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How the Teen Mental Health Crisis Is Turning Some Youth Pastors Into First Responders

Photo credit: Becca Tapert / Unsplash

(RNS) — Brayden Bishop, a youth pastor in Texas, is just 25 years old. But when it comes to working with teens in crisis, he’s a seasoned veteran. Some of the teens and middle-schoolers he works with are also practiced in talking about suicide — so much so that they toss out disclaimers, aware that going too far may trigger mandatory reporting.

“They will say, deadpan, in the middle of talking about a mental health struggle, ‘I’m not a danger to myself or others,’” said Bishop. “Then they will kind of laugh about it and move on.”

But there are young people at Grace Chapel United Methodist Church, in Aubrey, a middle- to upper-middle-class community north of Dallas, who openly tell Bishop they have contemplated or attempted suicide. Some struggle with depression or thoughts of self-harm, such as cutting. Young women confide in him about episodes of sexual violence. Some are seniors in high school, but middle-schoolers also talk about their struggles with mental health.

The mental health crisis affecting many of America’s young people can show up, Bishop said, in seemingly casual ways: a knock on the youth pastor’s door or a small group conversation among peers.

Brayden Bishop in 2021. Courtesy photo

“Perhaps there is less stigma now attached to talking about mental health concerns, and more awareness in younger generations,” said Brett Talley, senior vice president of staff culture at Orange, which provides educational and ministry resources to churches and families. It is young people, he said, who are pushing the church to be more willing to talk about mental health and how it intersects with faith.

Kevin Singer, a sociologist of religion, said, “Mental health issues among young Americans have reached epidemic levels.” He cited a report released last fall by Springtide Research Institute, where he serves as a national speaker, on the mental health of Generation Z. It found that majorities of young people reported being moderately to severely depressed, anxious and lonely.

Many of those who responded to Springtide’s poll said they were hesitant to report their struggles to adults, with more than 60% saying they don’t trust the adults in their lives enough to talk to them about mental health issues. But clergy and others who work with young people in faith-based settings say the problem they face more often is not having answers for the kids who come to them.