Mental Health and Youth Ministry
We recently ran a poll on Twitter about what you’d like to see more of on our blog. You chose faith and mental health. Who better to write about that than Tim Gough, youth minister and author of Rebooted? Plus, he’s one of the funniest and smartest contributors to our blog.
When I was 14, one of my best friends was Daniel. I didn’t know Daniel was clinically depressed or that his random outbursts were actually early signs of bipolar disorder. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t normal that Daniel’s room only contained a mattress, a guitar and a pile of black hoodies. All I knew was he was fun and unique to be around, and that he had an unusually broad talent for music.
We drifted apart over the years, so it came as a huge shock to me when he was found in a flat, dead at age 23, after swallowing a mix of alcohol and methadone.
Daniel was a disruption to the classroom environment. He was always in trouble and – as far as I know – had no-one working with him to identify or work with his root causes. To me though, Daniel was just a mate who I’ll never see again.
I’d like to think that I’m a passionate advocate for mental health. At least I believe that we neither spend enough or research enough to develop treatment for those who really struggle.
The NHS says that one in four adults and one in ten children will experience mental health problems, however only a small amount of the NHS budget has been historically set aside for mental health research, diagnosis or treatment. This is getting better (£11.9 billion in 2017/18), but the waiting lists are still too long, and the medical opinions between departments are still too rampantly inconsistent.
Could we, as youth workers and as Church, develop programs that genuinely support young people with poor mental health? After all, this is not something we might encounter as youth workers; we will encounter it and we should be prepared.
This is a vast landscape, and anything we can do needs focus, so let’s start with what we are not.
1. We are not doctors
As mental health is dialled up to 11 in the media, and the – much-needed – mission to re-educate the public on its seriousness is highlighted, pop-psychology has been dialled up too, and genuine illnesses are in danger of being sensationalised as almost fashionable.
Some have become reactionary to basic terms and there are thousands of websites and videos where you can be ‘self-diagnosed’. Some of these are helpful, but many are not. With the internet being the shape it is, we have no way of knowing if the guy at the other end of the keyboard is an actual MD, or a college drop-out sitting on his parents’ couch with a can of Monster and ill-fitting pyjamas.
With this as our main source of information, and without medical training, we too could fall into to the trap of cavalierly ‘diagnosing’ young people with mental health conditions. Even if we have been through clinical treatment ourselves, we shouldn’t be telling kids what they do and don’t have as if we were trained experts.
We’re not psychologists, psychiatrists, key-workers, or mental health nurses. Our job is not treatment, it’s support. We should follow medical advice, and refer young people to professionals.
We should help them get the help they need, and sometimes that help is simply not us.
2. We are not them
Empathy is a powerful tool in ministry. Being able to legitimately say, ‘yes, I’ve been in that hole and I know the way out’ can be really helpful. However, assuming we understand a young person’s mental health just because we have had a similar experience is not always the best route to take. It can easily lead to unhealthy over-dependency at one end of the spectrum, or a blank wall of rejection at the other.
Every young person struggling with mental health is different. We should let young people speak freely about their own condition, and help us to understand what they need and how they like to talk about it.
Our job is to support each young person’s individual needs as best we can, and partner up with family, key-workers, teachers, and doctors to create a consistent experience of boundaries and support.
3. We are not alone
It’s easy to get frustrated by conditions that we can’t understand, but our job isn’t to fix young people – it’s to lead them to Jesus. There are few things that do this better than creating a safe place of love and security in our ministries.
We’re not in this alone. We live in the community of faith surrounded by quality, compassionate people who – when we truly serve each other – create a unique place of acceptance and healing.
As youth ministers, it’s important that we don’t hold burdens for young people alone. We should have accountability in place where we can debrief and share with a select group of trusted people. This could be pastors, line-managers, counsellors, or a network of other practitioners.
We also have the Holy Spirit living in us; the very presence of Jesus. We are not in this alone, and we can love as He first loved us, and create safe places for struggling young people. We should begin by trusting God, supporting each other, and from that place of strength – loving young people.