Burnout amongst youth workers is common. There are always what seem like an endless list of demands on our time, energy and resources. Always ‘one more’ person who needs our attention and who we long to help.

There are usually some smoke signals that our bodies send out to try and warn us that burnout is imminent but all too often we ignore them. Before we know it, we are left depleted and floundering, of no use to ourselves or the people around us.

Maybe it’s time we start taking our own mental health seriously. 

It is important that we are able to recognise our body’s distress signals.

SOME SIGNS OF A DECLINING MENTAL HEALTH

  • Depleted physical energy: a good indication that things are going wrong is feeling tired all of the time, even when you’re getting enough sleep.
  • Look out for losing interest in things that you usually enjoy doing.
  • Emotional exhaustion: this could be feelings of moodiness, increased pessimism, impatience, inexplicably sad or more easily frustrated and angered. Any change in your emotional state is a good sign that you need to stop and take care of yourself.
  • Being stressed and under pressure for prolonged periods of time compromises your immune system and you might find yourself more prone to illness.
  • You (or your loved ones) might notice you’re investing in your interpersonal relationships less. Often when we spend the day helping young people, we feel we have no more to give outside of that.
  • Prolonged changes in sleeping patters are also often good indications that something is wrong: sleeping too little or too much
  • Changes in your appetite and subsequent weight loss or gain are also important signals.
  • Other things to look out for include bodily symptoms of anxiety (knotted stomach, chest pains, heart palpitation or dizziness) and forgetfulness or impaired concentration.

Although many of us experience seasonal ups and downs, if any of the above symptoms are persistent over time or causing you significant distress, you may need to see your pastor or doctor.

WHY YOUTH PASTORS FAIL TO ADMIT THEY ARE STRUGGLING

There are a number of reasons why youth workers avoid admitting they are struggling: ignoring our own needs, comparing ourselves to others, not separating work, play and rest, developing a superhero complex and forgetting the emotional toll that our work takes on us.

All too often, there are too few hands and too much need, leaving us feeling alone and isolated. The stigma around mental health, especially within the church, lead some to feel that their struggles are a sign of weak faith. But this is not true.

As youth workers, we must avoid thinking that struggling is a sign of weakness.

“My soul is deeply troubled, overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of the death. Going a little farther, He feel to the ground…” (Mark 14:34, 35).

Even Jesus had moments of overwhelming emotional trauma. When scripture tells us not to be anxious but to commit everything to prayer (Philippians 4:5-6), it is because that is what Jesus did – not because being anxious is a sign of weakness.

He knows intimately the cry of our hearts and the pressures we face. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus tells us how he longs to give us rest. But in this comfort there is also the command: “Come to me” (v28).

Looking after ourselves requires the act of reaching out and letting Jesus and our community into our struggle.

God places us in community so that we can watch out for each other. When we look at the Bible, in most instances of healing, that person had to step out in faith and ask someone for help. Our role as youth workers often means we’re so consumed with watching out for the young people under our care that we forget to make sure we have a team supporting us as well.

When was the last time you had an honest conversation about how you’re feeling and coping? Who is helping keep you accountable with your own self-care? Without these safeguards, we run the risk of serving from empty cups.

HOW TO CARE BETTER FOR YOUR MENTAL HEALTH

  • Have someone who you check in with regularly regarding what’s on your plate and how you are coping emotionally, including a doctor or pastor.
  • Make sure you have boundaries in place to protect your rest and home life from work. It is as difficult as it is necessary.
  • Take time out every day to rest and do something you enjoy.
  • Don’t neglect your relationships; if you do not have time for your loved ones, your plate is too full.
  • Get enough sleep: switch off all screens at least an hour before bed to help your brain wind down.
  • Pray, and pray often. Let God into your struggles. “Casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). No one understands you better than the God who put you together.

Your mental health matters.

If you think you are at risk of burnout, contact your pastor, doctor or one of the helplines below to help you figure out the way forward.

Ultimately, we are setting examples for the young people we work with and our children at home. If we fail to look after ourselves, we teach them that there is no space in our lives for weakness or for caring for ourselves. We become the type of youth workers, parents, pastors and leaders who, at the brink of burnout, have little capacity to truly be there for those around us.

The irony is that in trying to give endlessly, we end up giving less.

IMPORTANT RESOURCES

Suicide Crisis Line 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393

SADAG Mental Health Line 011 234 4837

Find a Support Group in your area 0800 21 22 23

LifeLine 0861 322 322

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