by Rev. Monica Harbarger, MA, NCC, LPC-S

Monica is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), United Methodist Clergy, and Executive Director of United Counseling in Birmingham, AL. Monica is able to offer a unique perspective on faith in mental health issues. She loves to work with adolescents as well as adults on issues of faith, mood disorders, personality disorders, interpersonal relationships, and boundaries.

Teenagers have anxiety. This information is not breaking news. We know this because we have anxiety too. It’s everywhere. It can be overwhelming, especially when it doesn’t make sense. It hijacks our perceptions and twists our realities. We end up reacting and responding in ways that frustrate and disappoint. It seems we’re all nervous and anxious and wound tightly.

Often youth pastors and volunteers are the first points of contact when a student struggles. We find ourselves in places where we feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to help. Teenagers are the best at catching us off guard and throwing a curve ball into our wonderfully planned and executed evening of ministry. We can leave feeling defeated and questioning our call and capability as a minister.

The good news is most of the time, and most situations simply need a willing presence, someone who can come alongside the hurting and anxious student and provide a safe landing place for their thoughts. The student feels heard instead of minimized and diminished for feeling the way they do.

When sitting with someone flooded with anxiety, it is imperative to affirm their reality, even if you know it is unrealistic. For example, you have a student who is experiencing pretty high anxiety about getting sick

[attempt to read in one breath]

‘I’m afraid I may get sick and have to miss school and if I miss school then I will miss a test and if I miss a test I may not be able to make it up and if I don’t make it up I’ll end up with a C in the class and that C will be on my record and then I won’t be able to get into the school I want to get into and I won’t be able to go to college and then I’ll be homeless and alone……’

That’s all we are capable of doing. Coming alongside our students and helping point out the footholds when anxiety clouds their vision. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to do this. You simply have to be patient and compassionate and keep your eyes open for those places of security as you climb back with them to the point of safety.

Foothold #1
You don’t have to be a mental health professional, but you need resources to help them find folks who can help them in ways you can’t: Ask around and cultivate a list of therapists and psychiatrists who work with teenagers; store names and numbers in your phone to share them with students and parents easily; Contact local school counselors and get a list of resources they use. Remember, when you are in crisis, having someone who can give you a number is a gift, so you don’t have to figure out one more thing.

Foothold #2
You don’t have to be a mental health professional
, but you do need to be able to speak clearly and calmly amid anxiety and crisis. This means you need to know how to calm yourself and be comfortable sharing those tips and tricks with others in need. Practice them yourself and be willing to do them alongside someone in need.
Some easy exercises will help your student regulate if they are in a panic or hyper-anxious state:

Grounding: Have the student sit and walk through this simple exercise based on our senses. It may take a couple of rounds to settle into a calm place.

  • 5 – look around the room and name five things you see
  • 4 – find four different textures to feel
  • 3 – sit quietly and name three different sounds 2 – find two different smells
  • 1 – taste one thing (gum, mint, food, drink, etc.)

Square Breathing: Sit and talk your student through this simple breathing exercise.

  • Begin by slowly exhaling all of your air out.
  • Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4.
  • Hold at the top of your breath for a count of 4.
  • Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.
  • At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4.

Foothold #3
You don’t have to be a mental health professional
, but you do need to be able to advocate and support mental health work. It’s essential to speak about your own experiences with mental health (we all have them) to help normalize the valleys we find ourselves in and the power of finding help. Let it become a natural part of conversation and language in your ministry. Share what works for you, and be curious about what works for them. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Teenagers are amazing. I gravitate to them because that is where dreams are still happening, hope is still tangible, and energy is rampant. They are fearless in their vision of what the world, the kingdom, could be. They love big, play hard, and hurt deeply, partly because they’re hyped up on hormones, and their joints haven’t started hurting yet, but mostly because they are brave and less callused toward the world. They teach us a lot about life. The least we could do is be willing to sit with them when that life seems overwhelming.