Why young people need mental health-friendly youth ministry

Laura Atwater Holliday Image Laura Atwater Holliday | Sep 8, 2023

Something changed during my senior year of high school. I started to feel different.

I snapped at anyone who questioned if I was feeling alright—mostly because I didn’t know if I was, and I was embarrassed that they could notice something was off. I told myself it was typical teenage angst about my final school year. But secretly, I knew that wasn’t it.

In reality I was spending much more time on the couch watching a little too much tv. I felt on edge around my family and friends. And I was no longer enjoying the things that typically brought me joy.

One day that summer, I went online to sign up for class registration day at the college I would be attending, but the date I wanted was already full. That situation shouldn’t warrant a major reaction—but I freaked out. I couldn’t stop myself from feeling like my world was caving in. My dad sat at the end of the bed and listened while I cried and told him about how I'd been feeling all through my senior year and up to this point. He carefully suggested that I was showing some signs of depression.

I remember feeling stunned. This was the first time anyone had used the word “depression” in relation to me. My dad suggested I go to a therapist, and I agreed. So just one month before I started my freshman year of college, I found myself diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressants.

I fought the diagnosis hard. I had only heard of depression from television advertisements. Nobody at church talked about depression or mental health, so I thought that real Christians were only supposed to experience joy. Being diagnosed with depression had a direct impact on my faith. I started to question everything I believed—and even, at times, God.

Teenagers (and their families) need mental-health-friendly youth ministry

My story isn't unique. Many teens and adults struggle to understand or come to terms with their mental health. It can be a sensitive subject to talk about—not just for students in our ministries but for ourselves, our volunteer leaders, and our students’ parents as well.

But just because the topic is uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean that we should stay silent. Our youth groups can support and faithfully disciple teenagers when they’re hurting, and nurture a ministry environment in which young people can be open about their struggles as they grow.

Here are 3 reasons why students need your ministry to be a mental-health-friendly space:

1. Young people need a gospel that speaks to their reality.

Sometimes it’s easy for us as youth leaders to preach about the things we care about and think are important. Many of us spent many years and thousands of dollars receiving theological training that we want to share—and should, in caring ways that are responsive to the needs of those we serve.

But to a 13-year-old who just found out that her parents are getting divorced, what matters more is that she knows that Jesus is there with her. She needs to know how the good news of Jesus can help her in this moment.

Depression and anxiety are on the rise. Within the decade between 2009 to 2019, the percentage of American teenagers that experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26.1% to 36.7%. Between 2019 and 2021, that number grew to 44.2%.[1] Researchers also found that “75% of all anxiety disorders” have developed by age 21, with the “median age of onset anxiety disorders” being 11 years old.[2]

These are numbers we cannot ignore. Many teenagers in our families and communities are hurting, and they need adults like us to care for them by normalizing their experience and providing them with tools to cope with their mental health. Our young people need to know that Jesus cares about them and what they’re dealing with.

2. Teenagers need tools that can help when they experience mental health flare-ups.

When I was experiencing undiagnosed depression in high school, my solution was to disassociate. The pressure and noise inside myself was too much, but I didn’t know what it was—let alone how to deal with it. So I wanted to live someone else’s life and not mine (which led me to become absorbed in the CW’s hit series “Gossip Girl”).

When our brains feel like black holes or experience repetitive negative cycles, it can be hard to break free. One of the best gifts you can give your students is practical ways to combat a spiral. A practice that can help is: “look up, look inside, look around.”

  • LOOK UP. We pause in the midst of anxious thoughts to look up, and refocus on God—by taking encouragement from the Bible, and talking with others who are walking in faith.
  • LOOK INSIDE. We look inward and reflect on where God is at work inside us—even in the midst of our struggles.
  • LOOK AROUND. We take a good look at the world around us so we can deepen the relationships that help us navigate it.

When students have tools to help them lean on their relationship with God in the midst of their mental health, they care for themselves like Jesus cares for them.

3. Jesus shows up for people where they're at.

One way I’ve heard anxiety or depression described is like a boat being tossed around during a storm. All that surrounds you is darkness, and you’re at the mercy of the waves. It feels like there’s no way out.

Mark 4:35-41, 6:45-51, and Matthew 14:22-33 are all examples of this description. Every time the disciples’ anxiety takes over, Jesus pulls them up, gets into the boat, and stays with them.

Countless times in the New Testament, Jesus is seen showing up for people where they are at. He doesn’t minimize their experience or fight them over their theology. Rather, he stops what he’s doing and sits with people in the midst of their realities and their pain.

During that first year of my diagnosis I denied my own reality, cried out to God to take this depression from me, tried to quit taking my medicine cold turkey, and so much more. It’s been nine years since I was diagnosed, and I still remain on medications. I’ve slowly learned that my mental health invites me to trust God more deeply. It reminds me that I'm human and God very much wants to walk with me in the midst of my realities.

In order to care for our students best, we need to create youth ministries that are mental-health friendly—because our students are hurting.

Our teens need to know that they aren’t alone. And that this person we always talk about, Jesus, cares about the pain they're in.

They need the church to understand what they're experiencing and provide practical tools so they can work through their mental health.

And they need us to care about their mental health. Because Jesus cares about their mental health.

Tweet this: When students have tools to help them lean on their relationship with God in the midst of their mental health, they care for themselves like Jesus cares for them.

Today's young people are anxious. Teach them they're not alone.

Faith in an Anxious World

Our 4-week multimedia curriculum will equip you with the tools you need to guide young people in your care, linking anxiety and depression with conversations about discipleship and faithful living. Together you’ll reflect on New Testament stories, watch Jesus enter into anxious situations with his disciples, and explore life in an anxious but hope-filled world.
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[1] Jones SE, Ethier KA, Hertz M, et al. Mental Health, Suicidality, and Connectedness Among High School Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic — Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, United States, January–June 2021. MMWR Suppl 2022;71(Suppl-3):16–21. DOI: http://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.su7103a3.

[2] Garcia, Iliana, and Jean O’Neil. “Anxiety in Adolescents.” The Journal for Nurse Practitioners 17, no. 1 (2021): 49–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nurpra.2020.08.021.

Laura Atwater Holliday Image
Laura Atwater Holliday

Laura Atwater Holliday is currently serving as FYI’s apprentice while she pursues her MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary. Originally from Bakersfield, Laura moved to Southern California to attend Azusa Pacific University, where she completed BAs in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministry. Laura is passionate about equipping teenagers and young adults in the journey of faith and caring for youth workers. She currently lives with her husband and their dog, Charlie, in Orange County.

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