Youth ministers have all been taught that when the struggles of a teenager seem like more than you’re equipped to handle, to refer, refer, refer. But to who? And how do you build a mental health referral guide? Especially if you’re new to the area or to the church, how are you supposed to know who to call when you need reinforcements, specifically of a trained mental health professional?
We can do better than just a list of strangers’ names when youth or parents talk to us about mental or emotional health needs. This post is meant to guide you through the process of putting together a referral guide that is accessible, robust and useful for the youth in your context.
When teenagers come to us at their most vulnerable, their most raw, we have a responsibility to point them not just towards Jesus, but towards those here on earth who, as professional caretakers of adolescents with mental and emotional health needs, act as his hands and feet. So, where do we start?
Utilize lists already put together and build on them. Ask your pastoral care staff and the pastoral care staff at other churches in the area. Call local high schools and talk to guidance counselors and school psychologists and get their referral list. A school in our area hosted a suicide prevention program, so I contacted the organizer and asked for who she worked with to put it together. If you know someone in your ministry is seeing a mental health professional and is open about it and having a good experience, ask for their name, and where they practice.
It can be tempting to start this process with an internet search, and if you really don’t have any other options, that is a place to start, but you’ll quickly find yourself overwhelmed with options, many whose quality no one has vouched for.
Now that you have a long list of resources, it can be tempting to think you’ve done enough, but in my experience, it takes people a lot of courage to admit they or their child needs help, and one or two bad leads can discourage them. You can minimize that possibility by narrowing the list.
Call the centers, resources, practices and practitioners on your list. Tell them what you’re doing and mention that you would like some more information and to ask a few questions. These places want clients, don’t expect you to be an expert and are generally very open to these kinds of questions.
Here are some things you will probably want to ask right off the bat:
-Are any of your counselors taking new clients right now?
-Do you have counselors who work with adolescents?
-What is your fee system? (Do you take insurance or Medicaid? Is it sliding scale?)
-What kind of licensure do your providers have?
-What types of counseling do your providers specialize in?
You’ll run across everything from MD’s in psychiatry to non-professional lay counselors, and while they can all be helpful, you need to be able to provide that information to families.
Also ask some questions about any specific needs you may have for your context, like:
-Do you work with substance abuse issues?
-Do you have counselors who are bilingual?
-Are you affirming to LGBTIA+ clients? (for Christian counseling centers)
Once you have a long list of resources and some information about them, begin to eliminate resources that are not a good fit. Your youth and their parents will benefit more from a handful of really good options than dozens of bad ones.
Organize your options to be able to navigate them better. Some of the categories I used are Christian Counseling, Low or No-Cost, Crisis Intervention (including inpatient centers), and Private Practice. Make sure you have addresses, contact numbers and any names of people you talked to or who were specifically recommended, so you can tell people who to ask for. This process may also reveal gaps in your resources that send you back to step one. That’s ok, it’s a working document.
See if they have anything to add or any feedback on resources you recommended. Reach out to anyone who helped you in the gather phase and offer them a copy. Not only is this polite but it establishes you as a resource in local mental health resources for adolescents.
If a teenager is dealing with more than you or they can handle, then tell them that you think that they should see a professional, and let them know that you’re going to talk to their parents, because you care about them, and want to love and help them the best way you know how.
When talking to the parents, be compassionate, patient and persistent. Get the parents to agree to allow you to at least send a few resources for them to look into. Send the referral guide, or relevant section of it, that day, and then follow-up to see if they have any questions. It’s not appropriate to ask them which resource they used or how it went, but you should be available to debrief if they offer up that information.
With the exception of extreme cases (risk of harm to self or others, abuse), you ultimately can’t make a youth get the help they need. But you can make it as easy and low stress as possible. Confronting issues of mental and emotional health is a courageous and vulnerable act, and we owe it to the youth we work with to be as prepared as possible to meet them in that place and help them find healing.
Kat Bair serves as the Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth and is a graduate of CYMT and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. While working at First Church, she has helped develop curriculum used at over a dozen Methodist churches in Texas and beyond. Her previous experience includes working in Northern Thailand on the investigation, prosecution, and provision of aftercare for victims in cases of commercial sexual exploitation of children, and as researcher on democratic consolidation during the Arab Spring as part of her first graduate degree at Miami University in Ohio. Kat in a native of Brentwood, Tennessee, and now lives in Grapevine with her husband, Andrew, who is a video game developer.
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