Supporting young people when they’re suffering

Aaron Rosales | Mar 4, 2021

As youth leaders and parents, we’re alarmed and concerned by the challenges young people have faced with mental health and suicidal thinking this year. We reached out to psychologist Aaron Rosales, co-author of Faith in an Anxious World, and asked him to share his insight on how caring adults can support young people when they’re struggling.

Each day brings new challenges for young people. The constant force of change is enough stress to drive anyone into an anxious spiral—including those who support them. Yet teenagers and young adults are remarkably resilient. In the midst of life’s pressures, they form and grow into their own unique identity. Because of this unique window of identity formation, the transition from adolescence to young adulthood is a particularly important season when all sorts of life lessons are learned in school, social, and work spheres.

While navigating so many changes has always come with a double portion of growth-promoting stress, today’s young people have an extra helping. American Gen Z has come of age in a period of history when uncertainty and unrest have reached new heights. Many born into a post-9/11 world have never known a peace-time America, and the troubles at home have only compounded through two periods of deep economic hardship. This generation of young people has seen the explosion of technology and even been labeled “digital natives.” Their youth is markedly more stressful than any other generation in recent history.

And of course, what was already a generational pressure-cooker got dialed up to high by a global pandemic.

A stress-filled generation

The numbers bear out this troubling reality. All indicators point to Gen Z experiencing greater levels of stress and its consequences than other generations. And now in the face of COVID-19, Gen Z reports greater increases in distress than all other age ranges. The pandemic has been tough on us all, with 20% of American adults reporting experiencing worse mental health this past year—however, this generation’s experience of COVID-19 related disruptions was layered onto already heightened worry about rising suicide rates, #metoo, racial justice, climate change, and so much more.

As a result, 30% of young people acknowledged 2020 was a worse year for their mental health than 2019, and so far, 2021 holds more of the same. It is even more striking when we look at reports of the most common depression symptoms; nearly 3 out of every 4 young people are experiencing some of them[1]. The stress is catching up—and wearing us all down.

A number of theories explain this painful reality. One compelling possibility (which resonates with us all) is that social disconnection compounds stress. Especially for young people who are not able to physically go to school, sports, church, or work, social disconnection has been profound. At a time in life when peer connection holds particularly high value, Gen Z is reporting feeling so socially disconnected that 80% say they could have used more support in the past year[2]. Now, combine this lack of support with being trapped at home—where many experience additional relational distress. Young people are more overwhelmed and feeling more alone than ever. With continued uncertainty about their future, the nation’s future, and even the future of the world, the pain sometimes becomes too great to bear. Resilience is about “bouncing back,” but what if the crisis endures for years?

We who love and serve young people must do more. In the midst of this health and ensuing mental health crisis, there are several simple steps you can take to support the young people in your life.

Be a role model

Let’s start by acknowledging that this pandemic has been hard on us all. Even before the past year, we’ve all had our ups and downs in life—they’re natural and simply part of what it means to be human. When we deny our own hardships, struggles, doubts, and mental anguish, we shut down the conversation with a teenager before it even begins. So step one is to acknowledge your own feelings as an adult and the stress you carry in your own experience.

When you talk of stress and mental health with young people, be aware of how you describe emotional suffering. Do your best to avoid terms like “crazy,” and attempt to use person-centered language when talking about someone’s mental health. For example, “David experiences bipolar moods” instead of “David is bipolar.”

It helps to acknowledge our own ups and downs when we talk to young people. It might not always be appropriate to share the full picture of our mental health (students don’t need to add our concerns on top of theirs), but describing “highs and lows” of daily life communicates that you are a safe person to talk with about emotions. Think of it like leaving your office door open: if you avoid talking about emotions and minimize emotional pain, your office door is closed and no one will pop in to talk. Acknowledging your feelings and sharing appropriately is like opening the door for conversation.

Listen for emotion

When conversations begin, make sure to actively listen for emotion. Hearing the content of what young people are sharing is important. Knowing the details of their lives and passions fosters trusting relationship. However, ask yourself what is being spoken between the lines. How are they feeling about their circumstances—nervous, afraid, excited, sad, lonely? Try to set aside the assumptions you have about how you might feel or even how their peers might feel. Listen for the changes in tone and pace. Listen for where their voice catches.

Also be willing to hold the silence and listen to what it is communicating. Then, muster your courage and reflect their emotion back to them: “That sounds so overwhelming and hopeless sometimes.” Don’t worry, if you miss the mark too much—they will let you know.

Don’t force it

In the embrace of your courage and willingness to reflect back difficult emotions, don’t push too hard. It may be fair to assume that all young people are under great levels of stress right now and that many are carrying painful experiences. Yet their readiness to talk cannot be controlled. In your conversations, ask questions that assume worry, sadness, and all manner of stress, but be ready to take answers at face value. Instead of asking, “How are you?,” try “What are you carrying this week?” It may be nothing, or it may be the invitation they need to lay down their burden for a moment.

Not problems to be solved

In the same vein, when young people do share their emotional burdens with you, remember to continue listening for the emotions and not the problem. It is easy to be consumed by the problem that we perceive as causing their distress. We humans have very powerful problem-solving brains. Yet working too hard and too fast to get rid of pain and to solve the problem risks reinforcing that sense of disconnection.

