Warning: This story contains a reference to attempted suicide.
It was 11:09 p.m. when she texted me: “You know when I said I was light-headed and that I always ask for help after it’s too late?”
As her youth leader at church, it was my job to mentor her. When I asked her how I could help, she told me she swallowed three handfuls of Prozac.
Fortunately, she recovered. But the incident reminded me of the responsibility I had as a youth leader, not much older than the teen who had contacted me for help. I believe churches should train their youth leaders to safely navigate relationships with teenagers who have mental health concerns. Spotting the signs, knowing who to call in an emergency, and how to talk to youth who may have witnessed or known about the crisis is crucial to the health of everyone involved.
The night of my youth’s suicide attempt, the best solution I could think of was to call Christiana Boucher, a child and youth worker who attended my church.
“You do have access to this vulnerable population, and they need to be handled delicately,” says Boucher, who also says it’s important for youth leaders to know who to contact to help young people in need.
Boucher has received training from safeTALK, a crisis prevention program aimed at de-escalating dangerous situations and recognizing behaviour that may lead to youth harming themselves. According to Boucher, some indications are voluntary isolation, drastic changes in behaviour, alternating dietary habits, an increase in self-deprecating language, and talking about taking their lives.
The teenager who texted me for help had shown three out of five of these signs in the weeks leading to her hospitalization — I just hadn’t understood the significance. A program geared toward identifying troubling behaviour could have helped me connect the dots.
I spoke with Ann Stocker, a registered psychotherapist and consultant for the mental health workshops hosted at Today’s Teens, a youth ministry training conference in the Greater Toronto Area. She says it is important to include parents in conversations about their youth’s behaviour and mental health concerns. However, it should not stop there.
“If a youth leader has concerns about youth, they should always recommend they go see their doctor,” says Stocker.
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Stocker’s advice to pastors is to invite mental health professionals to train youth leaders on the best practices to follow in a crisis. It is also important for a youth leader to understand the distinction of their role – that they are not therapists.
“If one is outside their scope of practice, that’s not helpful,” says Stocker. “It can be harmful.”
Today’s Teens has hosted suicide prevention workshops for 10 years, and has provided mental health training for five years, Stocker says.
As for specific church denominations’ approaches to mental health in their parishes, there are mixed methods to educating youth ministries.
Sheilagh McGlynn, animator for youth ministries in The Anglican Church of Canada, discusses youth mental health with the youth leaders she conferences with across Canada’s Anglican dioceses, spanning more than 30 across the country.
McGlynn, who also works as a psychotherapist, says she advises her youth leaders who attend meetings and conferences about mental health concerns. She reminds them that support could be calling a suicide hotline, encouraging them to attend therapy sessions, notifying professionals, or even driving them to the emergency room.
“Supporting a young person and being a therapist is very different,” she says.
But McGlynn says that while her job is to support youth ministry work, she doesn’t tell the diocese what to do. They have her as a resource, should they choose to seek help.
Amy Crawford, The United Church of Canada’s team leader of identity and mission, says in an email that many ministry personnel and youth leaders in the United Church have participated in Mental Health First Aid Canada’s training for adults working with youth. It teaches participants to assess the risk of suicide and/or self-harm, listen without judgment, give reassurance and encourage professional support. The course also offers crisis first aid skills, like what to do in situations of substance overdose, panic attacks and psychotic episodes.
“Supporting a young person and being a therapist is very different.”
To contribute to the spiritual support for mental health and wellness, the United Church has appointed the first Sunday of May Mental Health Sunday. Crawford writes that the United Church is developing a study guide for faith communities to have a theological basis for mental health and well-being. They are partnering with The United Church of Christ in the U.S. to adapt resources to help congregants struggling with mental health.
Various Catholic blogs and youth organizations also discuss mental health, available for their ministries to use at their discretion.
I think all national denominations should consult mental health organizations’ resources and develop training guidelines, equipping their ministries to serve, support and report in the best interest of their youth. If there is no uniformity in training youth leaders, there is no accountability, and no guarantee that youth are being protected.
These resources should be available to the public, so anyone seeking assistance, like non-denominational churches, can access lifesaving material for their congregations. I attended a non-denominational church that developed a partnership with a larger, Pentecostal church before operating independently once more. As an independent church, we did not pursue mental health resources or training. When we were tied to a Pentecostal church to look to for assistance, we did not receive resources from them either.
Our options were seeking our partner church’s guidance or training ourselves — neither of which we did before we found out our youth were self-harming.
To best serve its young worshippers, youth ministry should invest as much time in mental health as it does in evangelism, pizza parties and sex talks. It is just as important to bring young people to therapy as it is to bring them to Jesus.
If I had the opportunity to train with my youth pastor and fellow leaders, I would have more confidence in my decisions, and more peace in my heart, knowing we were doing everything we could to invest in young people’s lives.
No youth leader should have to struggle with an “if only…” moment when dealing with young people and their mental health. Let’s make sure they are ready.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, or someone you know is, call these services:
- Crisis Text Line: TALK to 686868
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
- Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
Below are resources to equip leaders navigating mental health:
Sherlyn Assam (she/her) is a freelance journalist, blogger, and philanthropy and nonprofit leadership master’s student living in Ottawa.
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