Mental Health Awareness Week | Mental Health + Youth Workers

Tim Balow
October 7th, 2020

Conversations surrounding mental health and mental health awareness have shifted dramatically over the last 10-15 years.

This week represents the annual Mental Health Awareness Week presented by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Youth Specialties had the privilege of recently interviewing John Sloss of Unbound Living.

John is a licensed Mental Health Therapist with a background in youth and family ministry. John shares with us some unique perspectives answering some of the big questions related to the different levels of mental health as it relates to students, families, youth workers, and churches.

Each day this week, we’ll zero in with John on a specific relationship with mental health. Today is Mental Health + Youth Workers.

What has been an “awakening” experience for you regarding mental health + youth workers?

Looking back at my twelve years in youth ministry, I am shocked at the lack of engagement with mental health as a topic of conversation.  Churches appear hesitant to engage the topic of mental health and to discuss the interplay of mental health and faith. 

Mental health was rarely discussed within youth groups.  Additionally, I was ill equipped and therefore the team I led was ill equipped to engage in the issues of mental health and illness with our students. 

In hindsight, we were attempting to care in the realm of mental health without the necessary tools to do so.  I needed more awareness and understanding of mental illness, both personally and professionally, in order to equip the team I was working with.

It is my belief that youth ministries do not partner with licensed mental health therapists nearly as much as they need to in order to offer healthy, holistic care to the students they work with.  I speak from experience on both sides of the topic.

What are the most common struggles for youth workers with mental health?

The false belief that they have to go it alone.  Just as leading a faith community is a specialty that takes experience and education, so is engaging mental health people.  It takes years of education and experience in order to accurately conceptualize mental health, mental illness, and their impact on individual lives.

Yet so many leaders are hesitant to ask for help.  I believe youth leaders need a blessing of permission to not be put together, to not have it figured all out and to reach out for help when needed. 

Working in the lives of youth requires your best self.  Your best self is one that steps into your own humanity with humility and kindness.  If you feel something is “off,” seek a professional who can caringly walk with you. 

What can be done to manage through a season of mental healing while in ministry?

I prefer the phrase “self-care” rather than “manage.”  Self-care requires awareness to self, to your thoughts, your emotions, your needs.  It requires an attunement to your heart and your mind.  Mental health therapy is all about helping an individual heal, process and become equipped to do this work better.

If you are currently in process (and aren’t we all?) with a therapist, make it a point to give yourself good portions of self-care.  Be it eating healthier, working out, meditating in the morning, going for walks, PLAY; find what allows you a deep full breath and do that often.  Practice being with yourself more than doing more. 

What are the questions youth workers should be asking themselves and each other as “check-in’s” about mental health?

I caution any check-in with someone who is not a fully trusted confidant.  The topic of one’s mental health is a vulnerable one.  I have found that often shame is attached to this topic, especially in faith communities.  As a therapist I want clients to feel supported unconditionally in their journey to healing, not pressured to perform it quicker, better, fuller. 

That being said, if you have a trusted confidant, three check-in questions are:  “What is your baseline?” “Is it healthy?”and “Are you there?”  The word baseline refers to your normal emotional, physical and mental presence.  Feel free to find a word that works best for you.

With these questions we want you to (1) gain awareness into your internal state of being and (2) identify if your baseline is healthy.  If not, a mental health therapist is an appropriate and healthy choice of support.

Tim Balow

Youth Specialties exists to elevate the role of youth ministry and the youth worker to grow the faith of the next generation.

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.