it is a reduction in their functional ability. For others it can resemble the grief and mourning that accompanies bereavement. Sometimes it is accompanied by low self-esteem, guilt and self reproach, withdrawal from interpersonal contact and somatic symptoms such as eating and sleep disturbances. Generally a depressed person will feel sadness, despair and discouragement. Some people feel a sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity. Some experience an inability to concentrate, insomnia, loss of appetite, feelings of extreme sadness, guilt, helplessness and hopelessness, and thoughts of death or even suicide.

Many returned missionaries experience some degree of depression when they return home. Most overcome their depression, sadness, and feelings of loss over time. As they find people at home to love and serve, the void in their life begins to fill up. However, this takes time, and we’ve found that there are various things RMs can do to help this process. Here are some ideas:

* Count your blessings – Once when I was having a particularly difficult day, bummed out about being home, feeling out of place and sad, I made lists of things I was grateful for. I carried the list everywhere I went, and when I felt down I pulled them out and read them. It helped provide moments of respite from the blues.

* Form a support network – other former missionaries and/or mission companions and friends make for great support structures. You can get together and talk about your experiences and support one another in adjusting. Many of my mission friends and I faced similar difficulties. We became sort of “war buddies,” aiding one another in our difficult transitions, alternately lending and receiving a sympathetic ear. For example, after on particularly difficult breakup with a girl I was dating, a returned sister missionary from my mission talked me through it, helped me get out of my rut, went hiking with me, etc.

* Slow down – RMs need to take things at their own speed. Shrug off pressures from well-intentioned people who pressure you to date, marry, and choose a course of study before you feel ready. It’s important for RMs to know themselves, and to make decisions they feel are right in their hearts, not in the hearts of others. RMs need to understand that it is necessary to take responsibility for their own happiness and take ownership of their own future, and to not pass that responsibility to others.

* Set goals and work towards them – this helps to increase the significance of activities and work. Also, keeping your mind on near-term objectives can keep your mind off of thoughts that cause you to feel sad or lonely. Over time, RMs find that those voids they felt after their mission have been filled by new passions and interests.

* Last but not least, HAVE FAITH! Christ said, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” (Mark 9: 23).

There are instances in which such steps this will not help RMs out of their depression. I experienced this – I had a very difficult adjustment and was very depressed. I missed the people from my mission, and I didn’t like my life at home. I finally decided to go to counseling and even went on an anti-depressants for a little while until I felt like myself. It was the best thing I ever did. Do not hesitate to get counseling help if you need it. There’s nothing wrong with it! If you have a broken leg, you go to the doctor and you get it fixed. If you are “broken” emotionally or mentally, go to therapy and get yourself some help. Being depressed or getting help for that depression is not a sign of weakness any more than sustaining an injury in the course of life is a weakness. These things can be fixed, just like broken bones can be healed with the proper assistance.

If you do seek counseling, we suggest you consider seeking out an LDS counselor who will understand your value system and the experience you’ve been through. There are many ways counselors can help you. They provide an “outside” perspective and a sympathetic ear. They help you to avoid returning to pre-mission “patterns.” Often our families and friends expect us to slip back into our old roles and patterns, or else we ourselves feel we ought to, OR we find ourselves weak to resist former habits and WANT to return to old ways of living, some of which are negative.

Many returned missionaries left problematic families or friendships behind only to return and find these problems alive and well. Being removed from a problem often brings relief, but it doesn’t bring resolution, and a mission is sometimes a respite from certain problems. Many of these problems are deep seated and generational. After we’ve changed, the contrast of our changed selves and the pressure to “fit” can create great conflict; people respond to us as they knew us, not necessarily as we now are; and we often respond to people as we knew them, not as we are (or they are). A good counselor can help you cope with these changes.