Our young people are not problems to be solved. The first, best thing you can always do is to listen and to be there with them. Be willing to enter the chaos and the void, and to be a pinprick of light in the darkness. Only once you are able to offer your presence in the midst of the pain should you ask them how you can be a support.

When the pain is too great

Sometimes pain is too great to bear. Suicide is too often deeply misunderstood; thoughts of death and suicide are simply the end result of unbearable pain. It is the longing for the end of suffering—which resonates with us all.

Statistics vary widely depending on who you ask and how you measure, but even recent 2019 data indicates that 12% of young people (ages 18-25) describe having some thoughts about death offering an end to their suffering[3]. We must not be naive or let our own discomfort with death and suicide come in the way of extending a hand to those in the depths of despair.

Talking about suicide creates a sacred space where the questions of life, meaning, pain, and hope are central. We have a suffering Savior, who is present with us in this sacred space. Having these conversations is not easy. Still, asking a young person if they “are having thoughts of ending their life,” with compassion and openness, can be one of the most important questions you ever ask them. Take comfort in knowing that asking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. So if you are feeling the depth of a young person’s pain, do not hesitate to ask.

Tweet this: Asking a young person if they are having thoughts of ending their life can be one of the most important questions you ever ask them. If you’re feeling the depth of a young person’s pain, don’t hesitate to ask.

How we ask also matters. I like to say, “Given all of this pain you are holding, it’s not uncommon to have thoughts about death. Have you been having thoughts of ending your life recently?” This will be awkward, so here’s some homework: find a colleague and agree to practice asking each other this question until the awkwardness dissipates and compassion fills your voice.

You are not alone

Asking these questions and entering into young people’s pain is not easy. And asking the question better won’t resolve your questions of what to do with the answers. In fact, it can become all too easy to take their pain upon ourselves. So we, too, must remember that we are not alone.

Professionally speaking, when a young person shares thoughts about ending their life with you, it is time to seek additional support. It is not your role to formally assess the risk, be their secret keeper, or even to support them by yourself. Those of you in a position that requires you to make a mandated report for a minor find it can be helpful to acknowledge your limitations and the depth of your concern for them. More often than not, they have shared vulnerably because they are also concerned about their wellbeing. Following your local reporting laws, one helpful next step can be to involve the young person in taking action to get support. This might mean talking through how to get support from their guardian(s) or identifying other supportive family members. It can also involve empowering them to make a call to formal supports with your continued presence and guidance. It is never easy, but the more agency you offer and the more collaborative the process is the stronger your relationship will become.

If a young person is no longer a minor, you cannot compel them to meet with a professional, but if you have immediate concerns about their safety then Mobile Crisis Teams or simply 911 is your best option. (At the end of this article are some helpful resources to extend to young people.)

Everything in between abstract thoughts of death and clearly imminent danger is admittedly murky and full of stressful uncertainty. But remember, as with any young person’s mental health concerns, you are not alone. When in doubt, seek consultation with a mental health professional yourself; it can help to have the language, to know helpful questions to ask, and simply to experience much-needed support for yourself.

Tweet this: Gen Z is experiencing greater levels of pandemic stress and its consequences than other generations. In the midst of this mental health crisis, here are simple steps you can take to support the young people in your life.


Resources:

  • Emergency Services: 9-1-1
    Ask for a mental health trained officer. They are not always available, but can make a world of difference.
  • Mobile Crisis
    These teams are special mental health emergency response units that are available in some cities around the country. Numbers vary, so look up your local information.
  • Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741
    The Steve Fund Crisis Text Line offers support as a means to improve the critically needed access for young people of color to crisis counseling. Text “STEVE” to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
    Visit the website for phone number or to chat online.
  • Columbia Protocol: https://cssrs.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/Community-Card-Friends-and-Family-2020.pdf
    Information about the questions you can ask or what types of questions will be asked by professionals. Or download the “Columbia Protocol” app for mobile.

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


Our 4-week curriculum series can empower you with language and tools to respond to 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 world. See and name the pressure that builds in and around us.
  • Life in a relational world. Build a circle of support for both good times and bad.
  • Life in a hurting world. Know when our feelings become more than we can handle on our own.
  • Life in a hopeful world. Recognize God at work in our anxious world.

Find out more

Aaron Rosales

Aaron Rosales is a co-founder of Brio, a nonprofit that designs and launches mental health solutions in vulnerable communities through local partnerships. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University counseling center.

Aaron has a wealth of expertise in clinical and research psychology honed through working with universities, churches, community organizations, humanitarian aid workers, clergy, police departments, and victims of violent crimes. He is passionate about promoting mental health in populations with a wide gap between need and resources. Through both research and clinical practice, he provides the mental health expertise that to partner organizations.

His background includes clinical psychology training at the University of Connecticut, Yale Child Violent Trauma Center, Azusa Pacific University, and Psychology Resource Consultants. In a couple of weeks he will receive his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary where he also received a M.A. in Theology after graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from Columbia University.


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