By Eddie Pipkin

October 16, 2017

My teenage nephews visited me last week during their fall break, and it was a great opportunity to quiz them (as I routinely do all young folk) on the ways they use their smartphones and social media.  Many of you reading this are like me, a middle-aged person, relatively up-to-date, but trying to surf the new technology without getting wiped out by the waves of change.  I didn’t really have to deal with all this as a parent, and I don’t envy you parents who do.  My kids were just old enough to miss the reality of smartphones-and-social-media-24/7.  The issues are daunting: For every creative benefit made possible by these technologies, there is a warning flag.  Just this week, Time Magazine published an in-depth article on the links between young people and mental health issues, “We Need to Talk About Kids and Smartphones.”

The gist of the article is that rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have spiked for this age group. These are exactly the kinds of real-world challenges which families in our ministries need help navigating.  They look to us as ministry leaders for practical moral guidance.  Bible studies are great, and they and meaningful worship help us keep our priorities God-focused, but families need help translating foundational faith principles to practical steps for managing family life.  We can provide materials, forums, and encouragement for parents wrestling with decisions about how to help young people develop positive ways to cope with a world which is new in ways we don’t fully understand ourselves.

Here is a sobering paragraph from the Time article:

The latest statistics on teen mental health underscore the urgency of this debate. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leapt by 60%, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 2016 survey of 17,000 kids found that about 13% of them had a major depressive episode, compared to 8% of the kids surveyed in 2010. Suicide deaths among people age 10 to 19 have also risen sharply, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young women are suffering most; a CDC report released earlier this year showed suicide among teen girls has reached 40-year highs. All this followed a period during the late-1990s and early 2000s when rates of adolescent depression and suicide mostly held steady or declined.

Aside from being a compelling argument for why strong children’s and youth ministries are really, really, really important, these statistics reinforce the need to provide resources for frustrated and overwhelmed parents.  We can help families make decisions about what types of media they will consume and how much time they will spend consuming it by directing them to great independent resources such as Common Sense Media.  Some churches collect such useful links on their websites, even taking part in (or creatively borrowing the idea) from Common Sense of the #DeviceFreeDinner, in which families are encouraged not only to share meals together (which is known to have profound positive effects), but to all agree to deactivating their devices while doing so.  Our ministries can offer access to experts in children’s and youth issues, as well as classes on raising kids from a biblical perspective.  We can serve a valuable role in helping families talk about the scary things they are seeing in the news and how to work through the tragedies of sickness, death, and dislocation that are an unavoidable part of the human experience.

Expanding this topic beyond that of kids and technology, Jordan McKenzie makes the wider case that the church does not do enough to address mental health issues in general (forgive another lengthy quote, but it’s a good one):

While we may admit that mental illness is a significant problem for many individuals and our society as a whole, we live in such a fast-paced culture that most of us can’t even take a break to take care of our own mental health. Many of us are overburdened, overwhelmed, and exhausted. The majority of us simply turn to social media, binge-watching Netflix, or other distractions to deal with the challenges of daily life. But that is not an antidote for the stress and pressure of our high-octane culture. If we really want to get serious about this issue, it must begin not in the realm of abstraction but with us as individuals.

That’s why I believe churches and other faith communities must step up. It is in communities of faith that people come to seek some form of healing and wholeness. And it is in such settings that I believe these issues can be discussed in healthy ways. Yet in most places of worship, discussions around mental illness are noticeably absent. Clergy and lay people have no problem praying for those who may have a physical challenge, such as a bad back, heart disease, or the stomach flu, but those who are depressed, anxious or in the grips of another mental illness are rarely mentioned. Moreover, though more than eighty percent of pastors say they know multiple people in their congregation who struggle with mental illness, less than thirteen percent say it’s discussed in an open, honest way.

What a profound opportunity to meet the real needs of the suffering people in our midst.  While addressing hunger and homelessness are familiar ways to engage our greater community, many of us serve congregations in which these issues do not directly affect those in our congregations—that is to say, most of the members of our congregations are not themselves hungry or homeless.  They may, however, be facing anxiety, depression, addiction, or suicidal thoughts.  Issues of mental health are ubiquitous even in affluent suburban congregations.  If we move beyond the general comfort offered by the Scriptures and towards a frank discussion of these issues, we are doing God’s work for this time and place.  These brothers and sisters need a safe place to honestly communicate their struggles.  They need a community to help them grow stronger.  They need practical guidance in seeking help and healing.

We can work to more fully understand the signs of depression and other mental health issues in the people we serve and how to respond in helpful ways.  We can even build ministries around those responses.  To do so is to be relevant and to restore lives.

How has your church provided resources for families, youth, and children to navigate technology and social media?  How have you dealt in frank ways with mental health issues?  Please share your stories of encouragement and success so that others can be inspired by your ideas.  Where have you personally seen a need for the kinds of outreach discussed in this blog?  We encourage you to visit the Excellence in Ministry Coaching website to check out resources for community building, and to use this forum for a place to ask questions and deepen the conversation.