Youth and missionaries of the Church and mental health

Commissioner of Family Services speaks about labels, identity and building emotional resilience

While she works as commissioner of Family Services for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sherilyn C. Stinson also teaches the 17- to 18-year-old Sunday School in her ward. 

“I’m amazed at the caliber of these youth, but they are extremely vulnerable,” she said on a recent episode of the Church News podcast

Stinson said Family Services is concerned about the rising generation. Youth are very compassionate and caring about social issues.  But it is difficult sometimes for them to navigate all of the voices from the world at the same time. 

They are wrestling deceptions about their eternal identity as they wrestle with expectations and a tendency to perfectionism.  

Social media adds to the pressure of perfectionism. Stinson said social media is a tool that can be used for good — but it can also be a trap for the youth and even dangerous. 

Posts on social media can focus on materialism and show an artificial world and a distortion of reality. If not handled with care, social media use can become a compulsive behavior.

“I think we’ve all experienced what a time-waster social media can be,” she said.

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Labels and identity

Knowing one’s identity is critical to emotional and mental health — especially for the youth. But Stinson said as youth try to figure out who they are, it should not be forced by other ideals and social issues. Nor should they be distracted and confused often by the noise they hear around them.

“It’s important for youth to understand that this is a normal journey, to learn about yourself and, you know, ‘What are my interests? “What’s unique and special about me?’ without crowding them into an identity,” she said.

Stinson referred to President Russell M. Nelson’s May 2022 worldwide devotional for young adults, saying, “The only identity that really matters is their identity as a son or daughter of their Father in Heaven. That’s important for all of us.”

Attendees leave the Conference Center after the Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, in Salt Lake City, on Sunday, May 15, 2022.
Attendees leave the Conference Center after the Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, in Salt Lake City, on Sunday, May 15, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

A year after that, President Dallin H. Oaks, the first counselor in the First Presidency, encouraged young adults to establish in their minds the truth that they are beloved children of God.

Stinson said people have a tendency to define themselves by their experiences, mistakes or challenges and think that is who they are. They label themselves and connect themselves to events.

But recognizing their divine identity helps people to not only accept themselves as a person of worth, but also helps them to tap into their divine attributes.

“You can help them to understand that you were who you are for eons unmeasured, and you were courageous, and you were valiant, you were someone to be proud of, and to help them draw strength from the person that they were,” she said. “This is a moment in time; this is a very, very small moment in time. And we’re blinded by what we can see, but that doesn’t define us.” 

She invited people to connect with the healing power of the Savior’s Atonement and to understand that whatever they go through, they are not alone.

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In June 2018, President Nelson invited the youth to enlist in the Lord’s battalion. Stinson said that was really powerful for the youth.

“It gave them a cause to join; youth love causes. And it gave them a powerful practical cause with an incredible leader, when he said, ‘Come join with me and let’s do good,’” Stinson said. 

Youth leave the Conference Center in Salt Lake City after the worldwide devotional with President Russell M. Nelson on Sunday, June 3, 2018.
Youth leave the Conference Center in Salt Lake City after the worldwide devotional with President Russell M. Nelson on Sunday, June 3, 2018. | James Wooldridge, Deseret News

Missionaries and emotional resilience

Stinson would like to see families preparing their youth before a mission for a better experience, by helping them learn to work hard and do hard things.

Stinson’s father sent her brothers to a cattle ranch to learn to work hard. And her youngest son at age 18 dug out tree stumps and rebuilt the deck on the house before going on a mission.

“I think that is some of the best preparation we gave him. Because his mission was hard. And for our youth to learn to do hard things — in our efforts to love and protect our children, sometimes we do them a disservice if we shield them from discomfort.” Stinson said.

Many stakes offer mission preparation courses. In addition to learning the gospel and growing their testimonies, prospective missionaries should learn how to become more emotionally resilient.

Youth also need to learn to disconnect from their devices before going on a mission, Stinson said. 

