by Emily Phoenix and Sarah Weishaar
Mental health concerns are a prominent part of the conversation in the lives of many people, so as youth workers, it’s important for us to understand the big picture and how it affects us both personally and professionally in our own ministry areas.
“Know your enemy” is probably a phrase you have heard a thousand times. How can we fight against something if we know nothing about it? Mental illness is becoming an epidemic in our world today. Take some time to learn about mental health and mental illnesses. It will allow you to better help shepherd those hurting in your congregation. Get the conversation started. Let people know that your church is a safe place without the fear of stigma.
There are many labels and stigma that are connected to our view of mental illness, and it’s important for us to enter into reflection and conversation with an open heart and mind. Here are some conversations to consider:
Caring for the Youth Worker
To be able to effectively teach and lead others it is important for you, the professional, to stay healthy, especially emotionally. Taking care of our mental health is just as important as taking care of our bodies and our souls. We need to be the role models for our students. Our students face incredibly hard problems today, like bullying, suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders. Oftentimes they come to us to express frustrations and get advice. It can be easy to become weighed down by that.
To stay healthy we need to practice self care. It isn’t something you can do once and be done. It’s small habits that you add in to maintain a healthy life. Some examples of self-care are:
- unplug for an hour
- read a book for pleasure
- do a devotion
- go on a walk
- take a bubble bath
Do something that lets you recharge and renew. What works for you may not work for someone else. Find what works for you. And check out the article Healthy Life Rhythms for more ideas on how to take care of yourself.
Conversations in the Church
As a church we can offer love, acceptance, and compassion. Living with a mental illness sometimes leads people down the wrong paths as they look for ways to cope with the emotional pain. They should not be shunned or condemned. We are all sinners. The past is dead. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
We are forgiven, and as a church we are meant to offer Christ’s forgiveness to others. We still have choices to make, and we can help people make better choices in the future. Faith teaches resilience and strength through relying on Christ. There are so many verses in the Bible that are for our encouragement. “Do not fear…, cast your anxieties on him…, all things work together for good…” These are just a few that give us comfort through whatever tumult life brings. It is easy to read and know those verses, but for someone with a mental illness some days reading them isn’t enough.
Being present/visiting is a great way to reach out to someone who is struggling. Walk with them. Listen to what they say and pray with them. Remind them they are a precious and loved child of God. The church has visitation for the physically sick so we should also have it for the mentally sick. There shouldn’t be stigma or fear of judgement associated with having a mental illness. The church should be a center of healing, a place where everyone feels safe to seek help.
Churches can also provide counseling and support groups, and help point people to resources within the community to get them to the help they need. As a church you can find a local mental health clinic and sponsor “scholarships” for people who can’t afford to get the help they need.
Church can provide a stable and safe place as well as a community. What we see on TV and in movies are often gross dramatizations. Don’t let stereotypes shape your opinion before you get to know the individual.
A person who is struggling with mental health might need a little more grace and help but they can still be a great fit in ministry. Each person is different, and each disorder is different, so first get to know them and their limitations and abilities. If they want to volunteer find something they can do that makes them feel like they are making a difference.
Conversations with Youth
Start simple when it comes to conversations with students, both in individual and group situations. Education is a huge piece of the conversation with teenagers. Here are some scripts you can follow:
“What is mental illness? A mental illness is something that affects your thoughts, moods, and behaviors and might make them more or less extreme. For example, anxiety may make your heart and mind speed up. While depression may make you extremely tired and your thoughts slow and hard to come by. Mental illness is really very common. Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental illnesses diagnosed. They are also commonly diagnosed together.”
“What I want you all to know is that it’s okay to not feel okay. Sometimes things in life make us hurt and sometimes we hurt for no reason at all. The pain is real, but there are many ways to get help. It starts with a conversation. If you don’t feel right talk to someone about it. A teacher, school counselor, youth pastor, your doctor, or even your parents. You don’t have to try to work out what you are feeling alone. God gave us family and friends for a reason. They care and they want to help.”
“So what’s the next step? Diagnosis and treatment. Meet with a mental health professional and talk about the symptoms like how long you have been experiencing them and intensity. They will decide if your symptoms will go away on their own or if you will require treatment. Some possible treatments are therapy, medication, or a combination. There are many different kinds of therapy and many different kinds of medications. It may take some time, but you will find something that works. Things will get better. And remember. We have a great Counselor, one who hears our thoughts and knows our hearts. So even when you can’t describe or even know what you are feeling He does.” “Lord, you have examined me and know all about me… You know my thoughts before I think them.” (Psalm 139:1-2)”
As you consider your setting and how you can start the conversation, begin here:
- Everyone of us is a child of God. The best way to begin the conversation is by going to God, seeking His discernment and listening for what He will reveal to you as you learn about mental health and how it impacts you and your ministry.
Protip: Pray for someone you know who is struggling with mental health concerns.
- God’s Word
- Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. Psalm 103 :2-4
- There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1
- The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23
- I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. John 16:33
- Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15
- When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.Psalm 37:17-20
- But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:9
- And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose Romans 8:28
- Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Romans 12:12
Protip: Study this Scripture on your own and with other youth workers prior to conversations and study with students.
- Those who deal with mental illness come in all shapes and sizes: both wealthy and poor, educated and illiterate. It’s likely you are aware (or not) of a friend, family member or church member who is currently on an antidepressant and/or seeing a counselor. 13% of Americans are on antidepressants.
- Suicide is the leading cause of death in multiple age groups.
Protip: Select an aspect of mental health/illness that you don’t know much about and learn about it. Read facts from health experts, but also find someone who may have already told their story. Listen to a new perspective.
- For those who deal with mental illness, there is definitely a new normal for their lives once they are diagnosed and begin treatment. The reality is that they will always be in recovery and they should not be condemned for that reason. We cannot judge one individual’s experience with another, so we must build relationships and connect people to the church community so they may learn more about and teach others about Jesus.
Protip: Brainstorm ways you can be open about the topic of mental health within your ministry context and share it in your circle of influence. Some ideas include: Inviting a mental health professional to come to your church for a workshop, allowing groups to use your facility as a meeting space, discussing with your pastor/leadership on how to address this issue from the pulpit and in Bible study so that people can know they are cared for and see how they can address it in their own lives.