Young People in Crisis
Mental Health and Youth Ministry
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, political chaos, climate disasters, and racial justice uprisings of 2020, the state of mental health among young people around the world was at crisis levels. Many experts fear that the events of 2020 have exacerbated the crisis into a full-blown catastrophe. Those who work with young people need to develop the critical skills required to serve on the front lines of this mental health epidemic, as communities grapple with the trauma and fallout of this prolonged and difficult season.
How can the Church be one of the places where young people feel supported and seen, as they navigate their unique mental health challenges? In this issue of Engage, scholars, activists, therapists, psychologists, and ministry practitioners from various theological backgrounds discuss the role and impact of youth ministers who faithfully walk alongside young people in the face of these unprecedented challenges.
You Want to Create a Safe Space for Teens? Build It With Authenticity.
As a young Black female educator, believer, and mental health professional, I have struggled with balancing how much of myself I show when in positions of authority. I often think back to my first year as an educator teaching seventh grade English, where authenticity and authority felt diametrically opposed. I felt forced to create and wear a mask of professionalism, which I wore proudly. It didn’t matter how burnt out I felt; I was relentless and unyielding because I felt like I couldn’t afford not to be the pillar of composure for my students. In hindsight, I feared being judged if I didn’t excel as a teacher, especially as a Black woman. Wearing the mask was exhausting and contradictory to the value of authenticity I was trying to instill within my students. I had yet to personally redefine “having it all” until a student shared with me how she felt unable to relate to me on a basic human level. At that point, I decided to move forward in the full truth of my vulnerable, authentic, and consistent self—sans the carefully curated mask of my personal and professional success. I chose to redefine what “having it all” looked like for me as a Black woman, without filtering away my truths. Compartmentalizing my truths was slowly corroding any type of authentic relationship I could ever establish, including with myself. My definition of having it all expanded to becoming comfortable with standing in my truth and owning all of my feelings and parts.
So… you want to create a safe space for teens? Focus on building it with authenticity and vulnerability.
We have the power to redefine our relationships with teens by modeling the change that we expect. As leaders and conduits for change, we must be able to reflect both our humanity and desire to be Christ-like in the times we fall short or do not meet our own expectations. This has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with no how-to manual on moving forward. Whether we reference the Bible or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there must be a measure of humanity and reliability in order to not lose the next generation. The teenagers of today can smell fear and mirages of perfection. They are put off by the lack of authenticity.
If you are ready to be the catalyst for change, here are some strategies for creating relationships with youth and young adults which support them in their spiritual, mental, and emotional journeys:
Model the behavior you want to see. Simply put, reinforce the behaviors and emotional expression you desire to see through leading by example. The simple monkey-see-monkey-do analogy goes a long way here. “Do what I say, not what I do” is both outdated and ineffective, thus adding an unnecessary barrier where you desire to build a bridge. If you make a mistake, apologize for what you did and any impact your words or actions may have had. If you’re not feeling your best, it’s ok (and expected) to let it be known. You are human after all, so meet young people in your common humanity. They will appreciate the realness. Put this in practice: when asked if you are ok, answer honestly. Tell them the truth, even if it is a struggle to admit. You can model this by being upfront about the emotional space you are in before you are asked.
Listen to understand. Teenagers often feel unseen, unheard, and unvalued. This is reinforced when adults talk over them, chastise them, and/or minimize their experiences. Be aware of your impulse to jump in as they are speaking. Instead of listening to rebut, truly listen to understand. Ask questions like, “What do you need me to do in order to support you?” Being curious about the experiences of teens will allow you to prioritize their feelings. If whatever they are saying is unclear, don’t assume. Ask a question to clarify or repeat what you have understood them to have said to you. If you remain uncertain, wait until they are finished and ask if they can expound more on their idea. Listening to understand instead of listening to respond allows you to be fully present in the conversation and for the party that is relaying information to you to feel supported and understood. If you struggle with waiting for an appropriate time to make a comment, take a deep breath and pause. When you feel the need to say something, see where the conversation goes instead. Doing this will build self-awareness and allow you to tune more into the information you are receiving, free from interpretation, rather than relying on what you have previously thought or felt. A great resource to reference is Garrett’s Motivational Interviewing.
