Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about our mind or how healthy or unhealthy it is. In general, a well brain is something we expect. But more often than you might think, minds can become seriously ill. Debilitating depression, anxiety, schizophrenia… when we see people suffering from a severe brain sickness like these we tend to wonder what they did to get themselves to that state. We see the otherwise healthy woman who won’t get out of bed, that guy who walks the streets arguing with someone who isn’t there, the friend who won’t go to coffee for fear of crowds… and we often judge, imagining what they did to become ill so we can feel safe from it ourselves. We now know that a person’s choices are not what cause a mental illness to happen; the illness happens to them. An event, stressful situation or drug use might precipitate or exacerbate an illness but the illness is, even if it’s unknown to its host, already there.
It’s in your youth group
When someone has a mental illness it can be physically painful, isolating and even life threatening. It’s often devastating to their lifestyle and has a significant impact on their loved ones. It usually starts early. A mental illness begins, on average, at the age of 14. And it’s surprisingly common among high school and college students: 1 in 5 teeenagers have a mental health challenge each year. Whether you are aware of mental illness in your youth group or not, it’s probably happening right now to students who could use your guidance and support. Out of those who will find themselves struggling with a brain illness this year, about 20% will turn to a leader at church. Young people facing mental health issues often lack the language to talk about it in the same manner as adults. They may present with physical aches and pains, act out or exhibit impulsiveness and they may not have a clue as to what is happening to them. We need to be ready to help, so let’s talk about it!
Talk about mental illness
Mental illness is just that — an illness. Its when the organ in our skull, our brain, isn’t working correctly. Unfortunately we don’t talk about mental illness in such simple terms. Over dozens of decades we have built up powerful stigmas that turn the victims of mental illness into victims of societal rejection and ridicule. They feel inferior, guilty, hopeless and alone on top of their mental health symptoms. They are scared or embarrassed to bring up what they’re struggling with and so their help is delayed while their symptoms progress. Or, they don’t even know how to describe what they are feeling because no one has ever talked to them about what depression or anxiety or other mental illnesses look like. If you talk and teach about mental illness, students can recognize their symptoms early and know they can turn to you for help. Make opportunities to discuss mental illness at youth group and at home.
As s youth leader you can invite speakers, host discussion nights or seminars, or even discus mental health at youth group or Sunday school. Students and staff should understand mental illness and substance use not as spiritual weaknesses but as illnesses for which treatment is available. This will create an environment where people can approach leaders with their mental health struggles without fear of their concerns being dismissed or of being blamed for the illness.
For example, you can teach your youth group about what depression looks like in teens and what to do if they think they might be depressed. A friend of mine taught about depression and suicide the other day in Sunday morning youth group, along with Psalm 23. She said, “You should have seen the kids taking notes!” They had some really great discussion afterwards about seeking help early and preventative self care. What a smart move on her part!
Recognizing Mental Illness
If you notice any of these symptoms it may be an indicator of a mental health issue. Basically, make note of what seems to be out of context or inappropriate considering the situation:
- Sleeping too much, not interested in doing anything (especially things they used to enjoy), poor motivation, headaches, unexplained body aches, isolation, irritable, unable to concentrate, confusion.
- Sleeping too little, talking too much, too much energy, hyperactive, spending a lot of money, making ridiculously big plans.
- Bizarre ideas, poor hygiene, weird activities and behaviors, responding to voices or other internal stimuli, paranoia.
- Combinations of the above.
It’s treatable and you can help
Mental illness is treatable and people can recover to have meaningful and fulfilling lives. If you understand that it’s a real, physical condition and that becoming functional again can be a complex and long-term process, you might have the opportunity to be a significant partner in helping someone cope and recuperate. Appropriate treatment for a mental illness may include a wide variety of sources. Like links in a chain, significantly improving mental health for some will include exercise, sleep, nutrition, medications, talk therapy, faith practices, and understanding support from their community, friends and family. By providing emotional, spiritual and practical support you may be one of the most important links in a person’s mental health recovery .
