In the wake of the suicide of a Glenelg teen last month I have had the opportunity to talk to a couple local youth workers about how to take care of troubled teens and at risk youth. It reminded me of why I got into counseling in the first place. When I was in youth ministry I found myself faced with a couple situations where I didn’t feel competent or trained enough to handle them. Working with kids with severe depression, and self destructive behaviors like cutting are particularly difficult. One thing in particular that has came up in my discussions is the desire to keep these feelings and actions that youth share with us a secret. I get it. A youth has come to you in confidence, and that relationship is a precious thing, and something you don’t want to risk. But there are a lot of reasons why you need to talk to someone, and probably multiple someones:
1. Go to the youth pastor – If you are the youth pastor go to the your head pastor or elder in charge of youth ministry is. Make sure that the procedures you follow are in line with the expectations of the church leadership. Those procedures are there for a reason, they help protect you and hopefully to take the best care of the person you are working with. They can give you a good guideline for where to go next.
2. Take care of yourself – Holding onto another persons secret thoughts of killing themselves or hurting themselves can be very difficult. It is a heavy burden, and one you shouldn’t have to carry alone. Talking discreetly, probably even confidentially to people you trust can let you know you are not alone, and it is not your burden to carry.
3. Don’t feed into the cycle – People normally feel ashamed of feelings of depression, suicide or hurting oneself. By agreeing to keep those thoughts secret you inadvertently affirm that they do have something to feel ashamed about. Truth is they don’t have anything to be ashamed about. Just like we talk about the need to shine light on secret sin through confession and accountability depression and hurtful thoughts and behaviors are much the same way. Once they are out in the open and appropriate accountability and support is put in place they are harder to act on and easier to combat.
4. Build a support group – If you are working with youth you probably want to start with the parents. That is not always the case so be careful if you are working with a youth whose parents are emotionally abusive, or unsupportive. The bottom line is you want to discreetly and systematically bring others in who can help support the hurting individual on a daily basis. It does not need to be a big group, and you probably want a mental health professional or pastoral counselor to be the lead in that support system, but make sure it is there. Many hands make light work, and make it less possible for the individual to fall through the cracks, and normally make them feel more supported.
Taking care of any youth is a precious responsibility. I loved working on the “front lines” in youth ministry, and applaud those who are doing it now as volunteers or professionally. It’s not an easy task, and situations like this are extremely hard to navigate. This article just scratches the surface, and probably brings up more questions than it gives answers. If you are reading this and realize that you need to/want to find out more please feel free to contact me using the info in the sidebar. I’m available for free phone and e-mail consultation, and for leadership trainings on how to deal with troubled teens.