I have come to understand that God has given the church a responsibility to not just care for kids who have it all together, but also, and maybe especially, for those who find it hard to cope or need that extra bit of encouragement and support.
When it comes to a young person with a mental illness, we can often feel unsure at what to say or how to respond to what we see. I believe that we can better equip and inform ourselves to assist young people in our churches who have mental health issues.
There exists a huge opportunity to show young people what God's grace looks like in the midst of suffering, but all too often we can exchange it for the simple and ineffective "Just pray about it." I have sat with many young people for whom this strategy is often received with grace but is starkly missing the mark of what the young person is truly crying out for.
As a probationary psychologist with a lot of interest in young people and a heart that longs to follow Jesus and represent him well, I've come up with 10 tips to equip and inform others how to interact and mentor those with a mental illness.
1. Do not try to be the young person's Saviour. You can't be. Be as clear as you can with the young person about the fact that you are human, you make mistakes, you have some of your own struggles and that means that you can only help them so much. You will probably let them down at one stage or another, so you can't be their Saviour. Don't even try. Point them to Jesus as the one who will never fail them and the one that they can trust in and look to at any time, over and above you.
2. Find out about the mental illness that the young person is experiencing. Google it, or ten times better, search for a factsheet from the APS or APA. Find out what the symptoms are, how people experience the disorder/difficulty, and recognise the tendencies or behaviours associated with it. Whether it's Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar or Aspergers, there are so many resources out there that may help you to understand what the young person is experiencing.
3. Do not limit God by saying that mental illness isn't something God can't heal. Also, do not downplay the role of good quality psychotherapy for a young person's mental health. God can heal anything. Sometimes he heals us by showing us where we have been deceived in the ways that we think. Don't fall for the lie that psychology is a bad thing. Sure, there are some bad psychologists out there, but there are also some really good ones who can provide help. Psychologists are generally fantastic at helping us to look at our thinking and see how that impacts our behaviour. They can also really help us to process things that have happened in our lives. Your pastors should have lists of Christian psychologists or counsellors that you can recommend if you need to. God can heal, but often the healing of our minds is something that God does beautifully over a period of time.
4. Be genuine. Do not be fake with your young person. They will see straight through it. The thing that young people will appreciate most is genuine, real and authentic care, not fake, fast and 'fixing' care. They don't want to be "fixed" by you, they just want to be loved, listened to and cared for. Share your story with them, be vulnerable and show them what walking with Jesus looks like, even through the darkest of places. If you're considering just saying "pray, it'll be ok", think about whether prayer in addition to psychological help or a practical form of support is necessary.
5. Be in contact with the child's parents. Find out about how they are coping and how they would like you to support them and their child. Get on board with their care plan if they have one. Acknowledge the hard work of the parents and validate their efforts to care for their child. It's tough for you, but it's probably tougher for them!
6. Learn not to take things personally. If you recognise a behaviour that is a symptom of the mental illness and it hurts you or seems like an attack on you (eg. they ignore you or speak harshly to you), recognise it for what it is, and attribute it to the deceptive thinking this person is experiencing. They may not recognise it, and their thinking will generally be very egocentric (young people are typically very self-centered, expect it), but try not to take it personally. Direct your anxiety or anger into prayer, and remember that your task is to love the young person and point them to Jesus.
7. Make sure you're caring for yourself. Have your own mentor and make sure you debrief about anything you need to. Find the activities that are fun and relaxing for you and take the time to do them! Spend time on your own with God. He's the reason why we put in all the effort that we do, and he gives us the grace to keep serving him. Always come back to his word and be refreshed by it. Jesus took time out to be alone with his Father, so we should too.
8. Don't be afraid to challenge the young person. You don't need to be harsh or reveal exactly what you're thinking, but if you see irrationality in the way that they are thinking or behaving, gently reframe the situation in an attempt to show them a different way of thinking. Give them options in thinking. They don't have to choose negativity, and they don't have to choose what is habitual to them. What you need to do is give them options and set an example of healthy, Godly thinking.
9. "Positive Thinking" is an inefficient strategy. Although generic "positivity" can be good, it does not compare with trusting in God wholeheartedly. After all, not every situation in life should be thought about positively, but rather, realistically. We encourage "positive" thinking and behaviour, but moreso, we encourage Godly thinking and behaviour. Don't fall into the trap of encouraging "positivity" over trusting God. Young people will often have tried "positive thinking" before they come to you.
10. Don't be distracted by "doing", to the point of disregarding "being". Often all that young people want is to be listened to. They want someone to understand. We may not understand, but we know that Jesus does. Sitting silently with someone can be one of the most effective forms of care, yet we so often want to give them all the answers, fix them or race in by changing the subject. Listen, and show that you're listening. Don't be uncomfortable with silence, but recognise that just being with and staying with a young person can mean the world to them. Use the silence to pray for them or even take time to offer to pray with the young person.
The question was once asked: "Does God love people who are crippled? If he does, why doesn't he heal them?" The answer someone gave was: "We are all crippled in some way or another, some are crippled emotionally, some physically, but all of us have a crippling problem with our heart. Ultimately, God has taken action against that because that is our biggest problem."
Sarah Young is completing her Masters in Clinical Psychology and loves spending time engaging with young people. She spends her spare time writing songs, running and going on adventures with her husband, James.
Sarah Young's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sarah-young.html