by Kate Orr
Kate serves as the Associate Director of the Student Ministry at Brentwood United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN.
The Modern Epidemic of Anxiety
Before I begin, I must give a disclaimer: Just a few days ago in Nashville, a shooter entered a church school, leaving seven beloved children of God dead, including the shooter himself.
There is upheaval everywhere. Its scope stretches from the national narratives surrounding our former president being indicted, to ongoing global conflicts like the war in Ukraine and our relationship with China, to more personal issues related to place, identity, and belonging. With all of this in the air, there is no question why anxiety levels among teenagers are at a record high. While this spike in anxiety is no doubt tied to our modern circumstances, maybe some of our best tools for coping with it have been around for thousands of years.
In 2023, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report indicating that all adolescents, no matter their socioeconomic status, gender, race, or gender identity, saw a decline in mental health. The students who were affected most? Girls and LGBTQ+ teens, to the tune of 40 percent and 70 percent, respectively. (Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.)
In researching this and imagining all of the difficulties families face and the despair that parents and caregivers feel, I found my own anxiety rising and had to take a moment, pause, and pray.
While anxiety and stress are up across the board, there is at least one key indicator that differentiates those who traverse this anxiety in healthy and successful ways, and those who do not.
Professionals agree that, especially in early adolescence through emerging adulthood, whatever skills you have in your toolbox when you are 18 to 19 years old are a better predictor of success than which college you attend, your standardized testing scores, or where you grew up.
The integration of how to think about and process anxiety in relation to their faith has the ability to deeply impact students throughout their lives.
Studies also suggest that the more a teen uses coping mechanisms like alcohol, drugs, and social media to deal with emotional and anxiety-producing situations, the more likely they are to become dependent on those coping mechanisms.
What if we, as Christians who work with youth, led our students to lean on our historical and ecclesial practices as a way to cope with their anxiety and big emotions? When I became overwhelmed with anxiety while researching these topics, my inclination was to stop, slow down, and pray. Somewhere in my life that was a coping mechanism or tool or spiritual practice that was given to me to use in these situations. It is a tool that I continue to use today as an adult.
Practices like prayer, sabbath, community, and service allow people to sit with big emotions and work through them in the presence of God. It is not that these replace the important tools of counseling and professional help, but they help fill a teenager’s coping toolbox with healthy, faith-based alternatives that they can use when professional help is not needed. What if the solutions for so many of our modern problems are found in our ancient practices?
Our Role as Leaders
It is also important to remember that, as youth workers, our influence over students is very limited. It feels even more minute in light of the incredible amount of influence parents and caregivers have in their child’s life. While parents have the lion’s share of influence, they at the same time feel incredibly overwhelmed and isolated in this role. These predominant feelings, coupled with research that shows that they do not feel equipped or confident to talk with their kids about faith, points to an ever more urgent need for us to stand in the gap with them.
We not only have an opportunity to help our student’s anxiety through our ministry with them, but also by empowering and equipping their parents and caregivers for those situations.
What could it look like to empower our parents and caregivers with the tools and practices of prayer, sabbath, community, and service as they influence and lead their families? The change would be exponential.
Remember that good youth ministry is good parent and caregiver ministry, and good parent and caregiver ministry is good youth ministry.
May we help our communities – children, youth, and families – realize their worth isn’t in notions of success but is intrinsic to their God-createdness. As we journey through this life may we help those who struggle with this know their worth, lessen their anxiety, and know God’s love. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.