Normalize their experiences. There is no manual on being a teenager. It is hard navigating the world, seemingly on your own, with a keen awareness of your success and failure in relation to others in your age range. Making mistakes is a byproduct of being human, but learning from your mistakes and growing as a result is a choice. As teens are still learning how to respond to their emotions in healthy and productive ways, adults can normalize their experiences and help them make choices
more in line with the person they are and desire to be. When young people make those inevitable mistakes, hold them accountable by being kind and compassionate instead of condemning or shaming. Reaffirm that it’s not the end of the world, and they do have the ability to change for the better. For example, if a student lashes out emotionally, ask them how else they could have responded. This will highlight their choices. Collaborating on possible solutions to the issue they are facing reinforces the bond of partnership and normalizes their experience.
Be consistent. In order to foster and create relationships with young people that empower them, authenticity and consistency are required. People cannot trust without stability. When we insert ourselves into a teen’s life, we are responsible for managing our standard of engagement. Our job is to empower and uplift them, and there’s no way to do this without consistency. Relationships are strengthened with engagement and follow-through. One of the most important things you can do is let your yes be a yes and your no be a no. If you can’t fulfill your promise, be upfront about why you can’t as soon as you realize you are unable to follow through. If possible, be sure to provide an alternate option to fulfill your promise—a new time, location, or format. My clinical mentor, Jessica F.B. Jefferson, LCSW, teaches her clients how to measure saying yes. If you struggle with saying yes, before you respond ask yourself, “Am I ready, willing, and able to make this commitment? Is this a solid yes, or do I feel obligated? If I had to choose, with no ramifications if I said no, would it still be a yes?” After asking yourself these questions, give your word in a manner that you are sure you can follow through on.
Beverley Andre, also known as Your Favorite MFT, is a multi-state Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of BeHeart Counseling Services. She holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of South Florida in Secondary English Education and a Master of Science Degree from Valdosta State University in Marriage and Family Therapy. Beverley decided to pursue a career in mental health after working in the school system and seeing the lack of access to quality BIPOC clinicians and the need to have the mental health and wellness of Black and Brown youth, families, and the community at large. While in her practice she helps Black and Brown women redefine having it all, her work is still rooted in healing the inner child and adolescent. Her practice helps these women “Redefine Having It All” by helping them create their own narratives and find their voice when it comes to themselves, their relationships, and their community. As a relationship and emotional intimacy expert, Beverley partners with couples in all stages of life to get them Beyond the Vow.
How I Discovered Writing is Humanity Distilled Into Ink
I didn’t write this letter, but a dear stranger did. And though it’s been many years since, I still hold onto it deep in my heart. It’s the sort of textual hug I wish I could’ve felt growing up — the sort of miracle I now hope to give others.
I was 13 years old when I received my bipolar disorder diagnosis, and 14 for uveitis—an eye disease that rendered me blind whenever an episode struck. At one point, I was in a coma with a 110°F (43°C) fever. Throughout high school I clung to hospitals like Sunday prayers. This, combined with a series of suicide attempts, convinced me that I’d outlasted my luck. That maybe I didn’t deserve the air that I breathed. But on my very final attempt, my little brother found me. I made a vow right then—no matter how dark my world got, I would never drag him down with me.
I wanted to heal. But as a low-income, first-generation, Chinese-American immigrant with parents who didn’t speak English, I didn’t know how to navigate mental healthcare—especially when more than 86% of therapists in the U.S. identify as white. So I turned to writing. As I wrote letters to strangers, I began to discover my own voice. And I found myself questioning why I could give so much empathy and kindness to people I’d never met yet couldn’t do the same for myself. Over time, I learned that writing is humanity distilled into ink.
That’s why I founded (L2S) when I was a sophomore in high school. Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14; 75% by age 24. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the world among young people. Yet there are few mental health organizations that specifically serve youth, and practically none that are youth for youth on a large-scale, especially when minorities are involved. This is where L2S comes in—my try at living this second chance at life right.
I’m 21, almost 22 now, and these days Letters to Strangers is the largest global youth-for-youth mental health non-profit destigmatizing mental illness and increasing access to affordable, quality treatment. We’ve impacted over 35,000 people with chapters in over 20 countries around the world.
We operate mainly as follows: 1) Therapy-informed anonymous letter-writing exchanges, where chapters on campuses and in communities meet to discuss their letters afterward; 2) Science-based peer education curricula, which includes our comprehensive 80,000-word illustrated —the first of its kind; and 3) Grassroots policy-driven advocacy, spearheaded by student task forces pushing for mental health services and awareness.
