3 Keys to Addressing Mental Health and Suicide in Your Ministry

If you watch or listen to the news very often, you may realize that, sadly, suicide rates are on the rise. We could speculate all day about reasons this might be true, but regardless, one of the greatest things we can do to combat this rising trend is to create and keep the conversation going about mental health. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults ages 10-34*. The age group with the highest number of individuals contemplating suicide and attempting suicide is 18-24*. The current suicide rate is also higher among males than females. Males are four times as likely to die by suicide than females*. That statistic should affect how and where we are having these conversations too.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and we want to take a few minutes to talk about why it’s so important that we talk about this crucial, yet sensitive, topic in our ministries.

Here are three solid things to consider:

Talking about the topics of mental health, depression, and suicide in your ministry is imperative.

Finding statistics that create a compelling argument for the importance of these conversations are not difficult to find. However, it can be difficult to figure out how to have these conversations.

In the past 10 years, we as the church and as a nation, have made strides to de-stigmatize things like mental health. But we still have a long way to go. One of the greatest ways that you can do this in your ministry is to have conversations about it. Whether you have dealt with depression personally or you know people who have, create opportunities for them to share vulnerably and appropriately about what that struggle has looked like for them.

Obviously, context is important. The way you talk about this with a 6th-grader is different than the way you’d talk about this with a 12th-grader. The way you talk about this from stage is different than the way you talk about this in small groups. The way you talk about this in a one-on-one conversation is different than the way you talk about it in your small group circle.

But we must keep talking about it.

Think about it like this: We don’t wait to talk about alcohol or drugs until teenagers start using them. We don’t wait to talk about sex until students are having it. We talk about these important things ahead of time so when students encounter it, they are equipped with the skills they need to navigate a situation. Most of the time, we cannot tell when someone is having thoughts of suicide. Only in the rearview mirror can we see the signs. Instead of waiting until a tragedy happens, start the conversation about mental health before it’s too late.

As we start the conversation in our ministries, it’s important to keep in mind that students are already talking about, depression, anxiety, and suicide.

They might know someone who has taken their own life.
They are talking about it in their health education classes at school.
They might watch a TV show where a character takes their own life.
They have had thoughts about how it would be better if they just didn’t wake up.

The conversation is already a part of their world. When you talk about these things in your ministry, you are letting them know that what they think and feel is important and worth your time. It’s a way of valuing who they are and how they are interacting in this world and in our culture, where mental health is a trending topic right now.

Creating a safe place is a vital part of your job as a ministry leader.

Help your small group leaders understand that when it comes to this topic, they are not answer-givers, but instead they are question-askers. A small group will not become a safe place for students to share, be vulnerable, and be honest if all of their questions, problems, or struggles are met with answers and instruction. Even during the times when a small group leader might have some answers, it’s more important for the leader to help their student process what they’re feeling, where it’s coming from, and why they’re feeling it, rather than a time for them to solve their problem, answer a question, or provide instruction.

In order for you to help your leaders create a safe place, you will need to know what to do in the event a student shares that they are thinking about hurting themselves, hurting someone else, or are being hurt. As the ministry leader, you will need a mental health professional to go to in these situations because you are most likely not a licensed mental health professional. Talk with a counselor either in your church or in your community to see if they’d be willing to be a resource for your ministry if you have questions. Many times in my years of ministry, I would call a counselor and ask for their professional opinion about a situation when I was unsure about the next steps to take. The mental health professionals in your community want to be a resource to you and to your students. Find one and partner with them.

Consistency is huge when it comes to creating a safe place. Before you can expect someone to share openly with you, there must be a foundation of acceptance and trust. A huge part of this is showing up consistently. When you have the same leaders meeting with the same kids on a consistent basis, this creates a much greater chance that a student will open up to that leader about these struggles if and when they are facing them.

And when these moments do come up, train your leaders to promise trust, not confidentiality.

My friend Mandy Baldwin taught me a lot about this. Mandy was the Associate Youth Pastor at my former church when I was the Youth Pastor, and she’s now a licensed counselor. She taught me a lot about ministry, but one of the things that has stuck with me throughout the years is how to handle a conversation that starts with a student asking something like, “Can I tell you something you won’t tell anyone else?”

The answer is no. I mean, you don’t just say no, but rather respond with something along the lines of, “If you trust me enough to tell me, you can trust me enough to do what’s right with the information.” Sometimes that means sharing the information directly with their parent or guardian. Sometimes that means being with the student as they share with their parents. No matter how upset they may be that what they share may not be able to remain confidential, the conversation will begin on a foundation of trust.

As a ministry leader, do your best to equip your leaders and create a culture and a structure within your small groups where these conversations are welcomed and not shied away from.

Resource your leaders on how to handle these conversations.

In order for your adult leaders to create safe places for your students, they need to be given the resources to do so and and then the support to do it in a healthy way. When leaders are not resourced well, they will have to do what they think is best which may or may not be the most effective. You also don’t want your leaders to feel like they are alone. There is nothing worse than a leader who feels like they have no one they can turn to when they encounter a situation or a conversation that may not know how to navigate on their own.

At Orange, we do our best to provide as many resources as possible to help your leaders be as influential and impactful as possible. Of course, there are also some amazing resources outside of the world of Orange when it comes to these kinds of issues. Below you can find a collection of resources that might be helpful in an effort to equip as many youth workers as possible to help lead this next generation as we all navigate this together.

This is such a heavy issue, and oftentimes, fear of doing the wrong thing keeps us from doing anything. But we have to remember:

The more we talk about it, the more weight we remove. Stigma is replaced with vulnerability.

The safer our groups are, the more we increase the likelihood that students will vocalize their questions, struggles, and challenges.

The more we equip our leaders to handle these conversations, the more likely they will be to create the safe spaces in the first place. They’ll be more prepared to ask the right questions, live in the tension, and handle the messy side of ministry.

Orange Resources:
Crisis Conversation Guides (more resources like this can be found at goweekly.com) for preschool, elementary, middle school and high school.
Rethinking Youth Ministry Podcast: Navigating Mental Health and Suicide in Your Ministry
Processing Tragedy and Grief as a Student Ministry Leader Blog Post 
Parent Cue Live Podcast: How to Recognize the Signs of Teen Depression and Suicide 
For a middle school and high school stand alone message and small group discussion guide, check out the latest season of XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School HERE.

Additional Resources:
Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis support in the US

(*Source, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml)

 width=This article was co-written by Mandy Baldwin, a therapist working mainly with couples and teens. She has a passion for families due to her previous work as a pastor at a local church in Indianapolis, IN.

Mandy was a pastor for over 15 years. 12 of those years she worked with youth and their families. One of her passions, currently, is working with youth who are struggling with the realities of this life and suffering through depression and anxiety. While a pastor, Mandy worked first hand with families who experienced suicide and suicidal ideation. She understands the difficulties and the emotional weight of leading a ministry in the current cultural difficulties.

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