A longer read, based on what I spoke on at the Churches Mental Health Consultancy Conference last week.
The future is looking bleak for our young people.
80,000 have been diagnosed with depression.
In every classroom, there are three children who have diagnosable mental health conditions.
More than half of all adults with a mental illness were diagnosed with their condition during childhood.
As many as 1 in 10 young people get through the day by self-harming.
Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year olds.
Our young people are hurting, and they are running out of hope.
I know a young woman who’s pain is marked all over her body, she’d tried every avenue of self-destruction because she couldn’t see the value of her life. She had the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen and her gait is slow. She has no vision for a future because she fears that looking that far will be too painful and tiring. She doesn’t want to go any further because she’s eighteen and she tired.
Vision is far off – and young people like this all over our world need us to carry a vision for them when they can barely open their eyes.
We need to recapture a vision for young people like the one I’ve just described.
A vision that shows us how to care for our young people and as I was preparing for this, the thing that kept coming back to me again and again is a verse I was given when I was about fifteen.
I’d been struggling with my own depression for about a year by this point and my youth leader sent me a message with this verse, 2 Timothy 1:7 and it says
“For God has not given up a spirit of fear, but of power and of love, and of a sound mind.”
As a young person this verse really spoke to me because I felt like I was going mad and I desperately wanted God to work in me and if I’m honest, snap his fingers and heal me. What this verse told me in the clearest way though, is that God was not the orchestrator of my pain. God was and is a healing God – whether that be now through medication and counsel, or whether it’s fulfilled in the promise of Revelation 21:4 which says:
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
This verse is our future hope – I believe that is our ultimate vision not just for the mental health of young people – but for the mental health of all people.
But we aren’t in heaven yet.
And whilst that means our ultimate healing and the day without tears is a way off yet, it doesn’t mean that we don’t experience God’s love and care for us and I think that this is what Paul is trying to tell Timothy in his letter to him.
Paul was Timothy’s pastor and he writes to him in a tender and caring way. Verse 4 says that Paul recalls Timothy’s tears and that brings to mind the shepherd of Psalm 23 leading his flock home and the dedication of a pastor is what young people need and when Paul addresses Timothy directly he gets to the heart of what Timothy needs to hear and like a good Baptist(!) he has 3 key characteristics.
The first thing that Paul addresses is Timothy’s fear or timidity as it is sometimes translated.
“The Spirit [that Paul is talking about] does not turn a timid man into a powerful personality, but he provides the resources necessary for each situation.”
Our generation of young people are a scared generation.
We have young people scared to go to school because their friends are carrying knives.
We have young people imprisoned by a fear that they aren’t good enough, even with 4 A-levels.
We have young people who are desperate to be protected and yet feeling they must care for whole families.
We have young people so scared of putting on weight that they are starving themselves to death = anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate than any other mental disorder.
When you think about it, it’s not just our young people who are living in a climate of fear. The fear of abduction, cyber-abuse, road traffic accidents. And that fear all too often dictates how we speak to our young people.
We are so scared of saying the wrong thing – that we don’t say anything at all.
The way we relate to the world around us has changed dramatically in the last fifty years – indeed even in the 25 years I’ve been alive life has changed beyond recognition and that can make us scared to face up to the new challenges life brings.
1 in 5 school children first heard about self-harm from the online world, well over a third of young people have a smart phone in their early teens – there’s a life and world out there which is affecting, both positively and negatively, the way in which we minister to young people.
Again, I might have painted a bleak picture, but as ever, the bleakness of the picture cannot help but be out dazzled by the things God has set before.
For God did not make us to live in fear or shame – it didn’t happen until the Fall, did it.
“They were naked and they felt no shame”
Not only are those early passages of Genesis beautiful because they show us how God created things to be – they are also beautiful because they point to a future and more than that – they begin to come to fulfilment in the birth, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus and the constant companionship of the Spirit.
And it is through Christ Jesus that we have the vision that Paul sets before Timothy.
But how do we help our young people inhabit these for themselves?
It’s not about a gospel which says that life will not have fear and pain in it – it’s about a gospel which says that we can live with the fear and pain because God Is With Us.
What does power look like given to us by God?
I think it looks like empowering our young people. Giving them the tools to deal with their pain and strategies to manage their emotions.