Our impact comes from an incredible network of changemakers, from the first student mental health task force at Rutgers University Honors College to the first mental health professional ever brought to speak at our high school chapter in Karachi, Pakistan; from the first community-run Mental Health Resource Center in Liberia with our Monrovia chapter to a short film series with actors from the Screen Actors Guild of New York.
Additionally, we facilitate mental health workshops to over 2,000 students in person every year, with a perfect average rating. Thousands more are educated online. Over 2,000 letters are exchanged in person every year by our network and hundreds more every month with non-affiliated individuals through our custom online exchange portal. More recently, in the few months since the launch of our guidebook, schools from around the world have already purchased it as potential curricula material. We have sold out of our first—and now almost second—print run.
Many days I wake up in awe of my luck. How did I survive to experience these miracles today? Yet if nothing else, this has taught me that writing is humanity distilled into ink. That we are all worthwhile. And it is through this advocacy that I finally discovered the cause of my uveitis—a disease that blinded me for years, which dozens of specialists and hundreds of tests could not answer. Stress and trauma triggered psychosomatic, physical symptoms of my psychological distress. In one go I learned both the importance of healing the mind and how everything matters, even when stigma tries to tell us otherwise.
If suicide is ever to become history and not a statistic, we must tune in to the students worldwide who shared how one letter, one human connection, can and has saved their life. Mental health is more than sorrow, more than scapegoats—frenzied diagnoses aren’t always the antidote.
Of course, I could never have done this alone. And I’m not alone, no matter what my mind tries to tell me sometimes. In Letters to Strangers, we all become Global Changemakers. They say to be part of Global Changemakers is to have found your tribe—and these are my people. They supported me as a 2019 Global Changemaker and as a 2020 mentor. In just a little over a year, the magic of this community has blessed me with some of the most wonderful, genuine, and empathetic friendships I could’ve ever imagined.
Just a few years ago, I almost became a statistic. In this one year with GCM, I’ve learned that joy tastes like the delicious vegetarian cooking at the Global Youth Summit, that love sounds like a dozen languages mingling at once. Peace is the realization that no one walks this earth alone. Mental health, youth activism, this unapologetic fight for change—it’s all the persisting of hope. So, this is my call: Join me! Together we empower humanity.
To get involved with Letters to Strangers, check out how you can of your own, sign up for our , or join in other ways on ! You can also submit an anonymous letter to our , where you’ll receive one back from a stranger.
Global Changemakers has an unshakeable mission of supporting youth to create positive change in their communities. A global pioneer in supporting youth-led development, they have trained youth from over 180 countries and provided grants to over 360 youth-led projects, which have had a combined impact on over 6,2 million people.
[This article was first published on Medium as Dear Stranger: The Story Behind Letters to Strangers and has been edited for use in this issue of Engage.]
Diana Chao is a 22-year-old first-generation Chinese-American immigrant from Southern California. Diana founded Letters to Strangers (L2S) when she was a sophomore in high school after bipolar disorder nearly ended her life. By beginning to heal through letters, she discovered that writing is humanity distilled into ink. Today, L2S is the largest global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit, impacting over 35,000 people on six continents. For this effort, Diana has been named a 2020 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth, 2020 Princess Diana Award winner, and Oprah Magazine’s 2019 Health Hero. As part of Adobe’s inaugural class of global Top Talents, Diana seeks to further the intersection of creativity and social impact through conceptual photography. Her “Minority Mental Health Month” self-portrait series went viral with 2+ million views, and she gives workshops and speeches on youth mental health. But most of the time, she is a senior studying geosciences at Princeton University, trying to wake up for class on time.
