The Center for Parent/ Youth Understanding posted this article recently about youth pastors feeling ill-equipped to help youth with mental health issues. You can read that article here.
While we live in a culture that loves to brag about the cast on our leg, and is unashamed to share that we were up all night puking because of the flu, when it comes to mental health issues we are much quieter about the issues.
The article ended with a challenge for mental health professionals to reach out to youth pastors, but there are many things youth pastors and youth directors can do to fill equipped to help students with mental health issues. Being a youth director who is working on a marriage and family therapy degree, here are some tips to feel more prepared in engaging with mental health issues with your students.
What are Mental Health Issues?
Many times when we say mental health we automatically think extremes such as suicide attempts, or psychotic behavior. We need to remember that issues such as depression and anxiety (which many of our students struggle with and varying levels of intensity) are prominent mental health issues in our culture. Other topics such as eating disorders and anger issues are also mental health issues common in adolescents. There is a wide variety of mental health issues. But there are some general tips that could apply to many mental health issues that students are struggling with.
Talk About It
Even when feeling ill-equipped, you can still talk about these subjects with your group. By talking about it, it opens the doors for easier conversations later. Many students need to know they are not the only ones who struggle with a certain issue. By talking about it first, sometimes you can get help to a student before they become even worse later on.
Part of why many people feel ill-equipped in discussing mental health issues is they don’t know what to say. They feel they should give advice and direction but don’t know what that is. What is more important than advice is just listening. Ask them honest questions about why they are feeling the way they are, how long the issue has been going on, what they think the causes are, etc. Many times students need a listening ear before they can begin to hear advice. They need to know they are still loved and accepted. Encourage them to know they are not the only ones struggling with this issue. Many times just by sharing and having someone listen to them, there is a small level of healing already. From there, ask how you can help support them and help them on a path to healing. Sometimes they may already have an answer. If they don’t have an answer, be honest and tell them you don’t either, but you’re committed to walking alongside them. That is a huge encouragement right there.
While I want students to know that they can confide in me and that I am trustworthy, sometimes I have to break that confidentiality. If any mental health issue is brought up where they are harming themselves, they are harming someone else, or someone is harming them, confidentiality needs to be breached. When students talk about such issues, I tell them that I want to help them, but I can’t keep this to myself and we need to get other help involved. If it’s issues of abuse call Child Protective Services. They are great people to walk you through the steps you need to take.
With other issues such as self-harm, I strongly encourage to make sure parents are informed. I tell the student first so they know that that conversation is coming. In my experience they initially fight it and never want their parents to know. I discuss why they don’t want their parents to know. Many times it is because of embarrassment. By easing their fears they tend to accept (sometimes still reluctantly) that we should tell their parents. Many times I encourage that the conversation comes from the student and I together in talking with their parents so plans can be made with the student of how everyone can partner together in support. Many times this helps make family bonds tighter because students realize they can open up to their parents more than they thought.
Partner with Professionals
There are many books and resources out there that are very informative. But one of my biggest recommendations is to find some professionals that are willing to partner with you. I have a couple therapists that I know I can call when I have a dilemma with a student that I don’t know how to handle. They can help give great coaching and guidance in how to work with that student specifically. Many therapists are willing to be a resource in situations like this for free. This is also great networking for them because they can receive referrals through you when a family or a student needs more counseling than you can give. And how great is it for you to refer students to someone you know and trust will care for you student at the same level you do!
I also have partnered with therapists to come to parent meetings to talk about mental health issues with parents. This helps resource parents and equips parents to address mental health issues as well. Some therapists are willing to do it for free; others would appreciate a small stipend. But trust me- its money well spent.
Don’t know any therapists that you know and trust? Psychologytoday.com lets you find therapists in your area. You can even filter the results to look for therapists who are Christian and who specialize with adolescents. Call or email some of them on the list in your area and see if they would be willing to partner with you and be a resource for you. I have both a male counselor and female counselor because I know sometimes students would feel more comfortable talking with someone of the same gender.
By taking these steps, you can begin to feel more equipped to work with students with mental health issues.