Three ways you can provide support:
- Treat them with respect
- Give them consistent doses of hope
- Apply the practical help they need
If you find yourself talking to someone with mental health concerns, or you come upon someone in distress, what can you do to support them in that moment? If they are not in any immediate danger, try to have a private conversation with them where you listen and let them know they have your support. Speak slowly and clearly. Focus on empathy and compassion and don’t argue with them. Treat them with the respect you would give any other person. Remember that their feelings and thoughts are “real” to them even if they’re not based in reality. They’re still experiencing those feelings and thoughts and their experience matters. If you listen to them and treat them with respect, they are more likely to accept the help you offer.
The best help you can give is hope. It’s what they need most to face the emotional challenges of each day. Simply by leaning in, instead of away, you can lend hope. The love behind your acceptance, time and effort can bring them to understand that they’re worth it. That there is hope for them. That they can recover. Call them, visit them, take them for a walk, take them to coffee, send letters, pray for and with them and – most importantly – listen to them and give them moral support.
Mental illness is rarely something a person can recover from on their own, even though that’s often how they want to go about it. Remember that for people to get the help they need, they need to want the help they can get. Avoid force feeding help. Try to build a relationship of collaboration. You can sit next to them and work side by side as you ask them what their needs are and what might be the most important sources of help they can utilize. Have a list of resources and ideas for them to choose from. Giving them help they are not interested in is usually a step in the wrong direction; they have to want it.
One of the best means for progress for someone suffering from a mental illness is often help from a licensed mental health provider like a counselor or psychologist. They can sometimes offer clarity in the midst of confusion by diagnosing what specific brain illness is present and customizing a plan for moving forward. For example, they might be able to help them understand how their patient’s thoughts lead to feelings and feelings lead to behaviors, and how their behaviors reinforce their thoughts. In essence, why they feel the way they do. While seeking professional help may feel too scary to the person first experiencing mental illness, you can be a great bridge to connecting the person to this valuable source who can offer additional forms of help. Follow-up with them and remain connected.
One of the sources of help a clinician can provide is access to medications. Because mental illness is often a problem with the brain, it’s common that medications play an important, sometimes essential role in successful treatment. Some cases will not improve significantly without the help of medications. You can encourage people struggling with their mental health to be open to the possibility of medications and not to change or stop their dosage without getting advice from their mental health provider as doing so can cause dramatic and long term decline.
Hope is also given via physical service. When people are having a hard time functioning, even simple logistical difficulties can be overwhelming. This is true of any illness. Sometimes helping them with everyday tasks can help them move lighter and have hope in taking on the more difficult and important challenges of mental health recovery.
Is their mental illness a spiritual issue?
Remembering that mental illness is a brain issue and it’s entire causality is not a lack of character, spiritual weakness, or poor self-control, can keep you from the mistake of making simplified judgments of blame that are not only incorrect but can also be harmful – even if you don’t verbalize them. A mental health perspective might also help you avoid the error of pointing the person toward spiritual or cognitive tasks as a source of healing any more than you would someone who recently found they had diabetes or another organ malfunction. Remedies for mental illness that consist of scripture memorization or repentance, for example, are probably not only unproductive regarding their illness but they may waste some of the little strength or willingness the person has for seeking help. Quoting verses or biblical concepts that would be good applications for a healthy mind with related struggles, like “do not be anxious about anything” or “the joy of the Lord is my strength”, may leave the person feeling like they are failing spiritually. So, try to resist prematurely understanding a complex situation as entirely related to spirituality.
When you are helping someone through life and spiritual challenges who does not have apparent mental health issues always keep an eye out for issues that persist for several weeks. If they exhibit a sense of hopelessness and undiminished distress or additional areas of dysfunction, a referral to a clinical professional for an assessment should be made, as early intervention can decrease the severity of the illness and improve the chances of a full recovery.
