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.
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.