Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon missionaries, mental illness, and coming home early

Mental illnessYesterday the Deseret News offered up a terrific piece chronicling the early return of Elder Logan Groll, a missionary who was initially called in 2013 to serve in Brazil.

However, he never made it to South America. Panic attacks and symptoms of POCD — Purely Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which apparently differs from OCD in that its sufferers do not experience repetitive behaviors, only intrusive thoughts — sent him straight home from the MTC, much to his frustration.

After six months of therapy and preparation at home, he headed out for a domestic mission in Washington State, where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a missionary. His companions and supervisors loved him. His mission president, and the president’s wife, had nothing but good things to say about him.

But soon he was on a plane bound for home, again a victim of pervasive panic attacks, nausea, and insomnia.

There are many things I love about this feature story by Christmas Jars author Jason F. Wright, who puts Elder Groll forward as a success story, full stop. The article does not stigmatize Groll for returning early, but calls attention to the reality of mental illness and how it, like physical illness, isn’t something a person can control:

The returned missionary also wants those experiencing mental health issues to know there’s no shame and no need to be embarrassed. Some end missions early for breaking legs, some end missions for mononucleosis and some end missions for mental illness. “An honorable release is an honorable release, period,” Groll said.

The article is matter-of-fact about mental illness, medications, and professional treatment, all topics that have in the past been stigmatized in the Church (and in the culture at large). For example, in the first edition of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, the entry on “psychiatry” was cross-referenced with “Church of the Devil.”

We’ve come a long way from stigmatizing and demonizing mental illness. Sometimes, this article makes clear, faith and prayer aren’t going to make the illness go away. People need professional help. And that’s okay.

The piece also has some great suggestions for ward members and other loved ones on how to behave toward a missionary who has returned home early for mental or emotional reasons.

Just. Love. Them.

Sister Mullen, the wife of Elder Groll’s mission president, says that early returning missionaries have to deal constantly with the difficult question of when (not whether) they are going to return to the mission field:

She encourages members to take another approach. “Just love them. Support them. Tell them you know they did good work. Tell them, ‘We’re glad to have you home. Now relax!’”

During our interview, she circled back several times to this central concern. “Don’t ask when they’re going back out. Don’t ask details. Love them.”

I hope you’ll check out the article, which is very worth reading. In the end, Wright tells us, Elder Groll is “still serving a mission; he’s just not wearing a name tag. He’s on a mission to help others with similar experiences find peace.”



About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • “Just. Love. Them.”

    Exactly! That is what Christ would want, so what better advice is there than this?

    I am glad to see this topic being more openly discussed. Missions can be difficult and there are a large number of reasons why a missionary may not complete their full term. The cultural instinct within the church is to pinpoint it to some kind of sin, lack of faith/commitment, etc. but there is always more to the story.

    I found a TV special released a few months ago in the UK to be interesting… coincidentally it was also called “Meet the Mormons”:

    It covers some of the difficulties of a missionary including homesickness (especially as the age was recently lowered). Poor Elder Field! My heart goes out to him!

  • Thanks, GP. I haven’t seen it.

    I am a big fan of the lowering of the age limit, but of course there is also the fact that with the new policy, many missionaries (especially young men who leave for a mission right after HS) will have never been away from home before for any length of time. There’s a lot of maturing that happens that first year out of the nest. Now those growing pains will be happening on the mission, not before.

    However, no amount of maturing can make mental illness go away — that’s a different issue altogether. Time and maturity can help a person’s ability to cope with illnesses and mood disorders, and augment their knowledge of their own condition, but it doesn’t disappear.

  • Sorry for detracting a little bit from the original theme. Yes, I agree with you and don’t mean to imply that maturation can resolve mental illness. I was just mentioning that there are many reasons for someone leaving the mission field early and we shouldn’t judge those individuals and just love them instead.

  • I just read this article too and am so glad this discussion is being brought up.

    I was diagnosed with POCD when I was 40, it was the most amazing day of my life, because at that moment my entire life made sense. I realized I wasn’t a freak. Though I wasn’t given the name of my OCD at that time.

    I realize now that one of the big reasons I didn’t go on a mission had to do with POCD. Of course I had no clue that was what I had, I just thought I was weird and a freak inside.

    I’m sorry my comment is off topic. I just understood were this young RM was coming from. No matter what we SHOULD just love them and never judge them.

  • Hello,
    I am a therapist who specializes in helping women find peace from the distress of anxiety. I suffered panic attacks for 40 years. My diagnosis also included agoraphobia and chronic major depression. These conditions didn’t stop me from much…I have 3 degrees including a doctorate.

