[This is the fourth post in a series on topics from the Youth Work Summit 2012]. “We all have a mental health issue, because we all want to stay mentally healthy.” Wise words from Wil van der Hart at the Youth Work Summit. He broached an important subject: mental health amongst young people. The statistics aren’t encouraging:

  • There has been a 70% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression among British 15 year olds (and these figures differ greatly from the American ones) (Source: YWS talk Will van der Hart)
  • An estimated one million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder each year. There has been a significant rise in eating disorders during recent years and though they can occur in any age and any sex, as many as one women in every 20 will suffer from some form of eating distress in their life with the majority aged between 14 and 25 years old. (UK figures, source)
  • Around one in every 200 children under the age of 12 and two to three in every 100 teenagers suffer from depression. (UK figures, source)
  • Approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder (US figures, source)
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults (US figures, source)
  • 12% of 13-17 year olds reported having thought about suicide, while 4.2% had actually made a suicide attempt. Females had higher rates of suicide ideation than males. (Australian figures, source)
  • Young people are more likely to experience a mental illness and prevalence of mental disorders declines with age. In 2007, 26% of 16-24 year olds had experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months, while only 5.9% of 75 year olds and over had experienced a mental disorder during that time. (Australian figures, source)
mental health

In short: mental health issues are a big problem amongst teens and adolescents. So what can you do to care for those young people that struggle with mental health problems?

1. Read up on mental health issues

First of all, you have to know what you’re talking about. You don’t need to become an expert on every mental health issue known to man, but you do need to read up on key issues and illnesses. Teen depression, anxiety disorders, borderline, manic depression, eating disorders, self harm, obsessive compulsive disorders, these are just a few important mental health issues amongst teens you need to know about. What are the symptoms, the root causes and what can you do to support someone who has this illness?

2. Take signals seriously

The biggest mistake you can make is to make light of mental health issues amongst your young people. Sure, teens are generally moody and some depression and anxiety is normal. But you still need to take every signal seriously, because it can be a small signal of a much bigger problem. You don’t know what’s going on and you may be that person they trust enough to show a little bit of what’s happening inside of them to. So take that responsibility seriously and accept every signal you get as something important enough to talk about.

3. Build trust

With a lot of mental health issues, trust is key. It’s not something teens like to talk about. There’s a lot of shame and fear involved. They’re afraid of rejection, unbelief. They’re scared of what’s happening to them, scared that they’ll never get better. They’re ashamed for being weak, for being different. They want to keep it a secret, because sometimes it’s the only thing that makes sense to them, or that they have control over.

If you want your youth ministry or youth group to be a safe place where teens can share their struggles with mental health issues, building trust is of crucial importance. They have to be able to trust you and they have to be able to trust the group. There’s a few ways to accomplish that:

  • Create good small group rules about confidentiality and make this an essential part of your culture;
  • Be very strict in not breaking confidentiality yourself, unless you have to;
  • Make mental health issues something you discuss regularly, like sex or drugs and alcohol. Inform your young people about it and make it something you can talk about;
  • Make sure your leaders are trained in mental health issues and are able to recognize signals when something is wrong;
  • There should be absolutely no bullying of any kind in your youth group. You’ll need to enforce this very strictly to protect the weak.

In my former youth group, there was a girl who developed a severe and ultimately life-threatening eating disorder. Because I had a relationship of trust with her, she was finally able to admit she had a problem and together we sought out the best treatment course for her. Had I not had that trust relationship with her, I doubt she would have opened up to anyone.

4. Signpost

No matter how much you know about mental health issues, even from your own experience perhaps, you’re not a professional. Signpost whenever you’ve identified a real mental health problem and don’t go dabbling in any kind of treatment yourself. Be there as a moral and pastoral support, but leave the treatment to the professionals.

5. Pray and be patient

Even though I have left my former church almost two years ago, there are still some young people on my prayer list. Every single one of them is because of a mental health issue. I’ve seen God work wonders but I won’t stop praying for them until I know for sure they’re okay.

Mental health issues often take time to heal. They can’t be simply cured with a treatment and a prayer, like a band-aid on a wound. It takes time and patience. Often there will be back slips and old issues resurfacing and recurring. Sometimes, complete healing will not take place this side of heaven. And sometimes you’ll lose the battle…

In January this year, one of my former students committed suicide after battling depression for years. It was a devastating blow for his family, but also for his friends, for the church and for us as youth leaders. I took it very personally and it hurt me deeply that in the end, he could not be ‘saved’…though I am absolutely certain he is now in heaven (he was a deeply committed disciple of Jesus) and that is the only comfort I have. But it has made me even more determined to help young people in dealing with mental health issues they’re facing.