In my 20 some years of ministry, I’ve worked with many kids that could be labeled as “at risk.” Even before the term became a popular catch phrase, and to be honest, I’d say I was roughly 50% in my handling of “at risk” kids. Personally, I think we spend too much time labeling kids and not enough time simply loving them for who they are flaws and all. Love won’t fix them, but it will certainly point them in a direction that will help them figure out who they are and how they can understand how to get out from under the storm that depression brings into their life.
Seemingly every teenager on the planet rides a roller coaster of emotion that has twists and turns almost hourly. While some teens might find themselves battling forms of clinical depression that require help from medical professionals (which is outside the realm of most youth worker training) almost all teens will occasionally encounter some level of depression due to hormones, peer pressure, or an identity formation crisis that’s in full tilt. Regardless of the source, one common drop in this ride is that one minute they can be elated at the uphill climb of life and the next, they’re struggling with their self worth and battling feelings of depression as this coaster they’re on sends them plummeting into despair. So one question that parents and youth workers have to navigate is, how can we help teens navigate these feelings of depression that come on like a tidal wave out of nowhere?
So what can we do as youth workers?
Here are 3 quick things that have been super helpful for me and I pray they help you as we help teens together in this.
Help teens know their feelings are normal. It’s ok to occasionally feel depressed—it’s part of life. I confess my own moments and triggers that make me question my worth. Some might not agree with me, but I think Jesus battled bouts with depression in moments like the end of John 6 when many people stop following him because of his teaching and Jesus even asks his disciples if they too will turn away now. I don’t tell them depression was from God. I just remind them that they’re not alone in this; everyone struggles with occasional depression.
LISTEN TO THEIR STORY
Don’t assume that “normal” means everyone experiences depression in the same way or to the same degree or for the same reasons. Before we can accurately help someone, we must learn their story and listen to them explain the voices that influence them. Give them eye contact, put away your cell phone, ask good questions, and just listen.
As you listen, if you discover that a teen’s depression goes beyond the occasional emotional rollercoaster, it’s important to help transition them and their family into a relationship with a medical professional to diagnose whether they have a form of clinical depression. Stay with them through that process to help destigmatize their diagnosis and provide the necessary spiritual support going forward.
IDENTIFY THE SOURCE OF THE “VOICE” IN THEIR HEAD
This is actually my go-to question when working with teens: “Does that thought sound like the voice of God to you?” When a teen is battling depression, I often ask them to tell me what was going through their minds as they experienced it. After they’ve called it out, I ask them to read Philippians 4:6-9 with me. In it, Paul addresses the feelings of anxiety and fears that teens are commonly experiencing and offers a promise, that God will replace it with a peace that surpasses all understanding through Jesus if they’ll give it over to Him.
But he also cautions that this can’t be done without addressing what we’re meditating on. We must marinate our minds in that which is good and right and true, not the negative and deceptive lies that so many start believing are an inescapable reality. Sometimes, I even ask them to write down the lies in one journal and the truths from God in another. I tell them to meditate, read, and embrace only that which clearly is from the Lord.
As you help the teens you work with navigate the rollercoaster of emotions they experience, regardless of the severity of their depression, don’t forget that our goal is always to provide spiritual and emotional support. So don’t step back from them or their family. Commit to helping them meditate on God’s truths and promise for peace that passes all understanding as they journey toward mental health.
Brian is a student ministry veteran and currently serves as the generation ministries pastor at Journey Community Church near San Diego, California where he oversees a staff that is responsible for infants through teens. He also blogs at BRIANCBERRY.COM and is the author of two recent books, AS FOR ME AND MY CRAZY HOUSE and CRITICISM BITES.