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

Darrell Pearson, who recently retired from Eastern University’s department of youth ministry, said students from the past two decades routinely tell him that they wish they had been offered classes in crisis intervention. “A lot of people think the pandemic is the key event,” said Pearson, “but actually it just made it worse.”

Kevin Singer. Photo courtesy of Springtide

At the same time, Singer said, the data makes it clear that spirituality contributes to more robust mental health. “The one thing we can say, based on our data, is that there is a very positive relationship between mental health thriving and the degree to which a young person identifies as religious or spiritual” (though, as Singer pointed out, they may define spirituality very differently from older generations).

“Ultimately, belonging is the real key to unlocking mental health,” he said. Young people, Springtide found, wanted to be noticed, named and known.

A few years ago, Orange produced a series of presentations for youth ministers about how to help students recognize that God created them with feelings, and how to process them safely. But Talley added that youth leaders also know that they don’t have the background, skills or training to be the only resource.

In interviews, youth pastors and advisers frequently used the term “space” or “safe spaces” to describe the environment they try to create for their charges.

The students in her youth group are good friends and feel comfortable being “goofy” around each other, said Maddie Ridgeway, director of student and young adult ministries at Paoli Presbyterian Church in Paoli, Pennsylvania. She likes to give them a place to have fun and not feel pressure to be “the best at everything.”

Maddie Ridgeway. Courtesy photo

Maddie Ridgeway. Courtesy photo

Teens even nod off for a few minutes in her youth group, Ridgeway said, and she’s glad that they feel comfortable enough to do that. “I feel as if that’s what God has invited them to do, and I’m going to let them rest.”

Nonbinary and LGBTQ+ students need to feel included as well. On retreats, should they express a desire for a separate bedroom or bathroom, “I will do everything in my ability to make sure that students have what they need to feel safe,” said Ridgeway.

Bishop, the youth pastor in Texas, said his first goal is simply “always just to care for them in whatever way, keep them safe, and quite honestly sometimes keep them alive. We know it’s a process.” He tells teens they should have three to five trusted advisers. He said that he himself has a network, including a mental health professional.

The racial discrimination and bias that many young people of color experience can exacerbate mental health symptoms, noted the Springtide report “Navigating Injustice.” With religious affiliation at an all-time low, said Springtide researcher and sociologist Nabil Tueme, author and principal investigator of the report, which took a close look at the well-being of young people of color.

Some of them, she said, find an outlet in activism, trying to create positive change in their own congregations and local communities.