Student Series: What Students Need from You During Seasons of Mental Illness

Back by popular demand, the Rooted Student Series gives high school and college students a chance to share how the Gospel is transforming their lives. We think you will agree that youth leaders and parents can learn a lot from these wise and wonderful kids!

My credentials to write a blog post on mental illness are not yet found at the end of my name. Instead, experiences from my own life and the lives of those close to me have informed me of the need for this post. After I discovered how to manage my seasonal depression and anxiety, the Lord opened my eyes to the epidemic of mental illness among my peers. During college, I lost a friend to suicide, and I eventually took other friends to and from the psychiatric ward of the hospital. I’ve learned much from hindsight about what might have improved the mental health of these friends. And I think my generation has a better grasp of this epidemic than generations past.

As I reflect on the church experiences and home life of these friends, I implore you, youth leaders and parents, to regularly address mental illness with your students. Here are some observations regarding what students need from their youth leaders and parents.

  1.    They need you to redirect them to seek help elsewhere. You should never be the only one addressing the mental health of a student. Besides the obvious response of entrusting your student into the hands of God through your prayers, you need to recruit help from others. If you are not a licensed mental health professional, you should not consider yourself qualified to determine the severity of potential mental illness, or to select the appropriate treatment plan. Even if you are a licensed mental health professional who lives in the same household as a student with mental illness, it might be helpful to seek a different perspective from a different professional. Refer your students to qualified, reliable mental health professionals for their benefit, as well as yours. By maintaining professional boundaries, your students are free to seek help from those who specialize in treating mental illness, and you are free to focus on pointing your students to Christ—which should be your specialization.
  2.    They need to see examples in Scripture of people battling mental illness. I shared some biblical examples of mental illness with my college pastor, and he included these examples in a Sunday school lesson on mental illness. He later informed me that he heard from many students afterwards who were encouraged by the lesson and, specifically, the biblical examples of mental illness. I am not alone in my desire to see biblical examples of circumstances similar to what I encounter.

Mental illness is a filter through which people view the world, including the Bible. I pray that ministers of the gospel acknowledge this information-filter as they prepare to teach the Word of God.

When teaching on the life of David, don’t leave out Psalm 42:

“Why am I so depressed? Why this turmoil within me? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise Him, my Savior and my God.” Psalm 42:5

When teaching on the prophets, as every youth ministry should, don’t overlook Jeremiah’s confession in Lamentations 3:

“Remember my affliction and my homelessness, the wormwood and the poison. I continually remember them and have become depressed. Yet I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s faithful love we do not perish, for His mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness!” Lamentations 3:19-23

When teaching on the life of Paul, don’t forget to point out Paul’s discouragement and subsequent encouragement:

“For we don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, of our affliction that took place in Asia: we were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life. Indeed, we personally had a death sentence within ourselves, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a terrible death, and He will deliver us. We have put our hope in Him that He will deliver us again.” 2 Corinthians 1:8-10

  1.    Students need community in which they can share their struggles and be heard. Students who are struggling in the area of mental health need a faithful community of believers, both older than they are and among the same age group. They should not be met with judgment. Although it is the result of living in a broken, sinful world, mental illness is not inherently sinful. Therefore, students need believers to walk alongside them in the pain and struggles they face.

Within the Psalms, we observe the psalmists bringing a wide range of emotions before God. These emotions, ranging from moderate to extreme, are acknowledged within the Word of God. Since the Psalms provide a space for a wide range of emotions, so should the church and, especially, youth ministries. Foster environments that provide the time and space for students to share with you and with one another what is going on in their lives.

  1.    They need to be bombarded with truth that undermines the lies of mental illness. As you get to know the struggles of your students and the possible triggers of mental illness, you will increase your understanding of the lies that the mentally ill brain transmits. Here are just a few symptoms of mental illness related to cognition and mood.
  • Feelings of hopelessness
    • Lie: The problems of today are eternal
    • Truth: Our hope in Jesus is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18)
  • Loss of control
    • Lie: You’re too weak to control your own mind
    • Truth: God is stronger, more experienced, and worthy of your trust (2 Corinthians 10:5)
  • Loss of interest
    • Lie: Everything you thought you loved doesn’t matter
    • Truth: The life that Jesus offers you matters (John 10:10)
  • Sense of guilt
    • Lie: You don’t deserve to be happy
    • Truth: You don’t deserve grace, but it’s already paid for (Romans 8:1, 38-39)

Battling mental illness involves intentionally engaging with truth. Although speaking biblical truths over your students is important, it is equally important – if not more important – to encourage your students to feed their own brains the truth they need. They can do so via worship music, podcasts, and visual reminders of scriptural truth. Continuous audible and visual stimulation that reminds students of who they are in Christ can equip them for the battles they will engage within the confines of their minds.

  1. More than anything, your students need you to point them to Jesus. Jesus came as the antidote to the symptoms of mental illness. As our Wonderful Counselor, He reminds us that we are not without hope. As our Mighty God, He fights our battles and brings our lives under His control. As our Eternal Father, He gives us a new identity – not based on our interests but based on our relationship with Him as His children. And as our Prince of Peace, He removes our guilt and replaces it with the peace of being forgiven. He is the only one perfectly capable of dealing with our struggles.

Emily Jenkins is a recent graduate of Samford University, where she studied Religion. She will begin graduate school this fall at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to receive a master's degree in Clinical/Medical Social Work. This summer, she has joined the Rooted team as an intern. In her spare time, she is probably streaming the soundtrack of a Broadway musical.

More From This Author