“That’s one of the biggest challenges because devices become their coping mechanism,” she said. “And whatever their coping mechanism might be, if it’s not portable to the mission field, they’re going to be in trouble.”

Service and teaching missionaries at the Provo Missionary Training Center listen to Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon during a devotional in Provo, Utah on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

Family Services works closely with the Missionary Department to provide pre-assessments for missionaries who may have had some history with some mental health issues or some behavioral issues. 

This allows some screening for how ready young men and young women are for full-time service, and whether a service mission would be the most meaningful experience for them.

Family Services also provides counseling as needed in the field for missionaries — focused on growth, function and fit.

“This isn’t where we cure your mental health issues if you bring them to the mission field, but we help you to determine ‘Are you growing? How are you functioning? Is this the best fit for you in this particular teaching mission?’” she said.

For those who do return early or transfer from a teaching mission to a service mission, Family Services provides counseling to help them transition.

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Along those lines, Stinson wanted to make sure youth understand that a two-year teaching mission isn’t a box to be checked — the youth should prepare for a “season of service,” whatever that might be, even if it looks different than what their mother or father experienced.

“Whatever they give is their loaves and fishes to the Lord. You give what you have. You bring that, the Lord builds on that,” she said.

A formal mission for the Church is a phase of service, while life is the actual mission, she explained. 

Stinson would also hope that ward members and extended family would keep questions and conjecture to themselves about anyone who returns early from a mission. The Lord accepted that whatever they were able to give was their offering, she said.

With that in mind, people can welcome those returned missionaries, congratulate them and let them talk — ask questions instead of not talking to them at all, Stinson said . 

“‘What was it like in your mission? What were some experiences that helped you to grow?’ Normalize that, instead of not talking to them at all,” she said, “to integrate them back into the ward, and into the family without stigma or judgment.”

Sister Kathleen Haskell and Sister Lois Herring work at the Bishops’ Storehouse and Home Storage Center in Lindon, Utah, on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Seeking help

With all of the attention to physical health, there ought to be an equal attention and sensitivity and maybe insight into one’s own mental health, Stinson said.

Episodes of depressive mood and anxiety don’t necessarily mean a clinical diagnosis, Stinson said. Nor does it mean a label or an excuse. 

Rains come, gray days come, and sometimes they persist. Anxiety comes and goes. 

But some in the Church may connect the way they feel with their connection to God or how spiritual they are. Stinson said the feeling of not doing enough or being able to handle it can be a detriment and feed into shame. 

For those youth and missionaries who are having trouble functioning, or for those who truly suffer from clinical depression, clinical anxiety or another serious disorder, the Church is supportive of using professional counseling and other resources. Stinson spoke about times in her life when she accessed different means of receiving relief.

“We have to be wise stewards of that and make sure that we are doing good, that we are building emotional resilience and emotional self-reliance in the process,” Stinson said.

The cover of the Church’s Emotional Resilience manual.
Cover of the manual “Finding Strength in the Lord: Emotional Resilience.” | Screenshot from

Family Services was created because there was a recognition by Church leaders that they needed professional counselors who were aligned with gospel principles. 

“Our very first responsibility is to be a resource to leaders in consultation. And so, whether or not a member is actually referred to Family Services for counseling, we can help them walk through the issues that the members present and determine what is the best level of care,” Stinson said.

Sometimes people need a good ministering brother or sister. Sometimes they need to gain tools to manage periods of anxiety or periods of depressive mood. Sometimes they need medication. Sometimes they need maybe more intensive care for long-term chronic issues.

For those looking for more information on tools to help their own mental health, the Church also has emotional resilience classes. Stinson said the course, “Finding Strength in the Lord: Emotional Resilience,” is not meant to be a treatment or therapy, but it does offer skills to help youth, members and missionaries protect and preserve their mental health.

“I have learned that our Father in Heaven has very tender feelings about His children who suffer from mental, emotional and behavioral health issues,” Stinson said. “We feel His guiding hand in Family Services, and we know this work is very, very important to Him.”

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