“Let Them Be”: Diminishing Anxiety to Resist the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis
The mental health of adolescents has become a critical issue today, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety disorders stand out as the most prevalent issue faced by youth today in the United States. Kathleen Ries Merikangas and her colleagues performed a nationally representative face-to-face survey of 10,123 adolescents ages 13 to 18 in the United States (the National Comorbidity Survey—Adolescent Supplement NCS-A). The study results indicate that “[a]nxiety disorders were the most common condition (31.9%), followed by behavior disorders (19.1%), and substance use disorders (11.4%)… [t]he median age of onset for disorder classes was earliest for anxiety (6 years), followed by 11 years for behavior, 13 years for mood, and 15 years for substance use disorders” (Merikangas et al., “Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders in U.S. Adolescents,” p. 980). This study demonstrates how anxiety disorders can begin early in childhood and shows that almost one in three adolescents will experience anxiety disorders. Moreover, adolescents who may not experience any mental health issues still significantly experience anxiety as they negotiate their transition into adulthood in their process of identify formation, i.e. self-experiences of sameness and continuity must now be confirmed as such by others (Erikson, Childhood and Society, pp. 261-263). On top of the current state of anxiety due to the pandemic and its impact on youth, this crisis has worsened even to the level of devastation. Thus, anxiety is one of the most crucial aspects of the life of adolescents with or without the pandemic.
One of the main causes of the anxiety produced in youth is the narcissistic (self) needs of parents wanting the best for their children. While wanting the best for their children itself is noble, even good things such as wanting the best for children can harm youth if they are imposed on them to meet the needs of parents themselves without letting youth self-determine what is best for them. (For discussion on narcissistic needs, see Kohut, The Restoration of the Self.) While parents usually love and care for their teenagers, their own needs for their children to be healthy, to display good characteristics, to succeed in school, to have good friends, have a purpose in life, and to pursue their dreams with intention and diligence, etc. can impede their adolescent’s own efforts to become their own person. What is ironic is that parents are not aware of their own narcissistic needs that shape their thoughts on what is best for their adolescent children. Instead, parents think that their expectations are intended for the betterment of their children and to help them succeed, rather than for their own personal fulfillment. As a result, parents feel it is their duty to tell their children what to do and not to do.
Unfortunately, however good their intentions, when parents intrude or intervene in their adolescent’s life, more anxiety is produced in both parents and their children, and less opportunities are given to adolescents to make their own choices. More anxiety means less chances for adolescents to develop differentiation—the ability to be a self-directed person while staying connected to others (Kerr & Bowen, Family Evaluation, pp. 112-133). As a result, various types of mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, distress adolescents and prevent them from leading a God-given, meaningful, and thriving life. What parents should come to grips with is that their good intentions generate the opposite results because their own narcissistic needs interfere with their children’s efforts to become their own persons. The same could be said about Christianity, churches, and ministers. It is wise for ministers to do self-examinations as to whether they are allowing time and space for youth to become their own persons and Christians, or whether they are imposing their own views onto the adolescents.
In order for adolescents to mature as good persons and Christians in their own time and manners, instead of the effort to instill what parents and ministers think is best for the adolescents, they should focus on trying to reduce as much anxiety as possible down to its healthy level for youth. I thus suggest that “Let Them Be” should be the mantra for parents and ministers. We, today, have a tendency to fear anything that does not seem to have structures or some sort of control. This fear or anxiety is from a lack of security in ourselves. What is astonishing is that Christians do not tap into the resource that can assuage this anxiety from a lack of security. The Apostle Paul exhorts Christians in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
With this Bible verse in mind, I encourage parents and ministers let go of their own anxieties about how good of a person or Christian adolescents will grow up to be, and let them be so that God can help them become who they are and what they are as God created them. I thus suggest that the best expression of love for adolescents is to let them be. While boundaries should be drawn for adolescents for what should absolutely not be violated, they should be left alone to navigate their own personhood and to become Christians at their own pace and in their own space. One way to do it is to encourage a spirituality of joy in life that advances the centrality of our relationship with God and others for us to become joyfinders who can claim their authentic selves and whose life represents self-assurance and vitality (Son, Spirituality of Joy: Moving Beyond Dread and Duties).
“Let Go and Let God” is what we can practice to “gift” our anxiety over to God and “Let Them Be” is how we can express our love and care for our youth. We add to our prayers by saying, “God, please take my anxiety about how my children will grow up to be; God, please strengthen me to overcome my own needs to define what is good for my children; God, help me to accept the fact that you created my children to be their own persons; and God, I accept that I am to give time and space to my children for them to become their own persons and to lead a life with joy and vitality.” Amen.
1. Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963.
2. Kerr, Michael E., and Murray Bowen. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.
3. Kohut, Heinz. The Restoration of the Self. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.
4. Merikangas, Kathleen Ries, Jian-Ping He, Marcy Burstein, Sonja A Swanson, Shelli Avenevoli, Lihong Cui, Corina Benjet, Katholiki Georgiades, and Joel Swendsen. “Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders in U.S. Adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication—Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A).” Journal of American Academy Child Adolescent Psychiatry 49, no. 10 (2010): 980-989.
