Mental Health and Young people in the Church – Guest Post by Jenni Osborn

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.

Why does Media representation (for christians) even matter?

You know how the saying goes, the media portrays the NHS in crisis overall – yet everyone loves their local hospital, fights for it and want it to be kept open, facilitated and the core provider of health services in the UK. But ask people on the street about the NHS overall and theyll say something different, depending on whether they have used the services recently or not.

One of the earliest lectures I attended as part of my Youthwork degree at ICC, was that on the media representations of Young People. Often nearly always bent towards the negative (even their success at exams is skewed to reflect ‘easier exams nowadays), but young people are portrayed with hoods, as closed off, as in groups/gangs, at fault for many of societies ills. We learned and saw how the narrative of negativity around young people shaped government policy, as what might be said to be the Daily Mail brigades were reacted to. Though the moral fear about young people created by such stories is not new.

One of the things in church based youthwork is to maintain challenges these narratives, as they can be often the ones that church people ingest the most frequently and then shape whether they as people will bother volunteering to do youthwork in the church, or dictate how to treat young people. When as we know, God sees young people differently…doesnt she?

So on this basis, media representations of young people in society, as a youthworker are important- because they shape attitudes, narratives and policy. (and thats before we get the new wave of ‘millenial bashing’)

However, there is also a complete surprise in the local situation. When a group of volunteers encounter and interact with young people on the streets for the first time, they are often surprised, saying ‘that went better than i expected!’ – why what did you expect… ?  Well id heard so much about young people…… So again, the universal media narrative is the default norm, but this is often overcome because in the right kind of environment, and with the right kind of approach, young people are barely anything like the media portrays them. They cant be. boring young people all 99% of them arent newsworthy. Though its also fair to say that the services that provide for and with young people (as many of the 99% need mental health support, or counselling, or universal youthwork that barely exists)  and the plight of this is also less newsworthy, because it is about young people. And so, if the media doesnt care positively about young people, then it is going to care less about paying for services for them. The anti youth bias continues.

So, fast forward to the last two weeks. Not for the first time there is a conversation going around about ‘How Christians are portrayed in the Media’ and an open letter by the evangelical preacher J John. Im not going to share the link, but it is in this response piece by Bryony Taylor, which is well worth a look, to at least balance the scales on media portrayals of christians:

A few reflections;

  1. Its a bit self indulgent. Surely Christians can protests about media portrayals of more oppressed communities in society than themselves. Young people perhaps, LGBT, Women (in general), people from other countries (but no), Muslims.
  2.  I wonder is there anything worse about Christianity than putting across a victim complex. And being seen to be that way.

But overall does it matter- and why does it matter?

For one thing, I do go on at this point. The perception, is that the media is somehow meant to be on the side of the christian church in the UK. That’s the perception within the church, in the main. Along with this is the belief that if there is religious stuff on TV then this will make the church relevant and cause people to think positively about the church and then go along to it. Negative media representation obviously damages this approach. It is about relevancy to the evangelical, that’s one of the whole aspects of the strategy. Being relevant has meant being involved in the media. When i was growing up it was Steve Chalke on the TV – somehow he was trendy for young people.. (!)

In a way I wouldnt want the BBC to think it had to respond to J John about his complaint, because that might mean that they werent genuine about what they might try and do in the future. What the christian church would be better at doing was actually doing stuff in their every day locality that was meaningful, provocative and risk taking to and with local communities- that the BBC couldnt help but write positive stories about the church. Like the methodists who protested against the arms depot and challenged the courts.  But many other countless examples. Lets face it, christians doing foodbanks in Newcastle were the heroes in ‘I Daniel Blake’.

If people in every day local communities had a positive experience meaningfully of their local church- then universal media representations wouldnt matter. It has become the great ‘hang up’ on one hand we pour christian celebrity status on the bakers from bake off (Martha Collinson) who profess faith, the brit award winners (stormzy) – and they become ‘role models’ – yet at the same time decry the media for challenging portrayals. We cant have both cakes and eat them. But even this rush to get christians in the media is part of the same approach. Stormzy might be the coolest thing since Ice Cubes. And Broken the most powerful portrayal of priesthood since well The Passion of the Christ. None of it is of any importance until people locally become connected and surprised by the church. One of the ways that this could happen, is if local churches forgot their own oppression, and connected (even more) with those who really do face it.

