Lauren Coats saw firsthand the impact of a growing mental health crisis among young people. The number of calls from parents of teens and children seeking help to its three Dallas metro counseling centers has nearly doubled in less than two years.
“During COVID, I’ve hired probably six therapists who work exclusively with children and teens due to need and demand — and they’re still full,” said Coats, the wife of a pastor who started Rockwell Counseling. and Wellness almost ten years ago.
Coats’ experience in the Dallas metro echoes a national trend, Dr. Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, noted earlier this month in an advisory on a youth mental health crisis. The advisory describes a crisis that predated the COVID-19 closures and was manifested by “an alarming number of young people [struggling] with feelings of helplessness, depression, and suicidal thoughts,” according to Murthy in a statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The report goes on to note that the changed school, family and community experiences of young people caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have compounded the problem.
Richard Ross, a student ministry professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), says the mental health issues facing young Americans won’t go away with COVID-19. Much of it, he says, has to do with the cultural collapse young people are currently experiencing.
“Whenever a culture breaks down, there will be pain and hurt in people’s lives,” said Ross, who has been involved in youth ministry for more than 50 years. “Unfortunately, the first people to feel this pain and injury will be the most vulnerable – children and adolescents. Ultimately, young people are in danger because the majority in the United States have turned their backs on God. Those who care for young people will have to join the Great Physician to prevent children and adolescents from suffering harm even after the pandemic.
Ross says he teaches young pastors at SWBTS to engage hurt teens in three ways. First, make sure they have a personal relationship with Jesus.
“Adolescents need heart transplants the most to move from drowning in crisis to thriving,” Ross said. “And Jesus is the only one who can perform such transplants. Meeting Jesus is the beginning of transformation.
Ross also encourages youth ministers to develop a list of biblically faithful counselors to whom they can refer students. He also tells youth ministers to prioritize forming “warm and strong bonds of heart” between teens and parents, teens and mentors, and spiritually healthy teens and congregation members.
“Adolescents who are isolated and cut off from the important adults in their lives are always at risk,” Ross said. “Teenagers who live in strong heart relationships with significant adults can weather almost any storm in life.”
Shane Pruitt, who is the next generation national director with the North American Mission Board, says he urges young leaders to have answers ready for the mental health needs of young people. Like Ross, he recommends that youth pastors have Christian counselors they can recommend to students.
But he also tells youth pastors to include gospel-focused biblical help for mental health issues in their discipleship process. He notes that there’s a lot of unnecessary mental health self-diagnosis among young people right now.
“We don’t need 15-year-olds diagnosing other 15-year-olds with depression and anxiety,” Pruitt said. “I think we just have to have an answer to these things. If the church remains largely silent on sanity and the culture shouts it out, then an entire generation hears only one worldview.
Pruitt encourages youth ministers to involve parents as well. This means equipping them and educating them about mental health issues. It also means bringing parents into the conversations they have with troubled youth.
Coats tells parents and church leaders to keep an eye out for young people who isolate themselves and show significant personality changes. It’s normal, she says, for teenagers to be in a bad mood, but major personality changes and no longer wanting to interact in person with others are warning signs.
“Obviously, self-harm is another thing that parents bring to me all the time. They first notice their teenagers cutting themselves,” Coats said. there are also isolation and personality changes that they didn’t really understand, or maybe thought were normal.”
Coats recommends that youth workers and parents involve mental health professionals in the situation as early as possible.
“The earlier a child or teen can start talking with a counselor, the better,” Coats said. “Right now in my incoming calls people are saying they’ve noticed problems with their children for six months at this point. It’s a really long wait to get your child’s help. If we had a child that we think has an ear infection or strep throat, we would call the doctor immediately.If we have a child with anxiety, depression or another mental health issue, I think it is important to call right away.
Pruitt says he hopes these mental health issues facing teens will open the eyes of the church to the urgency of sharing the gospel with young people. He says he has seen more professions of faith at youth events where he has preached this year than in the past three or four years combined.
“You kind of saw it with millennials, but mostly with millennials. They were really told this nonsense of helping each other, of looking within for happiness, hope and peace. “Pruitt said. “We know you have to look out first, before you can have that inside. We must look to Jesus. We need the Holy Spirit and to be born again. [The youth] try to find it in themselves. I think they realize quickly, it’s not there. So they start looking for something beyond themselves.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry is a writer in Evansville, Ind.)