Professionals agree that South Africa is facing a mental health crisis and as youth workers, we are often positioned to partner with parents in looking out for the mental and spiritual wellbeing of young people.
Many young people feel desperate for someone to talk to about their experiences and youth workers might be their first point of call.
No need to panic.
Even without special training, there are a number of things you can do to support the mental health of the youth under your care.
THINGS TO KNOW AS A YOUTH WORKER
Mental illness refers to anything that affects our social, emotional or psychological wellbeing.
More than 1 in 6 South Africans suffer from depression, anxiety, substance use disorders or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Mental health is not just an adult problem; children’s mental health problems are common, real and often misdiagnosed.
If left untreated, mental illness in children can disrupt their school achievement, their home life and social functioning. They can be left feeling hopeless and helpless, often unable to understand what they are going through.
So what is our role as youth workers who are often not qualified healthcare professionals?
PROBLEM SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR WITH MENTAL HEALTH
Picking up on the subtle (or sometimes drastic) changes that occur in young people will depend on how closely we work with them. However, our secret weapon is the Holy Spirit and we should be praying daily for our eyes to be opened to the youth under our care who need our help.
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” – Psalm 32:8
Some things to look out for in behaviour and be listening for in conversation include:
- Decline in school performance
- Constant worry or anxiety, sometimes without any apparent reason
- Drastic mood changes and swings
- Hyperactivity or fidgeting
- Loss of interest in the things they used to enjoy
- Changes in appetite (and resultant weight loss or gain)
- Changes in sleep patterns (too much or too little)
- Depression, sadness or irritability
- Persistent nightmares
- Disobedience, anger or aggression
There are many other signs to look for and it would be helpful to educate yourself on these.
Important to remember is that with children in particular, mental illness looks quite different to adults and an angry, irritable child may actually be suffering from depression or PTSD.
It is the role of youth workers to look beyond the behaviour, no matter how disruptive, and try to understand the WHY behind it.
SO WHAT CAN YOUTH WORKERS DO?
Not all youth workers have qualifications in counselling or psychology and most are not equipped to treat mental illness.
However, as youth workers we can be the first responders or vital sources of support to the young people under our care.
Although we need to be careful with how we handle this sensitive issue, there are some practical things we can do to help:
If you’re concerned about a child, try approaching their school, pastor or even parents. Share your concern with those involved to see if what you’re picking up has been noticed by others.
Pray for patience when it comes to disobedient and disruptive young people; ask that God might open your eyes to the potential underlying issues at play. We need Jesus to show us the person apart from the behaviour.
Don’t be scared or intimidated: you’re not there to treat them. Your role could be a link between the child and valuable resources, or a source of spiritual support during therapy or psychiatric treatment. Some resources are provided at the end of this article but it would be wise to research the different resources in your area.
Try to educate yourself and those around you as much as possible about mental health in general, but specifically in young people. Create a safe space where the stigma attached to mental illness is dismantled.
Often, the behaviours and emotions that a person suffering from mental illness will show are out of their control. It may not be helpful to tell them to “look on the bright side” or give them advice. They might just need someone to listen and pray for them.
Never stop praying. It takes wisdom and discernment to identify a child who is struggling and then to walk this road with them. Ask God to be your guide as you navigate this territory.
Do more than pray. We should and must be praying with and for the young people under our care, especially if they are struggling. But we also need to make sure that when the situation calls for it, we go above and beyond and connect them with health care practitioners who can develop treatment plans and help support the healing process.
If a young person you know is admitted to hospital or institution – go visit them. Chances are they’re feeling scared and confused and your support could mean the world.
Remember that you cannot water from an empty tank; make sure your own mental health is being cared for and that you are supported by your own team of helpers.
It is a great privilege to be in a position to support and care for young people. It is a great responsibility too. Let prayer saturate every part of your walk with them, and pray that you’ll know when to step in and what needs to be done.
I love the picture that’s painted in Exodus 17:12:
When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.
We can be the hands that help keep young people steady when they’re growing weary.
Suicide Crisis Line 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393
Destiny Helpline for Youth & Students 0800 41 42 43
SADAG Mental Health Line 011 234 4837
Find a Support Group in your area 0800 21 22 23
LifeLine 0861 322 322