Recently I opened up Facebook to yet another post from a youth pastor friend sharing about a student overwhelmed by darkness and despair. Sadly, darkness had consumed the 16-year-old’s life and ultimately ended it. This tale is far too common amongst the students we minister to. As I connect with youth pastors, I repeatedly hear these stories; stories of students battling depression and of leaders feeling ill-equipped to help.
According to suicide.org, we are ministering to a culture where about 20 percent of teens experience depression before reaching adulthood. Although not all depressive states lead to suicide, it is still the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24. If you are currently supporting someone suffering from depression, know that you are needed—and you’re not alone.
Depression can look different in every person. If a student starts to talk with you about depression, then let them talk. The fact they trust you enough to talk about this…that’s a big deal! As you give them space, you’ll learn more. Try and keep calm so that you don’t add any more emotional energy to the mix.
Some of the most common expressions that may indicate depression are darkness, a pit, quicksand or a trap that a person just can’t seem to get themselves out of. Our students need support if they are walking through this level of despair: They know they are not able to fix this themselves, because they’ve already tried.
I’ve laid out some key ideas for walking with teens through depression. But before you start, you need to pray! You will need God with you on this. You will need the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the strength of God as you journey into the darkness with your student. Here are a few more tips:
1. Know yourself
As you help a student, it is important to check yourself at the beginning. For example, if you’re driven to find solutions quickly and solve problems, you may need to slow down the pace. While this instinct can be an important driving force for you, depression has no quick-fixes. Or, if you are driven by empathy, you may be at risk of losing the objectivity that your student needs from you. Know what motivates you, know your strengths, and make sure you also know how they could be a weakness as you support a student in crisis.
2. Provide a safe space
More often than not, you’ll become aware of a student’s struggles either because of a crisis event or because the student feels safe enough to open up to you about what’s going on. Perhaps you’ve noticed your student has started to withdraw, has gone through a significant behavior change, has started engaging in unhealthy or risky behavior, or something else that is outside the norm. Create a safe space for your student. If he or she feels they can talk with you without risk of over-reaction or judgment, then they will feel safe enough to talk about some of their struggles.
3. Listen and understand
Show your student you’re listening. Make sure your phone is turned over and on silent. Use good eye contact with the student (but don’t make it weird!). As you’re listening, avoid quick responses and accept what you are hearing without jumping to judgment. Avoiding phrases like “you shouldn’t feel that way,” “that’s just stupid,” or “that’s not a big deal” will keep you from devaluing the very real feelings and emotions your student is experiencing. When you sit down with your student, have some follow up questions and feed back what you hear him or her saying to make sure you’re on the same page. Bring God’s light into their situations at appropriate moments by reminding them of His promises and offering to pray.