The facts on mental health are alarming. One in five adults struggles with a mental illness of some sort, equating to 20% of the overall population. These numbers do not diminish for adolescents, unfortunately. Cases of severe major depression are increasing in teens. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in people 10-34 years old.
LCMS Youth Ministry’s Youth Poll showed that 33% of youth reported having struggled with mental health issues in the last year. Forty-nine percent of youth reported having a close friend or family member struggle with mental health in the last year. With statistics like these, youth in our churches will inevitably encounter friends and family members who face mental illness. We will have teens who personally battle mental health issues. It is essential that we equip students with the tools and guidance necessary to aid them in supporting loved ones in the grip of mental illness.
Unfortunately, the church has not always addressed mental health in the best ways. There is often a certain stigma around things like depression and anxiety, and young people might feel that such things are sinful, or should not be discussed. Another danger is treating mental illness too casually, or acting like it can just be “prayed away” with enough faith. We need to communicate to teens that mental health is just as important as physical health. We need to help them understand if and how they can help those who are struggling, so that they can “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Recognizing the Battle
What defines mental illness? According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental illnesses are “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior…associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities.” Mental health can be impacted by genetics, chemical imbalances, and life circumstances, among other factors. Yet struggles can manifest uniquely in every individual.
My father and mother both battled depression and anxiety, which looked different for each of them, and developed differently in me, as well. I developed severe anorexia and depression in high school, but tried to deny both and wrestled to keep a cheery face on the surface to disguise the inner turmoil. I was blessed with caring family and friends who recognized that I needed help. Loved ones reached out to me and encouraged me despite my misgivings that mental illness was somehow “evil” or “fake.”
Both adults and teens should understand the warning signs of a mental health crisis, and to support those they see suffering. Youth today are under enormous burdens of pressure, which is only augmented by modern marvel menaces like cyber bullying and social media stress. Teens might grow frustrated when they notice changing moods in friends. They might even be caught up in their own social media world and not look up enough to recognize such changes. Adults may be too caught up in the programming of youth ministry to notice important changes in youth’s attitudes and emotions. In the same way that we teach first aid and point out signs of physical distress, we can know how to identify signals that might indicate a problem and find ways to step in to provide Christ-centered care.
How Teens Can Help
If someone has a runny nose, we likely hand over a tissue. A paper cut requires a band-aid. A twisted ankle calls for an ice pack. Physical maladies often have relatively general treatment, but mental illness is not always so cut and dry. It is challenging to provide youth with “best practices” for dealing with love ones who struggle, because we do not have blanket solutions. Each individual is unique in problems faced and in optimal remedies. One size most definitely does not fit all.
Youth should be encouraged to demonstrate genuine love with family and friends. Of course, this ought to always be the case, but especially when mental struggles are present. We can discuss with teens how to be better listeners if people want to talk, and also how to maintain a sense of positive silence when that is more necessary. Simply being present and available can go a long way to communicate care and willingness to understand.
It’s important to remind students that they won’t have all of the “right” answers, and don’t need to. Some of the best support isn’t slapping on a happy face and spitting out platitudes; it involves sitting in the sadness and brokenness of our world. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). We can also emphasize that mental illness does not render someone evil or weak. Many Biblical figures encountered depression, including King David, Elijah, Jonah, Job, Moses, and Jeremiah, to name a few. Most importantly, we can point people to a God who loves them deeply and died on the cross to redeem them.
When to Reach Out Further
It’s wonderful to encourage youth to help those they see struggling with mental illness, but there are times when they will need to seek additional support. Teens cannot handle major issues on their own, and they will discover that family and friends sometimes need professional help. As leaders, we should instruct youth never to keep a mental health crisis, especially suicidal ideation and self-harm, a secret. Encourage them to take such things seriously. Let them know you will walk with them as they seek to reach out to parents, adults and professionals either for their mental health or the health of someone they know.
Teens should also have information regarding how to access extra help for loved ones, and who they can go to if they suspect a problem. Youth leaders can offer prayer and guidance, but they should have professional resources at the ready if students know someone in need. Teens should understand that finding help for a friend or family member is not “tattling”, but can be lifesaving. We would encourage calling an ambulance for a compound fracture, and in the same way we want those in mental danger to be cared for by the best possible experts.
Providing Additional Resources
As youth leaders seeking to guide teens who wish to support loved ones, there are various methods we can utilize. Consider incorporating mental health into Bible studies and devotion topics. If your congregation has an active Stephen Ministry program, perhaps coordinate with members to lead a workshop on care giving and mental health. If a church member is or knows a licensed therapist, invite him or her to lead a discussion with the youth group. Have information readily available listing counselors and resources in the area, and post it on a bulletin board or somewhere easy to access anonymously. Whatever tools and techniques you decide to incorporate into instruction with youth, do all things with wisdom and prayer, and remind teens to do the same.
We need to support our youth in order to send them out and encourage others. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
-1 Corinthians 1:3-4
Facts on mental health: