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5 Tips For Referring Students To Professionals

Carl Dodd
Nate Rice
April 23rd, 2019

Everyone’s story is different. Everyone’s life experiences uniquely shapes them, changing how they engage with the world around them. This means our response to students in crisis needs to be rooted in healthy relationship. There will be a time in ministry when one of your students experiences crisis which will require you to serve as a First Responder, both to the student and their family.

In ministry, we are called by God to be part of the healing process in the lives of hurt and broken people. This is a serious call, and one that requires a serious response; given the wave of crisis facing our students today. Just like learning CPR, there are tools and skills you need so that you can confidently respond to the mental health needs of your students.

Be an awesome ‘First Responder’, but don’t try to be a hero. When learning CPR, there are lots of medical procedures they don’t teach you–for a reason. For example, although we may have seen many performed by innocent bystanders on tv, those of us who are not medical professionals probably wouldn’t break out a knife and ballpoint pen and perform an emergency tracheotomy in the middle of a restaurant– right? Likely it would not well and would definitely get messy!

As leaders with responsibility for the spiritual care of our students, there are times to when the best care we can give is to walk with a student as they seek help from a trained expert.  We want to help you know when and how to refer a student and their family to professionals for mental health care.

Tip 1: Ask some key questions of yourself.

One of the first steps when working with someone in crisis is to stop and consider how much of a helping role you can play in this situation.  So, start by asking the following questions:

“Is this too much for me to deal with?” It’s important to consider if you have the experience and training to address the person’s issue. Working with a student in crisis requires a level of emotional capacity from us that we might not be able to offer.

“Do I have time to respond well?” There’s a serious time investment in assisting someone that’s wrestling with mental health issue, or another type of crisis. Determine from the outset if you are able to invest the time.

“Am I actually right person to help, or is there someone else?” You need to  consider if you are the right person to help.  Something might prevent you from being helpful to the student or family you are working with (previous history, cultural specific issues, your own trauma, etc.).  Being honest with yourself is crucial.

Tip 2: Response conversations – the art of knowing “when”

Once you are aware of your own capacity to care, you can provide your student with a safe space and the opportunity to share what is going on. Offer non-judgemental listening as you try to establish what their needs are in the situation. Don’t jump in with comments that quickly try to fix “their problem” or belittle the situation. Baselines are different for individuals: what doesn’t seem like a big deal to you could be overwhelming to them. By listening to their needs, you can then evaluate whether the response is beyond your training and needs you to bring in a professional.

Tip 3: Build a pool of therapists.

It’s our suggestion that every youth leader has a list of at least two, but preferably more, licensed counselors that they can refer students and their families to.  This means that you have done your homework by meeting with and ultimately feeling confident about referring people to those counselors. Find local counselors that work with adolescents and families and ask to meet them in person or meet up for coffee.  Ask questions about their availability and approach to therapy, and explore ways you can further partner together (e.g. have the counselor come speak to parents on the topic of anxiety). Feeling confident in the person(s) you refer your students or families to in an important step in this process.

Tip 4: Support families as you make the referral.

We hope this goes without saying, but a mental health crisis can be devastating to a family,  leaving parents feeling lost, often ashamed, scared, and so much more. In student ministry we often are in the position of advocating for our students. We encourage you to also see your role (and that of your wider ministry team) as supporting the whole family. They’re going to need help as they find the best therapist for them. Perhaps there will be other issues like finances, transport, availability, meals, cultural acceptance, etc. to think about. These are great opportunities for the church to serve and minister to the whole family–but make sure that it’s done in a way that is unobtrusive and respectful of privacy.

Tip 5: Take care of yourself.

In one of the first encounters in The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo games, the text “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone” flashes across the screen. We know this. Yet, it seems that so many in ministry roles believe that they are the exception and can do it all themselves.  This could lead to our own mental, physical and even spiritual burn-out. We highly encourage you to take your own self-care seriously. Among other things, this might mean that you seek out a counselor of your own. Maybe you feel alone in your role and simply need someone to talk to. Or maybe you have some ways in which you’ve been hurt and never taken the time to heal from that wound.  When we are able to open ourselves to another person, to be vulnerable with them, it can liberate us in so many ways.

Be part of an online community of support. You can do this through ministry facebook groups, such as Youth Crisis First Responders, which allow you to ask questions and share the struggles you are facing.

Final thoughts.

You are the First Responders facing a wave of crisis that impact all our groups, schools and families. We know these situations can break your heart for the lost and broken that stand right in front of you on a weekly basis. We want to thank you.

Youth Crisis First Responders is releasing a wave of people equipped to respond well, and with confidence to the increasing challenge of students experiencing mental health and situational crisis. You can find out more at www.youthcrisis.org, or liking the Facebook page here.

Carl Dodd

Carl Dodd has been ministering to children, youth and their families for 20 years. He has served in local, regional and national projects. His latest initiative, ‘Adventure Together’ (www.adventure-together.com), encourages churches and ministries to see students as co-creators of ministry, rather than consumers. Carl is married to Rachel and enjoys the outdoor life with their two girls in the lakes and forests of Washington.

Nate Rice

Nate is a licensed mental health counselor in Washington state, earning his MA in Counseling Psychology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Prior to starting his private practice in the Seattle area, Nate was in full-time youth ministry for over two decades. He is passionate about addressing the current mental health crisis in our country, particularly in youth and young adults.

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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