Middle school and high school can be difficult times. Along with rapid biological changes comes the weight of academic demands, social concerns, college admissions pressure, and many other challenges.
Add to that a global pandemic — with accompanying isolation, disruption, uncertainty, and grief — and it’s no wonder many young people today are struggling emotionally.
In late 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released an advisory report, “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” highlighting the effects of the pandemic on young people. Murthy sounded the alarm for those who work with youth, warning of a concerning trend.
During the pandemic, physical and emotional distance increased mental health concerns for people of all ages. The spike in adolescent mental illness was particularly troubling. Compared with pre-pandemic rates, clinical levels of depression and anxiety since 2020 have doubled for Americans 18 years of age and younger.
According to the report, U.S. emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts in early 2021 jumped by 51% for adolescent girls (ages 12–17) and 4% for adolescent boys compared to the same period in 2019.
The report noted that even before the pandemic, suicide rates were on the rise among 10- to 24-year-olds, climbing 57% from 2007–18. The share of high school students experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased 40% from 2009–19.
“Supporting the mental health of children and youth will require a whole-of-society effort,” the report concluded.
This includes church leaders, even if they feel there is little they can do. In a 2014 Baylor University survey of youth and college pastors, only 26% expressed confidence that they were qualified to work with young people who were dealing with significant mental health problems. Yet nearly 8 in 10 respondents said they regularly encountered young people with known or suspected mental health issues.
The good news is that youth pastors and leaders can play a role in supporting and protecting at-risk youth.
As a youth leader, you are in a unique position to bridge the gap between the faith community and the professional mental health community. Here are four ways you can make a difference in the lives of young people who may be struggling with mental health issues:
During pandemic shutdowns, youth leaders had to find new ways of building community. This meant making phone calls, sending cards, praying for students via Zoom, and hosting small meetings in outdoor spaces. In many cases, ministry was more creative, personal and relational than it had been before the pandemic.
Megan Brown, a professor of Christian ministries at University of Northwestern, St. Paul, in Minnesota, recently interviewed youth pastors about the shifting ministry landscape amid the pandemic. The general consensus was that relational connection will be the hallmark of successful youth ministries going forward.
Large-scale events have their place in youth ministry, but they can’t replace more personal engagement. You are unlikely to know whether students are struggling emotionally if you don’t gain their trust by interacting in ways that are meaningful to them.
Just as you did early in the pandemic, think outside the walls of the church building. Collaborate on community projects, use a platform like Discord to encourage group interaction, plan a picnic at the park, and send handwritten notes to each student.
When students see you as a friend, advocate and mentor who cares about them personally, they will be more likely to confide in you.
Interacting with students in a variety of contexts provides opportunities not only to speak into their lives but also to hear about what they’re thinking and feeling.
Use your platform to destigmatize mental health issues. When you regularly talk about mental health, students will be more comfortable coming to you with their own struggles. You can then connect them with the help they need.
Even if you feel ill-equipped to address mental health issues specifically, you can talk about emotions. Point out the range of emotions people in Scripture experienced. Where the text is silent on this point, ask students what they think characters in the stories might have felt. Open up about times when you were frightened, jealous, insecure, or depressed.
Use emotion-based language to acknowledge what students are expressing and invite them to share how they’re feeling. For example, you might say, “I can see you’re disappointed about not making the soccer team. Do you want to talk about it?”
Normalizing such exchanges can open the door for future discussions if a mental health issue arises.
Many young people with mental health issues never receive professional care. As a youth leader, you can guide students who are struggling toward the help they need.
If you think a student is depressed or experiencing another mental health problem, let him or her know you want to help. Be clear that this might involve talking with the student’s parents.
Some young people don’t want parents to know about their struggles. Consider their reasons for this. Fear of embarrassment or judgment is a common concern. Acknowledge their feelings, but also emphasize that parental knowledge can open the door to more resources.
Don’t attempt to provide mental health counseling yourself. Recognize the value of physicians, psychologists, counselors and medication. Work with your church’s pastor to identify Christian counselors or other mental health professionals to whom you can refer families.
When ministry leaders collaborate with mental health professionals, outcomes for those in treatment are far better. Support students who are going through counseling. Visit them and their families. Send notes to let them know you’re praying for them.
When young people see you caring for your mental health, it will make a positive impression on them. Set boundaries, take time off, manage your emotions, and seek counseling when you need it.
Good leaders know they can’t handle all of life’s challenges on their own. They rely on the skills, expertise and support of others. Ask yourself these questions:
After more than two years of leading through crises, many pastors are feeling stressed and exhausted. Evaluate what you need to do to care for yourself. It could be simply scheduling some time off or taking up a hobby. However, if you need professional help, don’t be afraid to reach out to a Christian counselor or psychiatrist.
Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). We serve a God who wants people of all ages to experience wholeness in every area of life, including their mental health.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of Influence magazine.
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