    What kept me going? Let me outline what WILL help…PLEASE TAKE THIS POST SERIOUSLY…Medication can’t solve everything.

    1. good food (give up prepared food, junk food, sugar, red meat). Eat beans, fresh veggies, fresh fruits, chicken, fish (get fruit and veggies as fresh as possible, not from Safeway!) Drink water; avoid pop and energy drinks.
    2. exercise…walking and swimming are best
    3. engage in meditation (prayer, pondering the scriptures, yoga, focusing on the breath in and out)
    4. stay in the present; dwelling in the past leads to depression and living in the future results in anxiety)
    5. Get outside and let nature love you. Use all of your senses…smell the trees, touch the rocks, look at the sky, taste the falling snow/rain…
    6. Focus on the positive and your strengths. Acknowledge the negative, express your feelings appropriately, set appropriate expectations…
    7. We are all born into imperfect families; some patterns useful in the past are no longer useful; modify or discard them!
    8. Be grateful for and in all things. Count your blessings everyday…in the morning and at night.
    9. Serve others in whatever way you can.
    10. Practice mindful living…it is the gospel!
    11. Routine.
    12. Blessings and turning towards Heavenly Father in times of trouble… my biggest challenge.
    13. A therapist who practices mindfulness…who is strengths orientated…who is interested in moving you towards positive growth and not numerous assessments.

    RECENT RESEARCH IN NEUROSCIENCE proves that our brains can change!! Practicing new ways of being lead to new ways of doing. Neurons can fire in different ways and, with practice, you can develop new neural pathways.

    Please check out the following folks: Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. Rick Hanson, Dr. Tara Brach and Dr. Elisha Goldstein. Yes, some come from a Buddhist background, but there is much good in their books, web-sites, and blogs.

    Change is POSSIBLE at any age, any time. You do not have to live with mental illness (My apologies, Jana, but you are mistaken!).

    And, yes, love people. Encourage and remind them they are more than their illness/diagnosis!!

    with every good wish,


  • I agree with you but I also am concerned by a few of your thoughts. I think in mindfulness we are to be in the present moment without judgement. I think when you have a diagnosed “mental illness” the greatest thing we can do is to not “change”. For me mindfulness is also being able to sit with the heaviness that is in the now and not judge it. By saying I am not going to live with my mental illness, I am not being mindful. If it is the present moment state, you must live with it. The future of wanting to “make” it go away or “change” is not mindful. I love Tara Brach when she says in the duck meditation: The duck just sits down in it
    It does not mean the future is not free of mental illness. It just is not something one says you will be free of but with treatment, therapy, medication, meditation, and yoga the brain does change. The freeway just has to be what it is and I seem to always have to sit back down when the depression comes back. It then stays a short while, instead of 18 years. .

  • “Some end missions early for breaking legs, some end missions for mononucleosis and some end missions for mental illness.” I weep for Logan and all the other young people who serve in the mission field. We should just love them all.

  • It was good to see the article in Deseret News. Yes. Just love them. Just welcome them back as those who serve the full 2 yrs. Glad the experience has not had a negative impact on Elder Groll.

    I had a loved one return home early from his mission for similar reasons. Thankfully, he had a kind and good mission president. I think what helped his transition back was that he didn’t go out and return from the same area, so ward members didn’t really know him or how long he’d been out. Still, he struggled some to regain equillibrium, but is doing well now.

    But, I wonder how many of those returning early escape “unharmed” as a result?
    I frankly despise the “cookie-cutter” mold we create within the church and the pressure put on our youth, particularly young men, to serve a mission. Not everyone is suited for “sales.” I would love to see the church offer more choices for youth–such as a shorter term humanitarian type experience.

  • The Church can always use home based church service missionaries. I did two for Family/Search Family Tree and plan on more.

  • Hi Sue,

    Thank you for your response to my comments. I believe we agree more than disagree. Staying in the “present” is acknowledging the thoughts, feelings, sensations you are experiencing without judging them. As you implied, trying to dismiss them doesn’t work. Sitting with them, acknowledging them, not being drawn into them (knowing they will pass…emotions and thoughts have a short life span)…just allowing them to pass, seeing them for what they are and not our identity. We are more than our thoughts and feelings.

    Hope that clarifies my stand…

  • Interesting because we tend to measure our efforts in numbers. In sales — number of sales. In medicine — number of people cured. In flying — number of miles flown. But too often the same measuring is applied to missionary and it DOES create a pressure to “convert” followers. But faith is different than a sale because it happens inside (and over time). It is BELIEF. So the effect is hard to measure. Success is hard to measure. Impact is hard to measure. Measuring is a 20th century behavioral since kind of thing. In earlier times they simply “did” and let measures fall where they may.