Depression and Missionary Work: Confessions of a Suicidal Would Be Missionary

By August 15, 2014

My apologies to my blogger mates for a post that has nothing to do with Mormon history, but all the talk about missionaries coming home for psychological stuff and mission stories sort of made me want to share this.

My depression problem kicked in at the beginning of my junior year of high school.  I first started noticing it at church (though I didn’t think of it as depression at the time).  I would get very sad and I didn’t know why.  So as I would walk home from church I would try to figure out why I was sad and examine my life to see what was wrong with it.  Doing so I figured that various trivial things were really very important which made me more and more sad.  Over the months I went into a downward spiral.  After school every day I would hide in the bathroom and cry for about an hour (I tried my best to keep all this hidden, boys crying? shameful!).  It got worse and worse and I became more and more fixated on suicide.

In the middle of all that, my bishop read a letter from church headquarters to us priests that said similar things to Raise the Bar (though this was before then).  “We don’t want to send misbehavers or people with depression problems.”  Something like that.  That was devastating to me.  I felt totally rejected.  The church didn’t want me.  I was too broken.

Fortunately, my mom figured out what was going on (I had older sisters with the problem, so she could spot the signs) and got me into see the doctor.  I got put on antidepressants which helped somewhat.  I certainly didn’t become cheerful, but I didn’t feel very suicidal anymore.

My senior year was better, but I had unfortunately established a pattern of negative thinking that I would fall back on during times of disappointment.  I was doing better but the old depressive thoughts were never too far away.  I remember keeping track of a bullet to use in case I felt the need (my dad, though not much of a gun user, did have a couple and would take us target shooting when we were younger).

My freshman year at BYU was a disaster.  The depression problem kicked in almost as soon as school started (I tend to have a hard time adjusting to new situations).  I made no friends, my grades were terrible.  I really missed my girlfriend who went to Utah State.  I became pretty unhinged, we broke up.  Suicide was all I thought about (I was still on antidepressants and seeing a counsellor).  I even made a rather pathetic attempt at an attempt.

Being suicidal actually helped me cope.  As my grades went in the tank, I told myself that I wouldn’t have to deal with the negative consequences because I would be dead soon.  At the same time, I figured that if I didn’t kill myself, I might have some problems.  So I plotted out a course of action to properly motivate myself.  I needed to make myself so upset that I would actually do it (unlike my previous half-hearted attempt).  So I came up with a three step plan: 1) go to church.  I rarely went to the BYU ward I was in (I was living in the dorms) because it usually upset me (I hated being around what I perceived to be “all the happy people.”)  2) see my bishop to determine once and for all if there was any chance that I could go on a mission (I figured he would say no which would upset me) 3) call my ex-girlfriend which I figured would do the trick (she had a new boyfriend which was really upsetting to me).  4) kill myself (I’ll skip what my plan was).

So I set the plan in action.  I went to church, which did the trick (very upsetting) and then talked to the clerk about seeing the bishop.  The clerk told me I could see him at 4 (church was over at noon).  This threw a bit of a wrench in my plans (I didn’t want to wait that long) so I decided to move on to step 3 before I did step 2.  [Okay this is all kind of ugly stuff, sorry.]  I went to my parents house (in Orem) and (surreptitiously) called my ex-girlfriend to get some kind of sick pleasure over telling her that I was going to kill myself (like I said, pretty unhinged).  We talked a while as I parried her various attempts to talk me out of it.  But then after her various other attempts had failed, she asked me if I loved God and Jesus and then I had this really strong spiritual experience where I felt like I shouldn’t kill myself (a very moving experience for me, but I want to emphasize something else about this story).

Anyway, so I headed to see the bishop no longer feeling suicidal where I asked him if he thought I could go on a mission when I had a depression problem.  His answer surprised me: he said basically that, yes, the church had sent around that letter but that they didn’t really mean it.  He told me of people that had gone who were in much worse shape than I was and then said something like, “Yeah, and then when things flare up, we bring them home, stick them in an institution for a month or so, and then when they’re feeling better we send them back.  So don’t worry, you’ll be fine.  It’s not a problem.”  And while that sort of sounds a little crazy as I’m writing this, I can’t emphasize enough how happy it made me to know I could go.

To make a long story short, I was still pretty messed up, but a series of things occurred after that that really helped me and that summer I sent my mission papers off feeling very excited to be getting to do what my friends were doing.  I had to do a bunch of psych evaluations and also had to wait five weeks for the call to get back when my friends only had to wait two.  But that August I was off to the Texas Dallas Mission.

In my first meeting with my mission president, he asked me if there was anything that he should know about me and I told him that I had had a depression problem.  He said something like, “Okay, let’s pray,” and we got down on our knees and he prayed that I would no longer have a depression problem.  I remember thinking, “can you pray for that?”

I supposed many others would have the same question but all I can do is share my own experience.  My mission was very hard for me.  I wasn’t very good at it.  I was often very sad and discouraged.  But I never felt suicidal on my mission.  I never felt like I had my freshman year at BYU.  I would say that I had only minor depression after my mission, all very treatable.