5. Son, Angella. Spirituality of Joy: Moving Beyond Dread and Duties. Seoul, S Korea: Jeyoung
Dr. Angella Son is Professor of Psychology and Religion at Drew University. She received her Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) from Princeton Theological Seminary and joined the Drew University faculty in 2001. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and an ACPE psychotherapist. Her publications include Spirituality of Joy: Moving Beyond Dread and Duty, Stories That Make History: The Experience and Memories of the Japanese Military Comfort Girls-Women (translation), and numerous book chapters and articles. She served as the President of the Society for Pastoral Theology and serves on the editorial boards for several scholarly juried journals. She received awards including The Presidential Award for the Theological School Teacher/Scholar of the Year Award in 2019 and Award of the Open Rank Research Grant from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture in 2017. Particular topics of her research interest include issues of narcissism, shame, depression, joy, women, spirituality, and Korean comfort girls-women.
Spiritual Practices and the Anxious Mind
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the social and political unrest of 2020, my experience as a psychologist working with children, adolescents, and families has revealed an escalating level of anxiety in young people. Huge waves of insecurity leave them increasingly overwhelmed and confused. The causes are multiple and certainly known to youth leaders. An accelerated and increasingly competitive pace at which young people are expected to perform in academics and extracurricular activities, as well as exposure to social media that presents an ever-positive picture of what others are doing and accomplishing, are just some of the contributing factors. A basic review of how we respond to anxiety may be helpful.
One of the most primitive parts of our brain is the amygdala, the center that senses perceived threats. The amygdala triggers our stress response, often referred to as the Fight, Flight or Freeze response. Those of us alive now benefit from ancestors whose amygdala successfully raised the alarm to allow them to adequately protect themselves. Practice makes perfect, and over the generations, this little brain structure has become increasingly sensitive to perceiving threat. So sensitive, in fact, that it may result in frequent false positives. Seeing a growling dog at the gate when one isn’t there is an example. Even non-physical perceived threats can evoke the stress response. Walking into a high school cafeteria having no one to sit with, feeling the hostile stares of others, or fearing that you will be judged for what you say, how you say it, or what you are wearing when you give a presentation in class can trigger the stress response.
The presence of anxiety promotes a desire to stay safe. As such, our minds will try to anticipate potential difficulties or threats. So, failing the test tomorrow might lead to a bad grade for the semester, which leads to not getting into the advanced class next year, which means not getting into the desired college, which leads to not achieving the desired career. In other words, the test tomorrow suddenly becomes the key to having a successful future. With such pressure, it becomes hard to remember those Civil War dates or to focus on the physics theorems on tomorrow’s test.
In addition to anticipating future difficulties, the anxious brain tends to always be on alert, vigilant for possible threats in the present. As a result, attention will be drawn to what is not right or how things might be wrong. While this focus on the negative is an attempt to keep us safe, it frequently causes us to miss the things that are going right or the positive moments we experience. Young people might focus on the kid that ran into them in the hall and interpret it as bullying, and they might miss the fact that their lab partner was complimentary about their contribution to the lab and was trying to be a friend. Practice makes perfect and, unfortunately, the more we see the negative, the more negative we will see.
While these anxiety stress reactions will often feel automatic and outside our control, there are ways to intervene and alter our experiences. The mental health field is full of new or renamed strategies to help manage feelings. However, there are also ancient spiritual practices that can positively impact our ability to manage anxiety and stress.
The practice of mindfulness has gained recent popularity. Being mindful is to be fully present in the moment: to bring awareness to one’s self in the here and now. This awareness can bring grounding and also help us check-in with ourselves. Engaging in regular devotion can serve as an opportunity for spiritual mindfulness. Rather than focusing on what others are doing or focusing on what might happen next week or next year, it can help anchor young people in the present and importantly focus on the presence of God in their lives.
Putting our feelings into words helps to provide clarity and structure to otherwise confusing and vague feelings. Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist that focuses on neurobiology, has coined the phrase “Name it to tame it.” In other words, naming the feeling helps to make it more manageable. One of my young patients recently announced, “I told my dad how I was feeling, and I never knew it, but it really works. When you tell someone how you are feeling, it helps you feel better.” Prayer allows us to give voice to our concerns, fears, and worries. Prayer circles in which our petitions and concerns are lifted aloud can help bring clarity and help us feel closer to God as well as to group members, thereby helping us feel more understood and less alone in our feelings.