There is moment in the film ‘Pride’ (2014) where a character uses the media as a way of  telling tales about the ‘Gays and Lesbians’ who had gone to the village to support the striking miners in the miners strike. The response to the character from one of the support group leaders was ‘ well i dont believe the media about what they say about us (the miners) so why do i about them (the Gay fundraisers)’. We either think people cant make up their own mind and uncritically believe everything they hear in the media, or as christians we might surprise by being different in the local area. If we’re doing good works, with love, then the media cant touch us, and if we react it gives fuel to their fire, not ours.

Bryony is even more prolific than me; here is her second response, on developing a theological response to media courting:



Roche & Tucker, Youth in Society, 1995

Garratt, Roche, Tucker, Changing experiences of Youth, 1997


What do we expect teenagers to be made of, a substance tougher than steel?

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I saw this quote doing the rounds on Facebook today. Excuse its language. But dont excuse its sentiment.

On one hand we could argue that young people in the 80’s and 90’s didnt have it too badly – and I should know i was one of them. Politicians got headlines for peace deals, climate change caused action, peace was a hopeful reality i large parts of the world. There were EMA grants, nearly free higher education, still a general reality that post university meant employment, house prices were going up, but a 2-3 bedroom house in areas north of sheffield might still be ‘only’ £40,000. And the rest.

And so, those who grew up optimistic in the 90’s, maybe had it too good. or too easy. Previous generations had it easy in comparison. Even those in the 1990’s, at least they had hope. In the main.

Fast forward to today. All the things that might have been an issue for teenagers in the 80s or 90s are still there, but multiplied. There’s double the advertising on TV with its 40 extra channels, online and on screens – with all the worry about life and expectation this causes. The News is an always open door to constant fear. The financial cut backs are extraordinary and yet the expectations on young people are higher – or shall i say the expectations on schools to be performing and have high performing pupils is greater than ever. To the point that those left behind and being actually left behind, left out and notionally excluded. When outcomes and targets rule, then humanity and inclusion falls way short.

Then there’s the cut backs on all the funding for young people to actually get support to cope in this situation. mental health and social work budgets slashed, and open youth clubs eradicated all together. And it is left to the voluntary and faith sectors to pick up the pieces, but doing so whilst also competing for funding and being in a similarly perilous state. (whilst the budget for HS2 or trident is secure seemingly).

So – where does that leave the young person? – Does society view them as the victim in all of this? the oppressed even. 

Nope. If anything the young person is to blame for all this. Those bloody millenials ruining it for the rest of us. Generalise and blame thats the strategy of the media, but initiate self reflection on the current holders of power….

Blame the phone, not blame society that created that need, or the adults who foisted it into existence and made implicit demands on parents to pay for ‘an essential’.

So – what do we think young people are made of to cope in all of this? 

Well – not enough resilience for one. (hence all the resilience classes)

Not enough confidence ( hence all the ‘self confidence classes’)

And yes, these are needed. And not just for the teachers.

as if its all an individual young persons fault. Young people are having to cope with so much more than ever before, and doing so without the hope that things will improve. Society expects young people to cope within all of this. Its not surprising that so many struggle. What if it wasnt just about coping and surviving as a young person.

I wonder if young people might collectively rise up and challenge, critique and get passionate about the systems that are causing so much damage to them and their peers.

Things that help a young person, Goals, Self worth (ability + competance), Purpose and Value (Bryan, 2016) – if any of these start to be affected, then they will start to struggle. So, therapy might help to help a young person talk through coping through these. But fundamentally the sources of these things need to also be dealt with. Blame Neoliberalism, but a new system needs to be created – one that is more human/humane, and the rest. But if a young persons purpose and value is wrapped up in ‘things’ or ‘image’ or ‘popularity’ – then its no wonder that they are stressed, worried. But that isnt new – the only difference is the current speed of change or intensity. The main difference is fear caused by the news, inequality between rich/poor, deficiencies in the education system (especially 16+) but also the efficiency drive, and also limited hope economically – where only the strong might survive…

What might young people be expected to be made of?

