A large number of young people suffer from mental illness. As such, it's paramount that to take the time and space to address these issues in the context of youth ministry.
The church should be a place of refuge and support. Churches have a unique opportunity to offer support and help young people who are struggling with mental illness. It can provide a safe, confidential, non-judgmental environment in which young people can talk about their mental health struggles without fear of judgment. Below are some ideas to help you think of ways to make your youth ministry a safe space for your young people who struggle with mental illness.
- Mental illness is exactly that – an illness. Mental illness is not a spiritual failing, a lack of trust in God, or the result of people running into sin. It’s a medical illness that should be understood and treated with the appropriate health resources. When discussing mental health, be proactive about how you talk about it. Make sure your young people know that the anxiety they suffer from is not reflective of God’s love for them or their love for God. An appropriately health-oriented understanding of mental wellbeing is essential for helping young people to come to a healthy and accurate understanding of their illness – and ultimately learning to flourish in spite of it.
- Mental illness is serious and should be treated as such. It’s not a joke, a “stage,” or teenagers being teenagers. It's a serious, life-limiting, and potentially life-threatening illness. Be proactive in building an atmosphere in which your students feel safe bringing forward their concerns about their mental health. In addition, develop appropriate ways to refer students to mental health professionals. Helping a student access professional treatment may very well be saving that student’s life.
- Create space for safe, healthy conversation and connection. Young people want and need spaces where they are safe, loved, and can belong. This is essential for the development of healthy mental coping mechanisms. Be proactive in creating these spaces. And be reflective to continually evaluate these spaces. Are your youth leaders making safe spaces? Are students being bullied? Have any students, parents, or other leaders expressed concerns about your youth program? Listen to the people you are ministering to and with. They will give you plenty of ideas for how to make your youth ministry a safer, healthier, more connected place.
- Train your leaders. Church members, church leaders, and youth ministry volunteers need to be informed of what mental illness looks like. Ensure that they are trained to recognize the signs of mental illnesses, especially those that effect young people, such as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and disordered eating patterns. Train them to react with appropriate seriousness and ensure that leaders know what community resources to utilize when professional help is needed. Training should be presented by mental health professionals, utilizing local nonprofits, seminars or other community mental health resources. Leaders must be aware of what to do if a young person comes forward in crisis and how to respond quickly when a need arises. Your leaders should never feel they must provide treatment to a student -- show them how to rely on appropriate professional resources instead.
- Teach helpfully, not harmfully. Excellent religious education has enormous potential to help people who struggle with mental health. Yet religious education that isn't infused with grace can do the opposite: it can lead to obsessive tendencies, anxiety, isolation, irrepressible feelings of guilt, fear, and suicidal ideation (1). These negative emotions are harmful to well-being and lead to harmful self-perceptions. So be proactive about how you teach. Don’t attribute mental health to spiritual deficiencies. Encourage students to be emotionally cognizant of the complexity of the world so they are able to healthfully cope as they shape belief and faith.
- Lead students to develop healthy emotional habits. It’s essential for people to be able to recognize, understand, and think through their emotions and feelings. Youth ministry can be a great place to develop habits of emotional awareness. Teach your students to recognize their moods, see how their moods influence their actions, and what can trigger them to feel a certain way. Encourage mindfulness. Model mindfulness yourself.
- Guide students to develop positive images of themselves and others. Your students are beautiful, wonderful, and complex people. Demonstrate this to them. Listen to their opinions and ideas. Encourage them to recognize their inherent worth, strengths, and personalities. Provide spaces where they can express themselves and develop their talents and gifts. Agency is essential to help students develop their concept of self-worth (2). Let them plan a food drive, plan outreach with a local charity for people experiencing homelessness, or set up a tutoring program for at-risk children.
- Create Space for Accountability. Adults are responsible for making youth groups emotionally and spiritually safe spaces. Start by teaching students to think critically about their lives, relationships, and their faith and church. Was a student uncomfortable with how a topic was presented in catechism class? Did they feel unsafe during an activity at church camp? Are any of your students suffering bullying, harassment, or abuse – or have they been victims of these things in the past? Make spaces to discuss these issues with your students – and be willing to make changes to your youth program.
Do you have any other ideas, anecdotes, or stories of how to create safe spaces in the church for young people suffering from mental illness? Please share below!