I share this because I wonder what I would have done if my bishop had said, “No, you can’t go.”  That morning I told myself that I was determined to kill myself that day.  So all I know is that I am very grateful.  And as hard and discouraging as my mission was, it was incredibly important to me.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Steve, thanks for sharing that. It’s hard sharing really personal things like that. And I hope the classes you took from me didn’t make things worse, as I’ve learned that professors can also pile on unrealistic expectations….

    Comment by Craig H. — August 15, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

  2. Thanks for posting this, Steve. It really complements my post over at T&S (as in: it says things about the topic much better than I did). It seems you were quite fortunate to get the right support at the right time. I just shudder to think of situations where someone in a similar situation didn’t get the right kind of support.

    Comment by Dave — August 15, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

  3. Steve, that was brave. Thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Saskia — August 15, 2014 @ 5:49 pm

  4. Thanks for sharing this Steve. Important story to get out there.

    Comment by Ben s — August 15, 2014 @ 5:52 pm

  5. Thanks, guys. Dave your post reminded me of this, as did the talk about Craig’s book. And no, Craig, your class wasn’t a problem. It was great, and like I said, I was doing better by then.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 15, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

  6. Steve, I’m glad the story ended well, and grateful that you told it.

    Comment by Kristine — August 15, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

  7. Thanks, Kristine.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 16, 2014 @ 11:00 am

  8. Thanks for being willing to share this, Steve.

    Comment by Christopher — August 16, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

  9. Thanks for sharing this, Steve. I can’t express how grateful I am for you and our friendship. We met over a decade ago, and in many ways, it was your influence and guidance as an older, more experienced scholar, that set me on my current path. Thank you.

    Comment by David G. — August 16, 2014 @ 9:16 pm

  10. Thanks, guys. I really appreciate that, David. I appreciate your friendship too.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 16, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

  11. Thanks, Steve. Much needed perspective, I appreciate the difficulty of sharing your story.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 17, 2014 @ 10:37 am

  12. Steve, Thank you for your bravery, strength, and not giving up hope. I’m sure your experience is much more common than most think.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 17, 2014 @ 10:47 am

  13. Gary’s right; depression is fairly common, and not just in Utah (as the aging canard goes) since NIMH estimates that six million American men experience it each year.

    The danger with treating adolescent males is that common medications can actually worsen suicidal ideation in the age group (SSRIs have a black box warning for use up until age 25) so treatment would normally start with techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy and any use of medications needs to be carefully monitored.

    And, going back a step, self-recognition of depression can be difficult since the depressed brain is not working right, and parental recognition of depression in adolescent males can be difficult since many males tend to hide symptoms or mask them with aggression.

    Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox and say that I’m glad you are here to tell the story and share your formidable talents with the Mormon history community, and thank heavens for the people who were there for you when you needed them.

    Comment by Amy T — August 17, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

  14. Thanks J. and Gary. I had wanted to write this up for some time and that recent talk about missionaries and psychology finally prompted me. In this context, I wanted to highlight some of the difficulties that likely go into coming up with a policy for the issue.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 17, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

  15. Hi Steve – Great post. I hope that someone will do some more posts like this that deal with the topic of depression among church members, as it’s a big issue that I don’t think gets enough attention.

    Comment by PP — August 17, 2014 @ 8:45 pm

  16. Thanks, Amy, and sorry you got caught in the filter. Just to clarify, I’d been on antidepressants for a while by that point and I was seeing a counsellor. And my parents were trying to keep an eye on things also and even tried to have me institutionalized at one point (when I told them about my attempt to attempt, but I talked them out of it; it was several months before the “plan”). There were a few events that led up to my “plan” that I outlined above: that December I broke up with my girlfriend and my friend got kicked out of BYU (actually a very funny story) so after that I was really feeling alone. The “plan” happened in March.

    Thanks PP. I think there has been discussion around the bloggernacle, but just not a lot recently.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 17, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

  17. Thanks for sharing this, Steve. I’m glad your bishop was so encouraging at that pivotal moment.

    Comment by Ziff — August 18, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

  18. Thanks, Ziff.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 18, 2014 @ 10:14 pm

  19. Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve struggled with dysthymia for a good portion of my life, so I can relate to a lot of what you wrote, especially about negative thought patterns and suicidal thoughts as a sort of escape hatch. It is wonderful to read that you experienced a relative healing in your life.

    Comment by Michelle — August 19, 2014 @ 1:32 am

  20. Steve, thanks for sharing your experience. This is important for everyone to hear.

    Comment by WVS — August 19, 2014 @ 2:41 am

  21. Thanks, Michelle and WVS. I do feel very blessed.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 19, 2014 @ 11:39 am

  22. Thanks for sharing, Steve, and for your willingness to speak to the crucial issues of mental health.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 21, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

  23. Thanks, Ryan.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 22, 2014 @ 11:54 am

  24. […] Fleming shared his remarkable story of depression and suicidal tendencies at the Juvenile Instructor blog. He explained that a series of events devastated him during his […]

    Pingback by Signature Books » Mormon News, Week 35, August 25?29 — August 29, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

  25. Thank you for talking so frankly about your experiences, Steve.

    Comment by BHodges — September 3, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

  26. Thanks Blair.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 3, 2014 @ 10:20 pm


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