In December of 2021, the Surgeon General released an advisory article on Protecting Youth Mental Health. Research shows us that mental illness and distress has increased rapidly in adolescents since the beginning of the pandemic. Rates of depression and anxiety among our young people have nearly doubled, now 1 in 5 report experiencing symptoms of depression, and 1 in 4 experiencing anxiety. Rates of suicide attempts “were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 20191.” Other research saw an increase in irritability, impulsivity, feelings of loneliness, fear, and stress. Even disordered eating saw an increase during the COVID-19 era2.
This begs the question: how do we begin to aid our children, our students, our brothers and sisters in Christ? How do we show them the love and heart of Christ in the midst of anxiety, depression, and loneliness?
The first way that a person can engage with a student in regards to their mental health is to actively and intentionally listen. James 1:19 commands us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.” In using this guide from Scripture, we are able to create a safe space for feelings to be felt, to know that their feelings are not a burden, that their emotions will not be punished.
In our world today, listening is often rushed, distracted, and self-centered. We are more often slow to listen, quick to talk, and quick to become angry. In being quick to listen according to the Gospel, we put our desires, our needs, and our agenda aside in order to be attentive and patient with someone in their time of hurt, feelings, and vulnerability. We show people that their feelings matter when we create the space to listen to what they have to say. The enemy tempts us to attack and lash out; the Gospel tells us to be quick to listen.
While this is a difficult practice to begin, good listening is an act of love and grace to those around us.
A second opportunity to aid teenagers in their mental, spiritual, and emotional journey is to encourage them to be connected with a community. Community is vital for an adolescent’s social development, as well as aiding in identity formation, interpersonal communication development, and social support. Healthy community brings a sense of connectedness and a sense of meaning, as well as allowing for a safe space for feelings to be felt. Youth need to know that they feel cared for and wanted by the people around them3. To be seen, known, and loved in the midst of vulnerability and hurt.
In the same way, adolescents desperately need to find a Gospel community to be involved in. When I think of a Gospel-centered community, I think of Galatians 6:2, where Paul tells us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Gospel-centered community and the concept of doing life together with other believers allows for not only the emotional needs of a person to be met but spiritual needs as well. The Church and the family are to be the spiritually and emotionally safe space our students need. Gospel-centered community points us back to Christ in the midst of pain. The enemy tempts us to fix it on our own, or go alone; the Gospel gives us the freedom to feel in community.
We are not called to do life alone, and community in Christ allows us to encourage, love, and be vulnerable.
POINT THEM BACK TO THE TRUTH
We have an opportunity to encourage our youth in the midst of their struggles through the truth of the Gospel. This is not a truth of “pray more and worry less” or “have enough faith.” The Bible does not shy away from those who have mental and emotional turmoil (Ps 25:16-18, Job 6, Ps 6:1-6, Ps 55:1-8). Jesus leaned into his community during times of pain (John 11:35, Luke 22:44). Through the Gospel, we can point back to the truth that God is near to those who are brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18). Christ takes our burdens and calls us to only carry what he chooses (Matthew 11:28-30). He is our great counselor in our deepest pain (Ps. 16:7). He counts the tears of His people (Ps 56:8). This validates the mental struggles of our adolescents and creates space to know that God is not separated from our emotions. He knows and deeply cares about our feelings. Pointing them back to the truth allows for them to know that their feelings are valid, and there is space for healing.
Whether you are a pastor, a parent, a youth worker, or a friend, we can love our teenagers through a challenging time in life. The struggle of being a teenager today is complex and merits our attention and prayer. It is okay to not be okay. Listen. Love. Create space. Encourage community. Point them back to Christ. Show them that they are not alone in their struggles. Let’s help them learn what to do when they feel overwhelmed emotionally.
“Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28