Although it obviously should be discouraged, some are drawn to alcohol and drugs as a means of finding relief from the pain and confusion caused by a mental illness. They may not even be aware they are sick and trying to treat their mental health issue; they just like the break it gives them from the torment. So when you see a student turning to drugs you may be seeing someone with a mental illness mistakenly trying to help themselves. It’s much more common than you might think.
There are also drugs, if you will, that the body releases and some of the really good ones that help the brain are produced when we exercise. Even a brisk walk of 10 to 30 minutes a day can make a positive difference in mental health. In fact, you can always feel confident in advising someone to do three things for their mental health: eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise — every day.
You don’t need to wait for those who are dealing with a mental health concern to come to you. Reach out to families you know are struggling to show your support. You can also offer mental health screening to your youth group, congregation, or community, as early detection of mental illness can significantly reduce its severity and the person’s recuperation time. Pro-actively seek to serve those hurting because of their mental health.
Build a Network of Support
It is also wise to build good working relationships with those who may be able to offer help to those in need. Keep an ear out for therapists, discussion groups, doctors, and community services that are helpful and get them on your list of options for those you support.
High Risk Situations
If you encounter a person with an urgent mental health concern you should:
- Consider safety for yourself, the individual, and others
- Try to include a family member or friend if you think they might be helpful
- Find a private and safe place for all of you to talk
- Express your willingness to be there for the person
- Seek immediate assistance if a person poses a danger to self or others; call 911; ask if a person with Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training is available
This post doesn’t cut it
Youth leaders, parents and students all need to have adequate training in mental health and suicide prevention. It’s not yet a required standard in high school or for youth leaders and that’s why, currently, we need to be proactive to seek out good training. An excellent and typically free class is Mental Health First Aid. This course does include adequate training in suicide intervention but if you want more on that topic you might try the QPR Institute’s Gatekeeper course or the ASIST class by Living Works.
In our next post, Suicide prevention training, we are going to talk extensively about suicide. It is life saving information about how you can save a life or help someone through the darkest of times. Until then, I will tell you this about suicide: Suicide is preventable! Take any comments related to dying or suicide seriously. You can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), so the person can talk to an expert or so you can get advice on what to do or say. And lastly, know that it’s okay to ask if someone is thinking about killing themselves. Contrary to what you might think, it won’t “put the thought in someone’s head”. It will free them to talk about it and give them the option to seek help with your support.
Some specific wording was used with permission by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
This article and its supporting documents are intended for informational purposes only, with the understanding that no one should rely upon this information as the basis for medical decisions. Anyone requiring medical or other health care should consult a medical or health care professional.
This article was written by Craig Lomax along with the professional and expert oversight of: Erin Ambrose, Ph.D., LMFT; Angela Bymaster, MD; Brett Bymaster, Youth Director; Niranjan S. Karnik, MD, PhD; Mary Ojakian, RN; Victor Ojakian. It was originally prepared for Download Youth Ministry’s Youth Ministry 101 video training series:
- For helping those in need
- For learning more about how you can help
- SAMHSA’s Toolkit for Community Conversations About Mental Health
- Quick Reference Guide on Mental Health for Faith Leaders and additional resources for faith communities.
- Resources for Joining or Starting a conversation in your Community – Including local experts that can serve as guest speakers.
- Understanding Mental Disorders – Your Guide to DSM-5
- Culturally Competent Mental Health Pastoral Education Guide and Pastoral Education Workbook
- Additional Resources:
- Mental Health America
- National Catholic Partnership on Disability
- United Church of Christ Mental Health Network
- Interfaith Network on Mental Illness
- Pathways to Promise – The Way of Companionship
- PBS: Religion and Ethics Weekly
- NAMI FaithNet
- Celebrate Recovery
- Mental Health: A Guide For Faith Leaders https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/cultural-competency/faith-community-partnership
- SAMHSA: https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/PEP14-FAITHLTP/PEP14-FAITHLTP.pdf
- American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Quick Reference on Mental Health for Faith Leaders https://www.psychiatry.org/File%20Library/Psychiatrists/Cultural-Competency/faith-mentalhealth-quick-reference.pdf