Two years ago, I spoke to one young woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder as part of my research into discipleship and depression. After this woman had received her diagnosis, some well-meaning but ill-informed members of her church instructed her to pray and read the Bible more. Because of their advice, she said, “I was always wrestling with whether it was spiritual warfare.” This spiritualization exacerbated her mental health struggles, adding on a religious component to her symptoms, including compulsive prayers and other spiritual practices to gain God’s favor and find healing. When it comes to accompanying young people through mental health challenges, I know the church can do better.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization had already identified depression as the leading cause of disability around the world. But the pandemic brought the mental health crisis into even greater focus, especially for young people who were isolated, adjusting to online education, and disrupted from their typical routines.
This alarming trend continues today. According to the 2023 Mental Health America Report, more than 16 percent of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 suffered from at least one major depressive episode in the past year — that’s over 2.7 million young people. In the U.S., most youth with mental health challenges do not receive any care. And recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Asian American youth are less likely to receive mental health care than other racial and ethnic groups. Young people on the margins are disproportionately affected by the ongoing crisis. Nearly 70 percent of LGBTQ+ students have experienced persistent sadness and hopelessness and almost half have seriously considered a suicide attempt. And Black youth are more likely to attempt suicide than white, Latine, and Asian American young people.
Schools across the country have drawn on federal funds to hire more psychologists and social workers, but the systems simply can’t keep up. In response to these dire reports, many churches have begun to ask how they can better support the mental health care of young people. After all, these are not just abstract numbers; these are young people in our congregations and local communities.
There are several factors to keep in mind as churches seek to faithfully accompany young people through mental health challenges.
Destigmatize, don’t spiritualize. While many congregations have done well in recent years to destigmatize mental health challenges, many people within our churches struggle to make sense of mental illness in relation to faith. There is often still a tendency to look for spiritual causes or solutions to mental health challenges in ways that are unhelpful and even harmful to young people, as my exchange with the young woman with OCD illustrates.
Recognize social factors. On the flipside of spiritualization, however, there is also the danger of thinking about mental illness strictly as a biomedical problem of chemical imbalances in the brain. It is true that a biological emphasis can provide great relief to young people who have been told their illness is the result of sin or a lack of faith, but this approach can also lead us to ignore the social factors that contribute to mental distress, including poverty and discrimination. Ironically, in our efforts to destigmatize mental illness, we may inadvertently be losing sight of our responsibility to stand against the social injustices contributing to this crisis. Rather than reducing mental illness to brain chemistry alone, recognizing the biological, psychological, and social factors leading to mental health struggles can help us begin to develop a more holistic and contextual response.
Practice active listening. In general, there’s always the danger of jumping quickly to provide answers or opinions without truly understanding what’s going on in the life of a young person. This is why it’s vital to practice active listening. Young people are theologians in their own right. Many of the young people in our congregations are already reflecting and asking questions about their mental health amid their spiritual journeys. In her book Dust in the Blood: A Theology of Life with Depression, Jessica Cobalentz says it’s the church’s responsibility to provide the theological and practical resources to support people in their first-person theologizing. What kind of support might we offer young people and those who accompany them as they theologize in the first person?
Learn the basics and know when to seek professionals. There are several practical resources available to help churches support struggling young people. For example, churches can encourage leaders and members to become certified in Youth Mental Health First Aid. This accessible program teaches the basics of mental health care for young people. Participants learn about common mental health challenges as well as an action plan for various situations. Church leaders can also use online resources, such as information provided by organizations like The National Alliance on Mental Illness, to educate their congregations about the prevalence and potential responses to the youth mental health crisis. There are also a number of helpful resources available for faith leaders through the American Psychiatric Association, which are particularly useful in discerning when to refer young people to mental health professionals.
These educational and informational resources can help congregations better understand not only how to accompany young people but how to advocate for them. Church leaders should become familiar with mental health providers in their area and outline practical steps to help young people and their caregivers access affordable and quality mental health care. Changing congregational cultures to respond rightly to this crisis requires listening well to young people, thinking holistically about the challenges they are facing, and educating ourselves to accompany them in their unique experiences.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, call or text 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or chat at 988lifeline.org.