We’re used to teaching our toddlers how to deal with their emotions, aren’t we? We teach them that it’s okay to be cross because your little brother stole your toy – but it’s not okay to punch the aforementioned little brother.
The trouble is, we do’t do that we our young people – we don’t give them the tools to deal with the barrage of brand new emotions which barrage them as they enter puberty. Homework pressures, desperately fancying someone who doesn’t know you exist, caring for chronically ill parents – the list is endless.
We need to equip them the best we can with practical methods of emotional regulation; whether that be scrapbooking to deal with grief to taking glass bottles to the recycling to hear that oh so satisfying noise when they are angry.
God’s given us the ability to construct coping mechanisms – biblically it was often musical – David playing Saul the harp and the prisoners singing out praise from their cell. These aren’t new ideas – but we need to reconnect with them.
The second thing that Paul presents to Timothy is love.
And I don’t mean the mushy romantic “Sam Smith lovesong” (don’t get me wrong – I love that stuff, I got married a few months ago and we had a very romantic dance to Sam Smith!) but I digress.
This is love that weeps.
There is not a clearer picture for me of a love that weeps that Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Mark 14: 32-36 says:
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba,[a] Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’
It speaks to our humanity, more perhaps than any other passage in scripture. Timothy Keller writes:
“He was experiencing an internal and mental agony so unbearable that he felt like the pain alone could kill him right there and then…He’s reeling, dumbfounded, astonished. As he is on his way to pray, a darkness and horror comes down on him beyond anything he could have anticipated, and the pain of it makes him feel he is disintegrating on the spot.”
Nothing but Love could have taken Jesus to the cross and it is love which has to be at the centre of our vision for the mental health of the next generation.
A love that weeps for broken minds and crushed spirits.
A love that shows compassion and sits with young people not with programmes and clever answers, but with love and presence. We need to recapture the art of lament for and with our young people because the stiff upper lip of christianity has done us no good.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher who wrote the book Lament for a Son in the aftermath of losing his son in a tragic accident says:
“Why celebrate stoic tearlessness? Why insist on never outwearing the inward when that inward is bleeding? Does enduring while crying not require as much strength as never crying? Must we always mask our suffering?… I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.”
Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazurus, He revealed his risen self first through Mary Magdalene’s tears. There is a whole book in the Bible centering around lament and I think we need to get into the rhythms of our spirituality again – rejoicing at what’s been given and grieving what’s been lost. It might mean holding a special cell group or youth service looking at something like Psalm 88 or it might be in your 1-2-1 mentoring with young people, allowing them to express their emotions whether they be mountaintop or valley.
And lastly, Paul talks about God giving a sound mind, some translations say “self-discipline” and I’m inclined to think we need to see it both ways.
We are getting better at teaching our young people to talk about not giving into every whim; whether that be through healthy eating or sex and relationships advice. We need to be talking to our young people about impulse control and making choices about how they manage what’s going on with them whether that be managing medication or attending talking therapies. It’s these things that contribute to having a sound mind and maintaining a sound mind even when in the grips of mental illness. Paul again, talks more great sense when he’s addressed the Romans. Chapter 12v2 says:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Speaking truth into the lives of young people isn’t easy – it has a lot to stand up against, but that is all the more reason to speak it. The trite reciting of Bible verses isn’t enough – but teaching context and message and hope, is.
Alongside this, however, is the need to have an understanding of mental health. We don’t need to be psychiatrists or mental health workers – but we need to know what we’re talking about when we talk about mental health in the same way as we might learn basic first aid. It doesn’t make us into medical professionals – but it can keep someone going.
We cannot serve the souls of young people by ignoring their minds and their hearts.
Use all the resources available to you to help equip yourself and your young people to have sound minds. Minds that are not trapped by mental illness or enslaved to self-harm.
We might not be able to cure mental illness – but we can clear the way and our hearts to see some purpose and hope.
Timothy Keller writes:
““Suffering can refine us rather than destroy us because God himself walks with us in the fire.”
He arms us, not with our power or our own love – but with His infinitely greater power and love.
His power to calm the waves when the storm wages.
His love which weeps with his friends.
His sound mind as he walked through his desert of temptation.
This is our vision for a future generation.
This is our vision for our generation.
So let’s go.