By Terry Goodrich and Jeff Brumley
Many mental health disorders first surface during adolescence, and college and youth pastors are in a good position to offer help or steer youths elsewhere to find it. But many of those pastors feel ill-prepared to recognize and treat mental illness, according to a Baylor University study.
While the study by Baylor researcher Matthew Stafford identifies a challenging situation confronting congregations, there are existing resources for those churches and clergy who want to effectively minister to depressed youth.
“There’s a lot congregations can do,” Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, managing director of resource development with American Baptist Home Mission Societies and director of interfaith engagement with the American Association of People with Disabilities, told Baptist News Global seperately.
It’s especially important ministers do this because of the high depression and suicide rates among young adults, Ramsey-Lucas said.
“The available resources … can get people thinking these things through, like how to make referrals and when that is needed,” he said.
Congregations can also seek to partner with non-profit and medical organizations that treat mental illness, he said.
But he added that the responsibility doesn’t reside solely with individual clergy and churches.
“There needs to be greater attention in terms of seminary education for clergy … in how to identify mental health concerns in a congregation or in an age group,” Ramsey-Lucas said.
Depression most prevalent issue
The Baylor study shows why action is needed by and on behalf of youth ministers.
Unlike senior pastors, those who work with young people are expected to have more extensive contact with their congregants because this likely occurs outside of church services, researchers said.
Because youth groups are smaller than the congregations themselves, a greater chance exists for deep relationships between pastors and adolescents, including through one-on-one counseling, Bible study groups, mission trips and service opportunities, said researcher Stafford, professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Study respondents were 94 youth and college pastors representing churches ranging in size from 45 to 8,000 members. Churches were located in Abilene, Austin, College Station, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Houston, Lubbock, Midland, San Antonio, the Temple-Killeen area and Waco.
The survey showed that:
• 50 percent said they had received training related to mental illness, but only 26 percent reported they felt qualified to work with young people dealing with significant mental health issues.
• 78.7 percent had worked with one to 10 adolescents a year whom they knew or believed had mental health issues.
• 76 percent had referred an adolescent congregant to a Christian counselor, a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but pastors who made referrals were most likely to do so to a Christian counselor.
Youth pastors ranked depression as the most prevalent mental health issue they have seen among youths, followed by pornography addiction, grief/bereavement, anxiety, aggression/anger, sexual behavior, alcohol/drug abuse, ADHD, emotional abuse, eating disorders, stress from having a family member with a mental health issue, domestic or spousal abuse, juvenile delinquency, gender identity, sexual assault/abuse and physical abuse.
The study showed that youth and college pastors’ most common method of intervention was to meet with the adolescent and refer the individual to a mental health professional. While many of the pastors described using biblical counseling methods, some counseled primarily with psychological concepts, using such methods as developing coping skills or role-playing.
The sample of youth pastors showed they believe that psychological well-being affects spiritual development. But they lacked training and confidence to interact with the mental health system, and some tensions and conflicts exist between pastors and mental health professionals.
‘We really aren’t equipped’
But one former youth minister took issue with defining issus like gender identity, ADHD and anger as mental health issues.
“Some of those things, I don’t think they are,” said Chris Robertson, associate pastor and former youth minister at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga.
Robertson said it’s also not universally true that youth ministers spend more time with youth than pastors do with their adult congregants.
Consequently, “it may not be any easier for youth ministers to spot mental illness than for other ministers to spot mental illness,” he said.
And Robertson said he, like all clergy, has no business trying to treat or fix mental illness. He recalled the lessons he learned in a pastoral care class at seminary.
“I was taught three things — listen, ask good questions and then refer them to somebody,” Robertson said.
But Robertson said he does agree with the findings that mental health topped the list of concerns for youth, and that clergy need more training and education on the subject.
“We really aren’t equipped for mental illness,” he said.
As much as Christians need to learn about mental illness, it is equally important that ministers avoid trying render medical opinions about the youth in their care, said Seth Vopat, associate pastor for youth and family at First Baptist Church of Louisburg, Kan.
“I’m really cautious with that,” said Vopat, also a commentary writer for Baptist News Global. “I just don’t think we can go around and diagnose — I don’t think that helps the conversation.”
What does help, he added, is being a good listener and willing to bring in others to address cases of depression or other problems with youth. That could include other ministers and family members.
The Baylor study found that a youth pastor’s “unique role as gatekeeper can be improved,” and pastors are interested in knowing more about counseling, researchers said. Many are unaware of mental health professionals with whom to work and did not know what psychotherapy would entail — including time, cost and scope of services.
Researchers recommended that mental health professionals working with religious youths consider the role of the youth pastor and reach out to faith communities to collaborate.
“Outreach will allow the pastor and mental health professional to gain an understanding of the other while becoming familiar with each other’s ‘language’ and view of mental health,” researchers said.
Co-researcher of the study was William Hunter, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Baylor.