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Addressing Mental Health and Trauma in Youth: The NextGen Challenge

NextGen leaders provide highly attended breakout sessions on mental health and trauma in children and youth at conference, signaling desire for more resources.
In children’s church one Sunday, a child begins sobbing, then screaming. She thrashes about, pounding her fists on the floor.

You’re a children’s church volunteer. What do you do?

In a contemporary worship service, with lights flashing and music throbbing, you notice a teen becoming agitated. He rocks back and forth in his seat, covers his ears, and darts out the nearest exit.

You’re a youth leader. Do you know what’s happening?

NextGen pastors face episodes like these nearly every week at church. The kids aren’t misbehaving. They are showing signs of trauma and mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, and disorganized thoughts. These and related problems are so rampant among youth today that the American Psychological Association is just one organization declaring a mental health crisis for this generation.

The church, called by God to be the hands and feet of Jesus, has been mystified by this age group and ill equipped to help them. Until now.

The recent Next Generation Leaders Conference offered many breakout sessions, but two topped the list in attendance: Trauma Informed Ministry, taught by Lance Nelson, and What Leaders Need to Know Today About Mental Health in Kids, taught by Chris Corbett. The presence of NextGen pastors in these sessions sent a strong signal that they are desperate to understand their kids and learn ways to minister to their needs. In fact, the sessions taught by Nelson and Corbett drew the largest crowds.

With a passion to assist them, Nelson and Corbett packed their sessions full of information and resources. Nelson is National Foster Care director at CompACT Family Services. He shared that traumatized kids in churches often come from broken homes or foster care. A large percentage of them have no father. This reality and the redefinition of the family are major contributors to kids’ declining mental health.

Corbett agrees. For the past ten years, she has served as the Children's and Family Ministries Specialist at Southeastern University. She adds other factors that contribute to troubled kids: social media, biology (genes or brain chemistry), family history, and primarily traumatic life experiences.

When COVID came along in 2020, it affected youth mental health in a variety of ways, depending on individual circumstances and whatever resources were available. Families’ routines were disrupted. They experienced social isolation and increased stress. If there was dysfunction in a family, the trauma it created in kids became easily amplified. “COVID-19 didn't cause the mental health crisis,” Corbett explains. “It exposed what was already there.”

Corbett says that in October 2021, due to the compounded effects of COVID, several psychiatric and medical organizations declared a national mental health emergency.

These are the unique challenges facing NextGen pastors, leaders, and volunteers, and they can’t meet them alone. Nelson and Corbett call on the church to support them, knowing it will take the entire faith community to successfully build healing relationships with kids.

A beginning point is for the body of Christ to view mental health and trauma issues for what they are: conditions with legitimate causes, not flaws in faith.

This can be difficult because the church historically has what Nelson refers to as “a theological aversion” to dealing with trauma and mental health. He explains the church’s typical approach: “We're very experiential, very transactional. ‘Just say this prayer; do it this way.’ And if you have the right faith, it's over. It's almost like you don't have enough faith if you can't pray that issue away.”

Corbett offers insight to another hurdle: The attitude of leaders toward kids directly determines how well they minister to them. “Do I see the child in the same way that I see every other child, or do I see a diagnosis? The way I see that child from the moment they walk into the space will impact not only how I care for and minister to that child, but how welcomed and safe that child feels.”

Corbett says leaders and volunteers should also understand that kids going through emotional moments may feel bad about themselves and can project those negative feelings onto God. She explains, “If they don't feel like anybody loves them, if they don't feel like they're lovable, then they're going to naturally think, ‘God doesn't love me’ or ‘I'm not lovable to God.’”

The point, Corbett says, is for the Church to love these kids — the outward sign that identifies us as His followers.

The NextGen Conference will reconvene in two years, and more breakout sessions will be offered. Nelson and Corbett hope the conversation about mental health and trauma in youth will be among them.

They are encouraged that the tide is turning. The church is realizing how much is being written about emotional health and its connection to spiritual health. It is more open to faith and social science working together, and it is also beginning to see that the situation is multifaceted.

Nelson gives further insight. “I think church leaders, pastors, denominational leaders are starting to realize that there's a whole lot more to ministry, especially today. There's so much brokenness. Every person in those seats represents a lifetime of brokenness, and the church needs to have answers to the questions they’re asking.”

Sherri Langton

Sherri Langton, associate editor of Bible Advocate magazine and Now What? e-zine, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Focus on the Family, Decision, Upper Room, Today’s Christian Woman, and other publications. Langton, who lives in Denver, also has contributed to book compilations.