075: Mormon Missionary Trauma – Part 1

a0d272_93a58ea152d94fd9b6c20c85ef74f053.png_srb_p_251_232_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srb12059221_10153618622174339_1705854720_oNatasha Helfer Parker interviews Dr. Holly Welker, a writer and critical analyst, and Daniel Lancaster, a clinical social worker, to discuss issues relating to the mental health of LDS missionaries while out in the field – specifically when physical or emotional trauma are involved.  Holly Welker served a mission back in the 1980’s in Taiwan and shares her experience of suffering from a brain injury and being treated for depression while on her mission.  She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Iowa and has written for a variety of magazines in regards to her LDS experiences.  Daniel Lancaster served a mission in Jamaica and is a psychotherapist who specializes in vicarious trauma and helping people adjusting from missionary service among many other mental health themes.

Holly, Daniel and Natasha discuss issues members of the church face as they prepare to go on missions, during their missions and as they return from the service they gave.  They challenge some of the cultural messaging (i.e. exactness, obedience, equational correlation, etc.) members of the LDS Church can be part of changing to help missionaries have healthier expectations, avoid ecclesiastical abuse, and have access to better resources and support networks as problems arise.

Iron Gates: The Story and Psychology of a Mormon Missionary In Jamaica by Daniel Lancaster

The Huffington Post on Holly Welker

Addressing Missionary Health Issues

Sick RMs

Return With Honor

Mormon Mental Health Association for clinical resources

Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery by Karen Armstrong

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Many Mormon Missionaries Who Return Home Early Feel Some Failure

Sick and Far From Home

Many thanks to The Lower Lights for the beautiful bumper music and to Brian Dillman for audio production of this podcast.  Natasha Helfer Parker runs a private practice in Wichita, KS and writes at The Mormon Therapist for Patheos: Hosting the Conversation of Faith.

Donations to Mormon Mental Health are tax deductible and go directly to support the costs of producing the podcast.  If and when donations exceed these costs, they will go to support trainings, research, materials development, and financial support for those who need help affording appropriate therapy services.

6 comments for “075: Mormon Missionary Trauma – Part 1

  1. Hellmut
    September 23, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    This was interesting. Holly’s remark about the denial of the body flipped a switch for my insight.

    Having said that, what caused me stress was the numbers game. We treated other people like objects. Never mind that the numbers game induces lying.

    I could not get over that for decades. We used people. We lied. And we were used by the brethren. Compared to the mission field, the army was a safe place.

  2. Hellmut
    September 23, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Any amoeba would have saved itself by leaving the toxic environment. But as Holly pointed out, leaving was not an option. Nor could you talk to anyone about your suffering.

    … if you were willing to admit it to yourself.

  3. Maggie
    October 2, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    I think I may have been the person that Holly referenced who’s mission was required to work 70 hours a week. And so much of this resonated with me. I was one of those who went into a mission fighting. I didn’t believe that mission was about baptizing (maybe part of that was that I knew going into it that my mission was a low baptizing mission) but try as I might to make it about anything else I was continually struck down and asked to spend more time tracting and asking people I’d just met to get baptized – knowing full well how crazy and presumptuous I sounded.

    My mission broke me in ways that I am still trying to understand a decade later. But no matter how hard it got and how miserable I was, I never saw going home as an option. I thought I’d never live to see the end of my mission and I wasn’t really bothered by that idea. So yeah, I certainly did give up. I gave up eating, I gave up passion and creativity and love and human connection. I didn’t even realize that quitting was an option.

    • Holly
      October 3, 2015 at 1:40 pm

      Yes, Maggie, that was you. I got lots of stories of mission trauma, but yours really made an impression on me, in part because the trauma was so clearly inflicted on the entire mission!

      I love your last paragraph. I too gave up so many things in so many ways. I gave up being the person I wanted to be in order to be someone who didn’t leave her mission early.

  4. Rebecca
    June 7, 2017 at 6:16 pm

    I have a “sick missionary story” I would like to share, how would I go about contributing?

  5. Rev Chris Miller
    November 15, 2018 at 7:37 pm

    From a non-LDS who is an ordained pastor of a Lutheran Parish,

    my observations concerning LDS missionaries over the years are that this experience, involving young adults at the beginning of their 20s on average, is a watershed experience that has lifelong implications for their further experience as faithful LDS. I have spoken to young men (mostly) who seem to me are heading for one of two options: They come back home, energized by their experiences; these young men (and now women) go on to become the backbone of the LDS structure over the decades since. They serve offices over the years in whatever way they seem to be needed. I would put most LDS whom non LDS are likely to know of as LDS in public circles, such as Sen. Flake, Sen.Mitt Romney in this category, and the thousands of hours over his lifetime that are donated, are literally incalculable.

    But other missionaries come back, demoralized by their experiences, believing that no matter how hard they worked, they were, in come sense, failures. I don’t know how faithful this group of missionaries tends to be in the rest of their lifetime, but I would guess that they would tend to drop away from close practice of the faith.

    If the criteria is how many are baptized, then you are setting up many of your missionaries for failure. For one thing, I wouldn’t consider baptism by an LDS missionary for all sorts of reasons–nor would I baptize anyone into the Lutheran (catholic) faith on the basis of a few brief contacts, unless he was terminally ill and had no “future” to anticipate. For another, the baptism offered by the LDS does not meet Lutheran (catholic) definition of baptism–which may strange, since at the same time, we accept that in emergencies, any Christian can baptize, and the form for baptism is written in any worship book, etc. they can find (It’s also in the Bible, in Matt 28:19).

    Almost any Christian who is already baptized would see no need for baptism, since there is no need to repeat it. I would be happy to listen to your missionary, but he isn’t going to baptize me or my family. I think that position is fairly common among many Christians. To therefore count baptisms as the criteria for a successful LDS missionary year is setting him a goal which he can’t meet. Now, possibly in non-Christian countries there may be opportunities to baptize people for whom Christian language is relatively new, but missionaries going to Christian countries are going to be almost impossible to do many LDS baptisms.

    I would think that while the number of baptisms is a harsh criterion, the number of contact hours would be a better marker for the definition of a “successful” mission. Having been a Navy Chaplain, I know that there is an optimum expenditure of time/week which keeps people busy enough not to get homesick or bored, and yet not so busy that they cannot handle the pressure, and become like the pressure cooker at too high a heat–it explodes…

    70 hours per week, or a 10 hour day, 7 days/week (but what about observing a sabbath, or rest, every week?) sounds reasonable, but there needs to be a break. Some sort of change of scenery, whether it is visiting a museum or some place outside the norms of work, would be essential. People burn out if they don’t get breaks. Even when we deployed, we attempted to find ways to give our sailors a break whenever possible. Whether going ashore for some sports, or even painting an orphanage or other charitable organization’s needed repairs or other help. (It benefits the sailors directly, as well, as they learn what “third world” means in ways they will never learn from books.)

    MIssions have become a rite of passage for young LDS. Its hard enough to do well, and it needs to be thought out, and supported to be a beneficial experience for the people who go. I would suggest erring on the side of gentleness rather than competitiveness, in defining the mission.


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