Filters that are sensitive to fake news

Resilience to cope with oppression, abuse and uncertainty

An internal buoyancy to be able to react positively to fear

An innocence of humanity to see beyond divisive politics

A Hopefulness of spirit to maintain motivation in school

A self confidence to be both an individual and like everyone else

To be able to glide effortlessly through being a teenager, ready packaged and prepared for the ‘breeze’ that is ‘being an adult.. or alternatively – does any of this really change that much…

Teenagers – Adults, we might need to learn about how they cope with it all, we might need the same lessons. Well pretty much anyone working within ‘people’ related jobs has had to sharpen up their armour in the last 10 years. Coping working with humans and enabling their flourishing in a neo-liberal world, from teachers, nurses, social workers, youthworkers (if any are left) – all subject to ridiculous efficiency, cuts and demands, outcomes – all to the exclusion of breadth, inclusion, time and care. All to the exclusion of the purity of professions and vocations and just bad management and policies. Its no wonder young people are blamed, for to say that society has a responsibility – might mean funding those who work with them properly.

If young people don’t trust adults, who could blame them? 

Young People might have a pretty odd feeling towards adults at the moment. If we’re honest just look at us, then think for a moment, that it would be much of a surprise if young people were more forceful in deciding that they would make a better job of it all.

Last week, young people it was said have started articulate that they hoped social media – a digital platform created by adults to communicate (and make money) hadnt been invented, this report was here, albeit the same size was pretty small. But even so, its a world created by Adults, that young people have to be taught to avoid its pitfalls. marvellous. I can see why some young people would want it not to be there at all. Image result for Social media

Then there is everything else in society created by adults, that young people have to ‘have resilience’ to cope with – so the pressures of advertising, body image, looks, wealth, fame and popularity. This is extrapolated in TV, Film and the Internet.

Then there’s the adults who have created the structures in society – not just ‘teachers’ – but that teachers themselves are subject to notorious outcomes, targets, inspections and policies on education in a 4-5 yearly repeated cycle of change upon change, that leads to favourite teachers leaving, uncoordinated new exam criteria, and pressure. Young people are well aware that it is adults in the form of the government, local school education trusts and local councils who decide these things. None seem to be in the benefit of the people of the institutions, teachers or pupils, just targets.

Then theres the adults who voted for Brexit. The chaos this has caused, costs and uncertainty, and the adults who made this a reality and pushed for it. From the perspective of many young people – some of this might have been the last straw. Many many young people were let down. On a differnent but as contentious issue, the adults who created a system that means that jobs and houses might be in short supply in 10 years time.

And speaking of adults in politics, theres a good few young people who think, and might be right in thinking that they could do a better job of being a human person in the role of US president right now.

Then theres the press, all run by adults, trying to make young people (aka millenials) also the perpetrators of all ‘that was good’ before. Creativity and boundary pushing is seen as rebellion. The press, who very rarely write or speak of young people in a positive way, and cause adults to belief untruths about young people. Image result for Millennials

Then there’s the adults closer to home. The parents who argue about finances because jobs are harder to come by, the parents who drink and get violent. The parents who find parenting difficult in this same age.

For some young people it is the adults who weren’t there, when the young person was in care, the adults who abused, neglected or rejected. The adults who couldn’t cope themselves. As a result, the only supportive adult might have been someone ‘paid’ to do it, well meaning but paid.

Its no wonder so many, including young people, and their voices of struggle are being heard on world mental health day yesterday.

If I was a young person growing up, I would find it hard to not make the point that adults have done a good job at making growing up in the UK a difficult task. Id wonder whether it would be worth listening to the next ‘well-meaning’ adult, when adults seem to have created a world to grow up in that for many young people is one to have to navigate, rather than enjoy.

As adults, even well meaning youthworkers, we might do well to reflect on how young people might view the world that they grow up in and how even as we might help them reflect on it, we might have to admit some culpability. From helping social media to grow, become important, from using the house price market ourselves, or not standing up to the challenges in policies that promote inequality, education formation and school direction.

If i was a young person i might find it difficult to fully want to trust an adult at the moment, theres not many setting a great example, or one they can trust. As adults, even yes adults in the church (who have created similar systems) have to acknowledge that these inhibit rather than help young people to flourish, yet at the same time created a world where it is acceptable to blame young people for society’s ills.

Its now wonder young people might just sigh, when we suggest a ‘new’ initiative to control, entertain or engage them. They might just not trust us for it to last, just like the last lot didnt work, stick around or last.