Gratefulness helps us to counter the tendency to focus on the negative and has been found to increase positive emotions, build resilience, and benefit health and relationships. Indeed, research shows that the regular practice of gratefulness helps to rewire the brain. Practice makes perfect, and the more we acknowledge the things for which we are grateful, the more we begin to see the good around us. Modeling this in the group context can encourage young people to privately acknowledge the things for which they are grateful.
Awareness, acknowledging, and giving voice to our feelings are all good strategies for helping to combat the potential negative impact of anxiety. However, it is also important to move beyond the self. Identifying a purpose outside of oneself helps to increase confidence and reduce negative feelings. Studies on compassion and altruism indicate that helping others can help reduce a person’s level of stress and anxiety. Large mission projects, as well as small, regular activities that meet the needs of church and community members can be helpful to this end.
Practice makes perfect, and we might take counsel from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. When you are anxious, talk to God, give thanks, and walk out with God’s peace guarding you.
Dr. Cynthia Díaz de León is a psychologist with more than thirty years of experience providing clinical services in English and Spanish. Her patients range in age from 3-85. Her areas of specialty include working with children, adolescents, and families. She provides individual and family psychotherapy, as well as psychological evaluation. Additionally, Dr. Díaz de León has expertise in the areas of trauma, adoption, cultural diversity, gender issues, and parenting. She is a member of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in San Antonio and has served as the youth leader. She is also a graduate of the IYM’s Certificate in Youth and Theology program (Cohort I) at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces
Every September for National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I gear up to give talks about suicide prevention for Black youth in faith communities. In 2020, I was particularly concerned that suicide rates might increase because of the simultaneous spotlight on racial injustice; the disproportionately negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Black community; the subsequent increase in coronavirus-related stressors like job, housing, and food insecurity; and the decrease in protective factors like social-connectedness because of the need to practice social distancing.
As I prepared for these suicide prevention talks, I was reminded of a young woman I met at a conference who talked about the anguish she experienced when she lost her only brother to suicide. She talked about finding solace in the music of Seether, a metal rock band that released an album entitled Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces in 2007.
Over the years, I have often thought about that phrase and wondered if that is something the Church is called to do—help youth with mental health challenges to find beauty in negative spaces. How do we help youth find beauty in negative spaces when they are being ostracized, shunned, and belittled because of how they look or who they choose to love? Are we really surprised to learn that the CDC reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-19; that the suicide rates for Black adolescents precipitously rose by 73% between 1991-2017; and that youth from the LGBTQ community are 3-4 times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers?
How can the Church help young people find beauty in negative spaces when we are often complicity silent on the topic of suicide? Are we part of the problem? Do we facilitate healing, or are we reinforcing toxic systems of oppression that sustain negative spaces for youth? Are we helping when we mistakenly believe that young people don’t have mental health challenges, or that openly discussing suicide prompts youth to take their own lives? How do we combat the belief in the Black community that suicide is a “white thing” or that suicide is a sign of “weak faith”? Is it true that suicide is an unpardonable sin, that suicide negates the opportunity to repent?
Many Christians are shocked to learn that there are no scriptures that state that suicide is an unpardonable sin; this tradition derives from a series of edicts issued by Church Councils between the 4th and 6th Centuries as a way of combatting mass suicides that were encouraged as acts of piety by the Donatists. There are only six accounts of suicide in the Bible, and in each of these passages, there is no absolution or condemnation for suicide. When we examine these texts, we see that young men in the Bible complete suicide for the same reasons they do today: they feel lost, alone, humiliated, and ashamed. We also know that many of the pillars of our faith—Moses, Jonah, Elijah, Jeremiah, and David—all experienced bouts of depression and expressed suicidal thoughts. In each of these passages, they are not condemned for their suicidal thoughts. Indeed, God often sends helpers, ordinary human beings like you and me, to be a source of comfort and deliverance. God always sends someone who will serve as the eyes, ears, arms, and legs of God to give a hand to lean on, a shoulder to cry on.
