Mental Health + Students

Conversations surrounding mental health and mental health awareness have shifted dramatically over the last 10-15 years. This week represents the annual Mental Health Awareness Week presented by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Youth Specialties had the privilege of recently interviewing John Sloss of Unbound Living. John is a licensed Mental Health Therapist with a background in youth and family ministry. John can be reached via his website or by email. John shares with us some unique perspectives answering some of the big questions related to the different levels of mental health as it relates to students, families, youth workers, and churches.

Each day this week, we’ll zero in with John on a specific relationship with mental health. Today is Mental Health + Students.

What are the 2-3 biggest challenges for mental health with a student?

I believe adolescence to be the single most chaotic developmental period we face as individuals.  One of the biggest challenges is simply found in the purpose of this developmental period. As students we are struggling to discover who we are, how we came to get here, and how we fit into the rest of the world.  This challenge alone is exhausting.

Now add to this three additional challenges:  First, adolescents are growing up in a society that has increasingly rigid standards for performance (e.g. college admittance requirements are regularly increasing).  Second, they exist in a “connected” culture that carries the risk of uploading every social misstep.  Third, youth are not being taught to learn from failure, they are taught to be terrified of it. We have youth attempting to discover themselves, which requires trial and error, in a culture that no longer has a safe place for that trial and error to take place. 

Is it any wonder depressive and anxiety symptoms are on the rise with youth? 

What does a “network of care” look like for a student?

Developmental imperatives for the adolescent requires the establishment of both independence and autonomy.  This demands an increased separation from the parents and an increased reliance on self. Parents may be a positive support, yet find the adolescent not utilizing them.  Students often want to “figure it out on their own.”  Independence.

In light of this, it becomes vital for other systems of support to partner with families.  To the readers of this blog, that means involvement from more than just your individual youth ministry team of volunteers.  The support system student’s need involves every adult relationship that impacts the life of a student.  Youth ministries must become facilitators of support systems throughout the church and community.  This is a partnership established on trust, not a competition

What are the big indicators for mental “unhealth” in a student?

An important note here. Most all of the below list, to a degree, is normal behavior/experience for the adolescent.  With the exception of the self harm category, it is normal for youth to experience many of these areas in their development.  Finding the baseline norm for your students is mandatory.  Additionally, this is a brief list and nowhere near comprehensive.

Isolation – Do not mistake a student who is an introvert for one who is isolating.  The isolating student begins to isolate from others who are part of their normal group of friends. 

Escalation – Again, beyond what is baseline for a student.  This could be an escalation of anxiety to the point of a panic attack or an escalation of intense, negative self talk.  It could be an escalation of negative behaviors at school, at home, or in your youth groups. 

Increase in unhealthy coping strategies – We are lumping all behaviors used to medicate pain in here:  Substance use, pornography, online gambling, food relationships and interpersonal relationships.

Self Harm & Suicide – NOTE: Youth workers must know their state code of conduct as to whether they are mandatory reporters of harm in a student.  This is vital.  That being said, any instance of self harm, suicidal ideation (vocalization/internal thoughts of suicide) or suicide attempts are cause for intervention.

How do you help encourage an awareness of mental health in a student?

When I was a youth pastor I knew nothing of mental health.  I was unaware and unable to communicate the signs of depression and anxiety or what to do if self harm behaviors were becoming a pattern for a student.  I was out of my league when it came to all things mental health.

As a therapist, I am sad to say this still appears to be the case for many churches and youth ministries.  Therefore, I encourage all youth pastors to bring in a licensed mental health therapist once a year (or more) to talk to your students.  Normalizing their internal experience and bringing understanding to this experience goes a long way to having a healthy experience.

Leverage the experience and expertise of those in your community who operate in this field  and invite them to speak to your groups.  I believe it will be an invaluable tool for you as leaders and the students you lead. 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS. 

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