Statistically, most mental illnesses show their first warning signs between the ages of 15 and 20—roughly the same age group encompassed by most church senior-youth programs. For this reason, those church members serving in youth ministry are both profoundly affected and on the vanguard of healing.
Niverville Community Fellowship, a Mennonite Church Manitoba congregation in the province’s rural southeast, has been making concerted efforts over the last five years or more to ensure that the training they provide for their youth leaders reflects this reality. It’s working.
Ashlyn Neufeld pastored Niverville’s youth group from 2012-14. During her tenure, she says she saw how pervasively mental health struggles affected her community’s youth, including depression, anxiety and acts of self-harm—like cutting. “It seemed almost like most students dealt with it in some way, at least for a while,” she says.
When she arrived, the church was already working to build a positive culture concerning mental health.
“We had a local professional speak in our church,” she says. “Our congregational care pastor did seminars for people who wanted to learn more or seek help. A lot of work was being done to start conversations. In the youth group, specifically, we were talking about suicide, depression, self harm, things like that, probably once or twice a year already. I was required to take Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training [ASIST] before starting my po-sition actually. The church really felt that was important.”
Neufeld’s successor, Matt Antonio, adds that the church’s current lead pastor, Chris Marchand, has been a trendsetter in mental health awareness matters. Breaking down taboos and cultivating understanding, Marchand has talked openly in church about what mentally ill people are up against, and about obstacles helpers can face, like secondary trauma and compassion fatigue.
Neufeld and Antonio laud the training they received coming into their positions. They agree that while the training deals with “basic stuff,” like recognizing different warning signs, or starting a conversation when concerns arise, it is critical.
“It’s hard to ask somebody, clearly, ‘Are you considering suicide?’ ” Antonio says. “But the risk you run in not asking the question is far greater. If it’s taboo for you, if you’re not able to say the words, that could result in somebody taking their life. It’s important for youth leaders to invest in training and it’s important for us to equip the youth to better support their friends and schoolmates.”
Currently, he notes that training opportunities like ASIST or Mental Health First Aid courses are not subsidized or required for volunteer youth leaders at Niverville. However, he says that, “in light of my own experience and how much I’ve benefitted from my training, having more people resourced, including the youth mentors, will be essential in moving forward.”
“A general role all leaders share is being a listening ear,” says Neufeld. “Just genuinely caring, creating an atmosphere of acceptance, making it obvious that youth [group] is a supportive place where these things can be brought out and worked through, that’s what’s important. Leaders don’t have to be skilled counsellors, just good listeners with some good judgment: Know your limitations, how to play as a team member, and when to reach for outside help.”
Antonio echoes her ideas, emphasizing that leaders should always keep a working knowledge of local resources.
For both Antonio and Neufeld, as for many clergy, offering spiritual support in these situations is a default.
It’s instinctive, Neufeld says, if not always easy. “Often you pray with somebody who’s in that dark place and it seems to fall flat,” she says. “There’s no rush of relief or anything. You can walk away wondering, did that do anything? It can be discouraging work, and sometimes you don’t know what to pray. But I wouldn’t have been able to deal with those issues if I didn’t have faith, have prayer. It can be so overwhelming. Every single time I talked with somebody about this, I would be constantly praying inside that the Holy Spirit would lead the conversation, that everything I did or said would be received as it should, that I would have [God’s] ears and eyes. I couldn’t have done it without that.”
Where the church really needs to keep working, Antonio says, is in the team-spirit element, learning how to help others bring all the pieces of the puzzle together—spiritual, mental, physical and emotional needs—in order to achieve healing and genuine well-being.
See more in the Focus on Mental Health series:
Guard your heart and mind
One way your church can stop hiding mental illness
Mental health awareness incorporates art and poetry
‘We all need counsellors’
Helping to prevent suicide
‘There is love in this room’
‘I am still holding out hope that I will be free of this one day’
Six steps for better self-care
A living death