Jarrod Hegwood was confident he knew how to counsel the students in his youth group. Then he got counseling and realized he had no idea.
“I learned that what I did was not counseling,” Hegwood said. “What I used to do as a student minister was called fixing people’s problems–telling them how to act and behave–and not helping them to understand themselves and grow personally.”
Hegwood learned a lot about himself while taking a seminary course on counseling and seeing a therapist. But his biggest revelation was about the importance of mental health professionals. He realized that as a youth minister, he wasn’t equipped to address the mental health challenges his students faced.
Across the country, youth pastors like Hegwood, who now runs a counseling center in Walker, Louisiana, in addition to continuing part time as a youth pastor, are starting to take mental health seriously and look for resources to help young Christians. This is due partly to a decline in stigma around mental health issues and partly to a concerning rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide in Generation Z (people born after 1997).
Anxiety disorders in adolescents increased 20 percent from 2007 to 2012. Today, 1 in 3 teens will experience an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health. The percentage of teens who experienced at least one major depressive episode increased rapidly at about this same time, and now 1 out of about every 5 girls reports experiencing symptoms. The suicide rate for young people ages 15 to 19 increased by 76 percent from 2007 to 2017 and nearly tripled for adolescents ages 10 to 14. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents, after accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Evangelical youth ministries are responding. They are getting creative and partnering with mental health professionals to get Gen Z the help and the resources that it needs.
Focus on the Family started discussing the need for more and better mental health resources after a tragedy hit close to home. Twenty-nine students died by suicide in a two-year period in El Paso County, Colorado, where Focus is located. Newsweek called the surge “an outbreak, a plague spreading through school hallways.”
Focus organized a team to develop resources on suicide. It discovered that most high schools and universities and some churches had suicide response protocols, but holistic suicide prevention programs for teens were scarce. Focus decided to produce its own materials and started interviewing people about teen suicide: youth pastors, parents (including those whose children died by suicide), teenagers, people affected by another’s suicide, and people who had attempted suicide.
Joannie DeBrito, director of parenting and youth at Focus and a licensed mental health professional, said that when her team asked interviewees about the causes of suicide, social media was “the No. 1 answer that everyone gave with no hesitation.” Experts think a number of biological, psychological, and cultural factors likely contribute to the dramatic increase in suicide and mental health issues, but they continue to debate social media’s impact.
At minimum, DeBrito said, there is a strong correlation to consider: Around the time that deaths by suicide began rising rapidly in 2007, the iPhone was introduced, people started using social media apps, and Facebook lowered its minimum age requirement to 13.
Hegwood agrees with the connection. He sees young people continually pulled to their phones and then emotionally battered by the experience of trying to connect with people in any meaningful way on social media. Sometimes students are encouraged “not to care what others think,” he said, but the adolescent brain is wired for community and rewards teens for the approval and acceptance of their peers. Once Hegwood understood this fact, it changed the way he did ministry.
“I really became aware of how important community is,” Hegwood said. “I feel like it’s almost as important as sound doctrine, because if I have a ton of sound doctrine but I don’t have a place where kids can connect, their brains are wired to go connect somewhere else.”
Seeking approval and acceptance from a healthy community can be positive, which is why Hegwood cultivates community among his students–off their phones. Focus’s suicide prevention resource, Alive to Thrive, which was released in 2018, suggests parents put clear boundaries on technology use, but also says suicide prevention should start with encouraging healthy social relationships and protecting children from abuse.
Today, an effective youth minister has to know when to refer someone to counseling, said Steve Johnson, vice president of Focus on the Family.
“The issues that kids are dealing with today are so complicated,” he said, “it often takes somebody with clinical expertise to help. . . . As an effective youth minister, one of your goals should be to have the discernment to know where to point a kid who’s dealing with issues that you can’t deal with.”
Hegwood didn’t always view counselors as partners in ministry. Before he became a counselor, he thought he had failed when he learned one of his students was in counseling.
“I felt like I didn’t meet that student’s needs somehow,” Hegwood said. “To be honest, I wasn’t equipped to meet that kid’s needs at the time. I wasn’t able to speak to him about what he was going through or where he was at.”
He began approaching mental illness like any other medical diagnosis among his students–a broken leg or cancer–that requires additional treatment. He thinks youth pastors are able to minister to their students holistically when they start to view mental illness this way.
“It’s okay to recognize our limitations,” Hegwood said. “If we don’t recognize our limitations, we’re not ministering to the people that God puts in our path as best we can.”
A LifeWay Research study shows that only 2 percent of Protestant pastors discourage people from going to counseling. Eighty-four percent agree churches should provide support to individuals with mental illness.
Kelsey Vincent, pastor to youth and families at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia, embraces that responsibility. She connected her church with Robert Vore, a Christian counselor in Atlanta who works with youth and provides training for churches on mental health issues.
Vincent invited Vore to a church event called “Lunch and Learn.” Vore spoke to students and parents about some signs that teens might be struggling with mental health and ways they can help one another. Later, when several students in the church had mental health crises, Vincent called Vore, and he guided her to ask the right questions.
“This happens anywhere I give a talk at a youth group or college ministry or anything like that,” Vore said. “I end up hearing from staff pretty soon after that they are having conversations they’ve never had.”
Those conversations may mean Gen Z Christians get directed to mental health professionals when they need them. But increased awareness of mental health concerns also opens new possibilities for ministry. Hegwood realized this when he was getting counseling himself for the first time.
“I had been doing student ministry for a decade at that point,” Hegwood said. “What I was personally going through–going to see a Christian counselor–was more like discipleship than anything I’d ever been through in my church life. And I grew up in church.”
Hegwood said he knew, for example, that 2 Corinthians 10:5 says to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” But he didn’t have a good way to do that until his counselor taught him how to become aware of his thoughts and feelings, so that he could challenge them at times.
Vore says learning to deal with emotions is a big first step toward mental health. People have a tendency to categorize unpleasant emotions such as sadness, fear, or anger as “bad” or “wrong.” It’s important to help students understand that God created them with emotions, according to Vore, and that they can challenge thoughts that aren’t true while still validating the legitimacy of their feelings.
“They are a healthy part of our being,” Vore said. “You can look throughout Scripture, and God has emotions. Jesus has emotions–even the ones that we would view as unpleasant. . . . It’s not just a lack of faith to have those feelings.”
Both Hegwood and Vincent have used the Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out to illustrate this point for their students. The movie is mostly set inside 11-year-old Riley’s brain, where her emotions jostle for control. Joy, usually the dominant emotion, is always trying to keep Riley happy. She has to learn that Sadness has a place in Riley’s life, too.
Vincent led a youth retreat connecting Inside Out with the Psalms. She showed her students how many emotions were in the Psalms as a way of demonstrating how God created human emotions–and can handle them.
“If there’s anything I feel like my kids could repeat and teach back to somebody else after having been with me for two years, it’s that we have permission to be honest with God about how we’re feeling,” Vincent said. “We don’t need to be ashamed of that. We don’t have to fake being happy to anybody, especially God.”
Hegwood does not want his students to pretend with him, either. He’s learned to ask them hard questions through the process.
“The way it changed my mindset about youth ministry was the focus on the community,” he said. “But the way it changed my mindset on discipleship was the focus on the individual.”
He knows now that discipling his students is about more than fixing their problems. It’s about becoming acquainted with their hearts and minds and, when necessary, getting them the help they need to be mentally healthy.
Lanie Anderson is a writer and seminary student in Oxford, Mississippi.
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