The Church is also typically silent on the topic of suicide because we’re afraid that the lack of condemnation against suicide equates to an endorsement of suicidal behaviors. But it’s not an either/or proposition. The question is not whether suicide is a good or bad choice, but whether suicide is an unforgivable choice. Saying that suicide is unforgivable is to say that people who die by suicide are beyond redemption, that a bad or desperate decision in the last minutes of life can negate a lifetime of walking in the light of God’s love, that the destructive act of suicide is stronger than the saving grace of God. It is also incredibly cruel to tell a parent who is experiencing agonizing grief because they have lost a child to suicide that their child is condemned to eternal damnation.
What can the Church do to help create beauty in negative spaces for youth who are contemplating suicide? We can listen without condemnation and openly talk about suicide to destigmatize discussing mental health challenges, including suicide. We can link youth and their families to services by using evidence-based suicide prevention programs like Sources of Strength, which uses peer leaders to refer a suicidal friend to an adult, changing norms about seeking help for mental health challenges. The Church is particularly equipped to promote social connectedness and acceptance, which have buffering effects against suicide. Youth-centered programs and worship experiences foster a sense of social connectedness with friends and family within the Church and in the broader community. The Church can also foster a strong sense of “mattering” by showing young people that people care about what they think and how they feel. In the Church, youth shouldn’t be simply tolerated and accepted, but celebrated and adored.
The Church can take more upstream approaches to suicide prevention by eliminating negative spaces like lack of safe and affordable housing, unemployment, and food insecurity. Mental health treatment is insufficient if families don’t have stable housing, food, and employment. We can demand competent, accessible, culturally relevant mental health resources in our communities. We can develop partnerships with mental health services and other community organizations that promote mental well-being in our youth. We can combat systemic racism, sexism, and heterosexism. The Church is called to be the beloved community that not only creates beauty in negative spaces but demolishes the negative spaces so that our children aren’t only surviving but thriving.
Sherry Davis Molock, Ph.D., M.Div., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. Dr. Molock graduated with honors from Dartmouth College in 1979, earned a master’s degree (1981) and a doctoral degree in Clinical/Community Psychology (1985) from the University of Maryland, College Park. In May 2000 she graduated with honors with a Master of Divinity degree from Howard University. Dr. Molock teaches undergraduate and doctoral courses in the field of clinical psychology and conducts research on the prevention of suicide and HIV in African American adolescents and young adults. She recently served as a member of the Scientific Work Group that served as advisors for the Congressional Black Caucus’ Emergency Task Force on Suicide Prevention for Black Youth. In addition to her work in psychology, Dr. Molock and her husband, Guy Molock, Jr., are the founding pastors of the Beloved Community Church in Accokeek, Maryland. Their ministry focuses on “family healing” that is designed to bring spiritual, physical, and emotional healing to the community. She is also the proud mother of the Molock Jewels—Amber, Jelani & Diarra—and the proud “Mimi” of Makayla and Oliyah.
Honoring Lament in the Christian Tradition
The words that I am hearing most frequently from the youth, parents, and professionals that I work with to describe their emotional state of being these days are often along the lines of exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, afraid, and lonely. In a year that has included a worldwide pandemic, ongoing reckoning with systemic racism and oppression, and intense political polarization, it is no wonder that these are our primary emotions. A word that I don’t often hear, but I know unites all of them, is grief.
Death and loss are at the center of the Christian theological tradition. Around the world, Christians proclaim the mystery of the faith that begins with death: Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come gain. The gospels also spend far more time on the events leading up to and through the death of Christ as compared to the events following the resurrection. Grief and lament are integral to the Christian faith tradition.
We find ourselves within a broader American culture that often misunderstands, minimizes, or medicalizes these more difficult aspects of the human condition. There are many reasons for this, including collective discomfort with our mortality, a need to define “normal” and “abnormal” behavior, and the desire to shield our children from the harsher realities of life. In the end, what often happens is that the topic is avoided altogether, and children, teenagers, and young people are not given language, guidance, or even modeling to integrate death and loss into their understanding of the world.
