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How the teen mental health crisis is turning some youth pastors into first responders

Young people, youth pastors say, are pushing the church to be more willing to talk about mental health.

Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay/Creative Commons

(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.

“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.

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.”

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.”

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.

St. Joseph Catholic Community in Bound Brook, New Jersey, a mixed Latino-Anglo parish, is one of seven Catholic parishes in the state participating in NeXt Level, which attempts to empower young people through justice and service projects. In a 2021 survey of participants, said Valeria Morales, a mentor in the program and a social worker, many said they wanted to make their “passion project” mental health.

Black and Latino teens can carry a higher burden when it comes to dealing with mental health. “There is such a stigma around it in our community,” said Morales. “There is definitely still the mentality that if you are struggling with mental health, you are weak.”

Adult immigrants who endured their own traumas, she said, may see first-generation young adults’ struggles and say “The troubles that you are talking about? Get over it,” she said.

Even the parents who have been in America for a long time are “very controlling,” said Tam Nguyen, a pharmacist who serves as a NeXt Level mentor at Most Precious Blood Parish, a mixed Vietnamese-Anglo church in West Collingswood, New Jersey. Young people, whose primary language is English, crave more freedom.

Several youth pastors and mentors said that involving parents can also help share the responsibility when a teen comes to them with mental health complaints. Said Ridgeway, “We are a piece of the puzzle, but we’re not the whole puzzle.”

Teens, who are more likely to trust their peers than many adults, may choose to be proactive, bolstering mental health by fostering a stronger sense of community, vaulting across cultural barriers.

That, said Talley, goes to the heart of what the Christian faith offers. “For us, discipleship, faith, is best experienced in relationships. I think there is just an irreplaceable value in walking with students and families in the midst of it, and saying that, hey, we’re all in this together,” he said.

By Elizabeth E. Evans, Religion News Service