Dear Youth Pastors:
I was involved in a church youth group when I was younger. No one there ever told me I couldn't talk about mental health. But no one ever told me that I could, either. Cultural stigma still dictates much of what we do & don't discuss openly.
Invite conversations, and do so specifically. Fear of something loses some of its grip once it is named.
Stand on a stage and talk about depression. Talk about suicide. Talk about self-injury & anxiety & addiction & eating disorders & a thousand other things. Talk about pain. Talk until you've run out of ways to say 'You are not alone in this thing. It can be named & known and we can fight together.'
Say that it's ok to not be ok, because so many of your students don't feel ok:
- 20% of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition. 1 in 5.
- 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and 75% begin by age 24.
- Suicide is the 2nd or 3rd leading cause of suicide in ages 10-24, 90% of whom have an underlying mental health concern. In fact, the suicide rate in this age range has tripled in the last 50 years.
But you already have reasons. You have reasons that you hang out with and that you take on retreats and play silly games with and preach to and laugh with and cry with. You have reasons because you have students.
You have reasons to talk about mental health.
Your students need you to. Your church needs you to. The next generation of Christians battling to feel less alone needs you to.
In the past few months I've written a post addressed to Pastors and a post on how ministries can better engage with mental health, and they both apply to you too. But I wanted to write to just you, because I know your job is so special.
If you teach your students that the church is a place where they really can bring their burdens, that church is the place for open and honest and painful conversations, that nothing is off-limits and that you're willing to lean into the dark and heavy places with them, you're doing something amazing.
You're loving them like Jesus. You're sacrificing your comfort zone, you're sacrificing knowing what you're doing, you're sacrificing going home at night knowing that you fully resolved someone's problems. And you're sacrificing it for something more beautiful. You're stepping into confusion and hurt and pain and mess to love someone. Just like Jesus stepped out of heaven and into our mess.
If the hallmark of cruciform love is sacrifice, if our job as Christians isn't to wait for Heaven but to enact heaven here and now by stepping into people's hells, then how can we avoid topics that are hurting people because we're uncomfortable with them?
And beyond that, you'll be shaping the future. You'll be shaping Christians that will be running ministries and churches and families in 15 years and they'll remember your courage. They'll think back and remember and they'll run screaming into the dark parts of those around them carrying the light of Jesus with no hesitation because you taught them it was ok to talk about heavy things. And their students will do the same, and one day we will be a church that is fully open about our pain, where everyone knows they can bring every part of them, without hesitation. And it will have started with you and your students.
So be brave. Be bold. Be a light in dark places, even when it's hard. Talk about things that you wouldn't normally. Be an unstoppable force of Jesus to your students.
They need you to.