As an example, I grew up in a fairly conservative theological tradition. In this particular strain of Christianity, there was a strong emphasis placed on the proclamation of the gospel as a means to repentance from sin and professions of faith. It also tended to place more weight on the spiritual over the physical—the afterlife over the here and now. I now know that there were deep ties to American exceptionalism and individualism that produced a faith that was highly focused on my own individual salvation. While I learned about death and loss, it was almost exclusively in relationship to resurrection. I cannot recall any discussions on the role of grief and lament in connection to faith within my local church. My only memories of funerals are those that were all too often odd spinoffs of birthday parties with balloons and cake to celebrate a loved one’s entrance to heaven. This was confusing for me as a child. I remember thinking, “Why are we happy that this person died?”
Children and teenagers who experience loss wrestle with significant questions such as, “Why do bad things happen? Am I to blame for this? What happens after we die? God, where are you?” They are also dealing with perhaps completely new and deeply complex thoughts and emotions that are part of the grief response. The theological tradition that I inherited, one that is so highly focused on salvation and resurrection, can risk minimizing the pain and sorrow that we human beings experience in the here and now.
So, what can we do to integrate grief, loss, and lament more holistically into our faith? First and foremost, the pastoral posture in response to grief and sorrow must be centered on bearing witness. Grief is inherently complex and subjective. Many factors contribute to how individuals respond, cope, and make meaning out of their suffering. Too often I see and hear habitual platitudes and proclamations such as: “God is in control and has a plan for you,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Such platitudes are empty attempts to fill that discomforting space that we feel when confronted with the pain of the bereaved. I argue that they stand in stark contradiction to the gospel and Christ’s example who, we are told when confronted with the grief of Mary and Martha, wept. Christ wept, not when he heard about Lazarus’ death, but in empathic response to the anguish of the living. Whenever we try to project meaning and significance on the suffering of another person, it is likely to increase disconnection and isolation.
Thus, our primary response ought to be humility, empathy, listening, and presence. In this “I and thou” relationship, God’s presence is made manifest in the bearing witness to the pain and sorrow of the other. In the words of Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, “Pastoral theology, as I understand it, is first and foremost a theology of God’s care for the world in Jesus Christ, which we are invited to participate.”1 In so doing, we shoulder the burden of their sorrow with them. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his book, Lament for a Son, shares deeply personal and painful reflections following the death of his twenty-five-year-old son in a mountain climbing accident. Something he says in that book captures for me the essence of how to bear witness:
“What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way… And if you can’t think of anything to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief… But please: Don’t say it’s really not so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”2
This, I believe is our call as the Church: to sit with those who are mourning. It is not about producing a well-formed theological corpus that makes sense of death and loss, but rather having the humility to acknowledge our own inadequacy to remedy the depth of their grief.
Finally, the Church must continue to preach and uphold the role of lament within the Christian tradition. A Christian theology that lacks a full appreciation of death and grief as central to our humanity makes resurrection and hope devoid of any meaning or significance. Children and teenagers will and do intuit this, and they will find the Church to be lacking in the areas of their lives that they need the Church community most. To do this, we must speak honestly and openly with youth about the difficult aspects of our humanity, including the complex emotions, thoughts, and actions that grief and loss often trigger. We also must help our youth understand that these reactions are not only “normal” but an important part of what makes them human. In so doing, we can build trust and safety in the Church as a community that celebrates our full humanity, aid the navigation through our increasingly complex world, and empower our youth to live a life filled with meaning, dignity, and resilience in the face of loss.
1. Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Bearing the unbearable: Trauma, gospel and pastoral care. Theology Today. 2011; 68(1): 9. doi:10.1177/0040573610394922
2. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1987, 34.
Jesse Bassett is the Director of Education for Good Grief, a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey. Good Grief’s mission is to build resilience in children, strengthen families, and empower communities to grow from loss and adversity. As Director of Education, Jesse works with professionals from schools, healthcare, funeral homes, faith organizations, and community agencies to provide training and resources on grief and loss, childhood bereavement, and fostering resilience. Jesse holds a B.A. in Philosophy and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he focused his studies on ethics and counseling.
- How does your church speak about mental health? Your school?
- What explicit messaging have you heard from the Church about mental health? What about implicit messaging?
- Where are the connections between mental, emotional, and spiritual health?
- Which spiritual practices discussed in this issue would you like to learn more about? Have you tried any of them in the past?
- How does your faith inform your understanding of grief and loss? How does it equip you to face grief and loss?
- Do the adults in your life practice good mental health habits? How can they best support your mental health?
- After reading the articles in this issue, what new questions do you have about navigating your own mental health journey? About discussing mental health with your peers and the trusted adults in your life?