Fortunately young people will keep trusting, like we all do, until we find someone or a cause we can believe in, that offers hope and meaning. Until then, Im not surprised or wouldnt be if young people just formed their own groups, communities and societies and created their own world and only let adults involved when theyd built it in a way that an adult couldn’t ruin it. Its no surprise that I am seeing young people have a greater desire to vote, and a greater desire to volunteer, and to be politically involved. The tide might be changing and young people want a bigger say in the world, as they dont trust that adults are trusted to be able to. They might just take matters into their own hands, with the drive to want things to be different.


Questions raised for Youthworkers by ‘HyperNormalisation’

If you havent seen Adam Curtis’s film ‘ Hyper-normalisation’ do so. Its on BBC i player, and a link to it is here:, you’ll need a strong coffee, a comfy seat and a large dose of concentration to get through all 136 Minutes of it, but if being a politically, worldly aware youthworker is your curse, then its worth it

.Image result for hypernormalisation

An overview of it is provided here:

In 136 Minutes Curtis takes his audience on a monologue containing arresting images of the significant political, economical, social and technological order of the last 40 years, since 1975. The key message being that the presented reality on the screen is different to real life, and that these messages have veered towards the simple narrative of the world – hiding its complexities. I am not going to be able to the whole documentary justice here, and make no excuse for avoiding trying to. Having watched it yesterday, it has caused me to reflection on it and ask some critical questions for youth work and youth ministry in the culture in which hypernormalisation is said to occur.

  1. Did the church adopt the ‘simple message’ narrative – ie was this formed from within such a media infested culture that this shaped the type of evangelism, and descriptions of Jesus that have been unnecessarily simple, reducing myth, mystery and complexity.
  2. Who might youthworkers and youth ministers need to actively seek to communicate to – if they might only be in an echo chamber of their own voice? After all, there’s no point in me writing this, or other blogs if no one who might need to hear it is hearing it. Should the voice of youthworkers be in The Church Times, or TES for example? and not ‘just’ in its own publications (CYP Now, Youthwork magazine)
  3. How might we promote authenticity in a world of falsehood, and false realities – where ‘even’ news is manipulated by media organisations, editors and the pursuit of ratings figures and narratives.
  4. How might young people be guided into discernment and also to be rewarded and empowered to critical thinking, that frees and liberates them above the presented lies that make life a simple but pressurised race for popularity.
  5. How might youthworkers enable young people to think about the grey areas of complexities in situations, when simple responses (such as ‘no one has jobs because of immigration’, or if we topple dictatorial leaders democracy will ensue) are presented? One of the simple maxims being that if young people go to university they will get a job…
  6. The Occupy movement and its other social media equivalents were criticised for galvanising a collective of people against something, and even how to order a new reality – but couldnt fill a vacuum with what a new reality actually stood for. If we’re keen for young people and youth work / youth ministry to be for a common good – or the Kingdom of God then this higher reality needs to be realised somehow in the everyday practices and galvanised protesting.
  7. 136 minutes felt a very long time in a world of immediate tweetable soundbites. But tweetable soundbites relay simplicity, set up arguments only for them to be shot down. It took a long time for something to be considered in depth, and even then was pretty light on theories. Theres something about value, attitude or belief change that might require a similar amount of comparative longevity – but whilst short term projects are what young people are ‘exposed to’ then transformation might only be surface or behavioural.
  8. Taken together the Media and Film have captured that fear can be heralded and a nation can become frightened as a result. Narratives of fear are rife, see headlines in the Daily Express or Mail.
  9.  There is a need for Narratives of Truth, that are real in a culture that is presenting unreality as truth, and an unreality that is so distinct from the day to day. It’ll be a tough gig to deconstruct simplified arguments without a truthful reality to embed them. There could be nothing more prophetic to recognise those who have spoken truth to power, and those who embody truth in their very essence. The authentic kingdom orientated gospel of Jesus might, you never know, be prophetic right now.

I am acutely conscious of this post, and all the others, of just another piece of information that gets circled around an echo chamber, one or two of my friends, a few youthworkers and like minded people will read it. Genuinely, by the end of the week if 10 people read this post i will be astounded. But it is symptomatic of the echo chamber, that many pieces of information or insight barely cross over to others.

Fortunately, the work of the youthworker is more grounded, as What we do in the conversations with young people is create moments of influence in other peoples circles of influence too, on the ground, not just via social media. This is the space where true dialogue occurs, where truth can be found. Is everything else just presented as truth?