“Mental health is health,” is the tagline of a sweater I bought my wife when she switched careers to pursue a degree in licensed mental health counseling. As she started progressing through her classes and communicating more about mental health, I began to notice just how stigmatized mental health can be in the church world. Throughout my journey, both as a teenager and as a youth pastor, I’ve heard a wide array of sayings like “just pray it away,” “the Lord will deliver,” and “even Paul had a thorn in his side,” in regards to mental health. To be clear, mental health isn’t something we should skirt around cautiously because we are worried to confront the mess. Youth leaders should bring conversations of mental health as important discussions in their youth groups. My hope is for every youth leader to find tangible ways to bring awareness of mental health to ministries.
Here are three ways to support the mental health of your students:
Get everyone involved
Most students who struggle with mental health issues experience isolation. They feel like their struggles are just that—their individual struggles. Youth pastors have a huge opportunity and the responsibility to foster an environment of support and encouragement by getting the church involved. An easy way to bring the church along is to go straight to the church board. In 2020, our group took a large hit; we had many students struggling with mental health issues and needed help processing their trauma. It was clear we needed to bring in help. After discussing the situation with our staff and church board, we brought awareness to the issue that was plaguing our youth group and asked for an allotment of money from our benevolence fund toward counseling sessions for our students. The staff, the board, and the finance committee all unanimously agreed to approve the allocation of funds. The church was able to send many teenagers, adults, and families to receive counseling and therapy!
If your church doesn’t have the finances to cover the cost of counseling, seek to raise funds from those in your sphere of influence (always keep student information confidential). You may be surprised to find that many in your congregation struggle with similar issues and are willing to donate, or they may know a counselor who is willing to partner with you by giving a discounted price.
Create space for tough conversations
Every March, I preach a sermon series about mental health. Our goal is to create conversations within small groups to healthily and gracefully approach the topic of mental health. In the first year we started this sermon series, three longtime youth leaders were shocked at how open the youth were about their mental health issues, while also noting that the leaders themselves hadn’t felt comfortable speaking on this topic with students. As youth leaders, it is dangerous to create an environment where we tiptoe around mental health or don’t allow a space for students to process their issues.
Let’s be clear: it’s okay to follow Jesus and have a therapist, too. Growing up, I’ve heard more than once from the pulpit that prayer is the answer to depression, anxiety, and trauma. Prayer isn’t always the answer. Okay, deep breaths. In a world that stigmatizes mental health, let us be the people who normalize constructive conversations, therapy, counseling, and medication. A majority of students struggle alone because they believe that their struggles are unique to themselves or because they are afraid to speak out. Creating an environment to be open and vulnerable allows students to become more aware that they’re not alone.
Have a plan
The last 19 months have been a whirlwind to process for our students—pandemic, divisive politics, death, war, terrorism, shootings, kidnappings, on top of all their everyday issues; it’s a lot to process! It’s no wonder students are feeling depressed, anxious, and fearful. I wish I could honestly say that the first time a student opened up about a mental health emergency, I had a plan of action, but I didn’t. In the face of their crisis, I felt totally exposed and had failed in resourcing them the best I could. As a youth leader, don’t let this be you.
Have the referral before it’s needed. Gathering resources on mental health is one of the most important task any youth leader can do. One resource is having a trusted, licensed counselor in your community that you can reach out to during a mental health emergency. Compile training videos for parents and leaders about how to deal with mental health issues. Invite a counselor to share with your group periodically about mental health. Fill your space with booklets about mental health, and post the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Do something positive to help, and don’t just continue doing nothing.
Month. My hope for every youth leader is for a culture of intentionality with your students. Ask them how they are doing while constantly reminding them that youth group is a safe place to share. If you are reading this blog and are struggling too, reach out, speak up, and know that it is okay to ask for help. Mental health is health.
Carlos Portillo is the Bradenton Ministry Director for Suncoast Youth for Christ. He has been working in youth ministry for 10 years and is an ordained elder of the Church of the Nazarene. Carlos is married to Kalli, they have two Chihuahuas, Taco and Teeka.