Mental Health and Young People in the Church
If you were to send a message to your younger self to reassure or encourage them or even to tell them something that you think they need to know: what would you say?
I start my training with this question because it’s important to look back at the way life was when we were a young person and remember just how uncertain and chaotic that time was for all of us, even if we didn’t have additional struggles with our mental health at the time!
Scientists define adolescence as the period of life that starts with the biological, physical and hormonal changes of puberty and ends at the stage when an individual attains a stable independent role in society. We often define adolescence as roughly 11 -18 but this definition makes a good case for including ages up to roughly 25!
There’s a lot happening in the teenage body and brain. It used to be thought that our brains were fully developed before adolescence kicked in but since the use of functioning MRI scans (that is the ability to scan the brain whilst performing various functions) we are finding out more about the adolescent brain in particular, discovering that there are significant differences in the functions of the adult brain. It used to be thought that the reason teenagers didn’t weigh up risk or pay much attention to another person’s point of view was because of a flood of hormones, now we know that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain which helps adults make decisions, plan for the future, inhibiting ant-social or inappropriate behaviour or speech and take another person’s point of view into consideration, is not yet fully developed in the adolescent brain meaning they are simply unable to do these things. Adolescents have to rely more on impulse and pleasure seeking because these are the functions of the parts of the brain – the limbic system and the amygdala – which ARE fully functioning.
Throwing these challenges of brain function together with hormonal surges and the keen feeling of peer pressure, we begin to see the unique challenge that adolescents have to deal with.
Add to that the backdrop of the 24-7 news cycle, environmental issues that threaten natural life as we know it, increased awareness of the need to live healthily whilst being presented almost daily with contradicting messages about how to do this, the distorting lens of social media and the pressure to maintain an online presence, global political upheaval including the rise of the far right, the Austerity agenda which has led to family chaos, increased reliance on foodbanks and a whole host of other factors and it’s no wonder we are in the midst of a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions.
The good news is that belonging to a loving, caring community of people is a significant part of the answer for those struggling with their mental health. A church and/or youth group that encourages young people to be open and honest by providing a safe space for them, that discusses emotional health and the impact our emotions can have on our faith and our overall sense of wellbeing, that shows love and care through listening carefully and talking about deep issues of faith and life, these are the spaces our young people need in order to navigate this difficult time of brain development, identity formation, fluctuating hormones and potential poor mental health.
I ran a survey recently asking young people from within church groups what they had to say about their faith and their mental health and it was so interesting to see a really wide range of responses about how their church or youth leader had supported them. Some said their youth leader was amazingly open and honest, encouraging them to talk openly about how they were coping with life. Others said that they hadn’t ever talked to their youth leader about their diagnosed mental health condition because they didn’t feel comfortable enough to be that open or that they had a difficult experience because the church had not tried to understand the problem they faced.
Many of us in churches feel out of our depth when faced with statistics that say 1 in 4 of us will experience mental health struggles in our lifetime and the actual numbers of young people, which is likely to feel like more than 1 in 4, in our care who are either diagnosed with, talking about, or showing signs of a mental illness such as depression or anxiety. We need to equip ourselves to do the best we can to support our young people, recognising that we are not all psychotherapists or counsellors.
I have written a Grove Book with this aim, to help those who work with young people understand a bit more about mental health and the impact this can have on our young people. You can order copies on the Grove Book website here.
I also offer training in a number of areas of youth work, mental health is one area that is particularly popular at the moment and my latest training session on Mental Health and Young People is in East Sussex on Thursday 14th November. You can buy tickets for this here. If you’d like me to deliver training to your church or organisation then get in touch in the comments.
If you’d like to read the story of someone who struggled with depression and anxiety as a teenager then I can recommend Rachael Newham’s ‘Learning to Breathe’.
If you’d like a resource book which gives you, the youth leader, a set of sessions you can run with your young people on emotional health then I can recommend Liz Edge’s ‘Exploring Emotional Health’. (in the north east a copy of this is in the Religious resources centre)
Thank you to Jenni for writing this piece for this blog, If you have a burning issue, a challenge, a question or a reflection you would like to share, please do so using the details above. Youth work week is upcoming, so if you have something youd like to tell with the regular audience of this blog, then please do get in touch.