Youth Mental Health

I have just finished a conversation with my Youth Pastor about a specific case of youth mental health. His insight and understanding is really high, but the complexity of the issue we are discussing is still overwhelming. I realise that within our case discussion we are trying to segregate what is normative identity formation, typical adolescent ‘issues’ and a distinctive mental health problem. It strikes me that despite the significant amount of specialist knowledge we share, this is no simple task.

I made a bold statement at a conference for youth leaders recently when is said, “You cannot be an effective youth worker in 2012 if you do not have at least a rudimentary understanding of the mental health problems that young people face today.” Yet this morning I stand even more strongly convinced that this is true. I reconsider the case we had been reviewing and note that a ‘typical’ Christian approach to this young person’s challenges might include confession and thought suppression, both of which could hinder their recovery and be supremely unhelpful despite also being spiritually unnecessary.

A Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health article- published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry showed that: The prevalence of anxiety and depression in British 15 year olds has increased by 70% within the last 25 years. The World Health Organization warned that the fastest growing mental health problem in the world, (particularly in The West,) is amongst teenagers.

Sadly there is still a huge amount of misinformation about adolescent mental health in the public sphere, and in the churches to which we belong. Many people correlate the ‘innocence’ of youth as some sort of priori vaccination against what they see as essentially an ‘adult’ problem. This is the basis for much of the stigma related to mental health in general; where the assumptions made about people with mental health problems are often that they are either messed up, weak or are somehow responsible for their conditions.

The Annenberg Foundation Trust and Oxford University Press have said about adolescence in, Treating and Preventing Adolescent Mental Health Disorder: “The unique aspects of this developmental period have enormous implications not only for mental health and disorder among young people but for adults as well. Adolescence is a critical period of development characterized by significant changes in brain development, endocrinology, emotions, cognition, behaviour, and interpersonal relationships. This period of life is a transitional period of development that is foundational but also noticeably malleable and plastic from a neurobiological, behavioural, and psychosocial perspective.

From a mental health perspective, adolescence is important because most of the major mental disorders begin not in childhood but during adolescence. After onset in adolescence, many chronic mental disorders carry over into adulthood, leading to ongoing significant mental health impairment during the adult years. “

Christian youth workers have a unique opportunity to play a large part in actively promoting the mental wellness of the young people of this nation. This is something that in on Jesus heart since he spoke the words of Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me...He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”

The irony of me writing this is that many youth workers across the UK are already having an incredibly positive impact on the mental health of the young people they are working with. Who can measure the preventative value of community, affirmation, interaction, conversation, routine, expression of feeling, creativity, sociability, nurture and value on adolescent mental health? Who can measure the impact of The Gospel, which I believe to be the greatest transforming force in the universe.

At the same time, a little knowledge goes a long way in mental health. The reality is that not all issues can or should be addressed unguided or unaided by Mental Health professionals or NHS GP’s. Many young people do require treatment that may include medication, CBT, psychotherapy or even residential support. Youth workers are at the cutting edge where signposting and early referral can make a huge difference to the recovery times that a young person may face. We also need to be aware that our work in this arena can be one of life or death. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that in the 15-19 age group, six people per 100,000 in Britain killed themselves in 2008. According to The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, there has been a significant decline in teen suicide over recent years, however, for any parent, family or church the loss of any life is a life too many.

What do I pray for? I pray that through reading this youth workers would feel encouraged that they are already ministering into a place of great need, and generally doing a great job. However, there is more to learn and through some intentional study, training and partnerships we can have an even more profound impact for Jesus on the lives and wellbeing of the young people we are ministering too. Could your next talk be on depression, stress or self harm? What would Jesus say? How can you support a friend in need? What steps are appropriate and who should take the conversation forward?

Bless you on the journey,

Will

Will Van Der Hart, 13/06/2012