Lesson 1: What do I do when teenagers are depressed and contemplating suicide?
Suffering and Youth Ministry
Rev. Dr. Blair D. Bertrand
Sex therapist and radio celebrity Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better campaign a number of years ago. Amidst a spate of teen suicides, Savage realized that young people who were struggling to understand their sexuality were without hope. They believed that their present suffering would continue forever. Rather than suffer, they chose death. Like all adults who love young people, Savage wanted to do something, to reach out and embrace each young person and say, “It gets better.” With the power of social media he could do just that. He began recording videos with the simple message, “It gets better.” Others joined him. There are now thousands of these videos but they all convey that simple message – it gets better.
This affirmation is incredibly powerful. As youth leaders, our first response to young people’s suffering must be to enter into a real relationship with them, to love them enough to hear their suffering, and to affirm that as they age, the particular causes of their suffering will change and, in many cases, will go away. We can do no less than Savage has done with a group he was particularly concerned about. We must do this passionately and personally, without reservation. Suffering is never easy, and there are a myriad of excuses why we don’t want to love a young person enough to suffer with them. All excuses pale in comparison to the commands of God to love each other.
The progressive optimism of It Gets Better serves as a good starting point, but it is not enough. There are times when it won’t get better. Young people consider suicide because they are desperate, hopeless, isolated, and lonely. Entering into a genuine relationship of Christian love can change some of these. A young person who feels ostracized and alone can feel connected and welcomed through love. This will go a long way to alleviate that particular kind of suffering.
Sometimes though, young people consider suicide because they are suffering with mental illness such as depression. There is not much that we can do as youth leaders when we say, “I love you” to a young person, and they hear, “What I really mean is you are worthless.” There is no reasoning with mental illness because the disease attacks the ability to reason. Just as most of us in the youth ministry community cannot adequately address someone suffering from cancer, so too we cannot adequately help someone with mental illness. The only way to alleviate some kinds of suffering is through medical intervention, and we should not shy away from that fact. It will only get better for some young people once they go and see a doctor. Youth leaders need to refer to medical professionals and feel no shame in doing so.
And we also must admit that there are times when it will not get better. The suffering that some young people undergo will not get better. I think of those suffering from a physical illness, such as cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, where no amount of progressive optimism will avert the inevitable. Many young people know about this kind of suffering from first-hand experience, and many others wrestle with it through popular media such as The Fault in Our Stars. We lie to young people if we say, “It gets better” in every situation because we and they both know it isn’t true.
This is where Gospel hope moves beyond progressive optimism. Gospel hope affirms the goodness of God amidst suffering and God’s intention to alleviate that suffering. God’s presence does not depend on us not suffering.
When we suffer, God is there.
God wants us to live whole lives.
These two truths are connected but are independently true. Where progressive optimism says, “I am with you as you escape suffering,” the Gospel says, “I am with you in your suffering even if it never ends.” Progressive optimism links love with successfully escaping suffering. The Gospel proclaims a God who loves unconditionally.
The good news of Christianity is that amidst suffering and death, God continues to be with us and for us.
Not only that but God as Jesus Christ entered into that suffering and death.
Not only that but God overcame suffering and death, coming alive again.
In Jesus Christ it has gotten better both in the here-and-now but also in the forever. We need to optimistically affirm with Savage and others that for most people, it does get better. Present suffering stops as we age. We cannot start there however. First we must say and live as if God loves that young person unconditionally. Whether that person gets better or not, God is there always desiring the best for that person.
Optimism affirms the reality that we can move beyond the causes of our present suffering. It is the silver lining, the light at the end of the tunnel, and the other door that has opened because this one has closed. Christian hope affirms all of these truisms, but continues to be real even if there is no silver lining, no light at the end of the tunnel, and no alternatives. Even when suffering persists, Christians affirm that God is there and that God moves all of history to a time and place where there are no more tears.
Embodying this for young people requires the whole church, because as individuals there are times and places when we will succumb to despair and doubt. Anyone who has wept with a young person as they struggle with despair knows doubt. In the face of death, the ultimate suffering, we can struggle to see God’s presence and hope. The church reminds us of God’s reality. When we baptize someone they descend into death to rise alive again. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we affirm that Christ died, rose again, and will reign forever. In our own imperfect ways, when we are church together, we affirm the hope of God. Youth leaders and young people need that reminder to hold onto hope in the midst of suffering.
Rev. Dr. Blair D. Bertrand serves Calvin Presbyterian Church (Abbotsford, BC) as their senior pastor, and recently completed his Ph.D. in Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (30 minutes)
Note to leaders: This may be a particularly sensitive topic, so be sure to provide plenty of space for personal reflection.
- “Today we will be talking about how to provide hope for young people who are dealing with despair or hopelessness. At some point, most of us have had an experience with depression or suicide, either personally or within our families. Today’s session will be about thinking about how to provide hope to young people who are facing these things.”
- Watch Video
- What is despair? What do you think about when that word is used?
- What makes despair different from a bad mood, or sadness?
- Blair says we need to accept despair, but as the church we cannot allow people to stay there. How do we help others move from despair and into hope?
- What does the resurrection have to say about despair and our ministry to those wrestling with despair?
- Have you been faced with a conversation with a young person struggling with thoughts of suicide, depression, or despair? If so, how did you respond?
- Practically, who are the people you can turn to for support as you help a student?
- How can we involve a student’s family in these conversations in a safe way?
- Hand out essay for further reading.
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)