Mental Health Check: Ministering to Teens while Struggling with Anxiety

I was in middle school and staying home sick watching daytime television and saw something I will never forget. There wasn’t much on television, and my middle school years predated streaming services, so I was at the mercy of whatever network TV was playing, and it happened to be a daytime talk show. The host was interviewing a woman about her outreach to women struggling with eating disorders. The woman struggled with eating disorders, as well, and revealed that she was continually in the midst of a battle with anorexia.

That’s when the moment happened.

The host of the talk show revealed that this wasn’t an interview – it was an intervention. The host questioned the guest, asking how she could help so many other people but could not help herself? The guest broke down in tears. The image still lingers in my mind.

Goals and Roadblocks

Our mission in ministry is to help young people encounter Jesus Christ by accompanying them on the way of discipleship. When we accompany people, we walk with them through numerous challenges and seasons in life. We don’t merely stick by young people when things are good, or the road is easy, but walk with them along the many bumps and challenges so they can see Christ in all those circumstances. There is a balance in this ministry because we are also individuals that are growing and wrestling with our past wounds, flaws, and shortcomings.

There is a growing area of crossover that many more teens and adults are struggling with in the realm of mental health. Rates of mental illness for adolescents are rising, and this may be due in large part to the proliferation of social media and digital technology. These statistics don’t solely affect teenagers, one in four adults struggle with a diagnosable mental illness. This means that it is very possible that adults who are struggling with anxiety or depression may be ministering to teenagers with anxiety and depression. You may be one of them.

My Story and Our Story

I was diagnosed with major depression during my senior year of college and began treatment for that mental illness during that time. Since then, I’ve also worked with a counselor to manage generalized anxiety and have found tremendous benefit in that practice. One of the challenges of working through these areas of my life is how I journey with other individuals wrestling with them. The image of the talk show guest weighs heavy in my mind.

There is a minefield to navigate when it comes to accompanying teenagers as they walk through a struggle with mental illness. That minefield gets more dangerous if we struggle with or have struggled with those areas, as well. As people who understand the challenging realities of anxiety and depression, we can journey with young people in a unique and powerful way, but we can also cause great harm if we are not aware of our emotional triggers and how they impact our actions.

Countertransference and Hurt People Hurting People

When we have unresolved issues in our life, we can look at other people as a way to solve those issues. We believe that, by helping others, we will somehow resolve our problems. This is called countertransference, and it happens when a helper (a youth minister or core member) begins to see the person that he or she is accompanying (a teenager) as a project and ties up his or her healing with the healing of that teenager. In this instance, a youth minister transfers their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions onto the other individual as a sort of surrogate. This is dangerous for numerous reasons. First, it turns ministry into a selfish endeavor. The actions we take in helping a young person are really about us and not that teenager. Second, we may transfer some of our bad experiences onto the other person in a detrimental way. For example, if a youth minister has attempted therapy but has not had a positive experience, he or she may attempt to dissuade a teenager from seeking therapy.

Finally, countertransference may turn into a “savior complex” where one person tries to save another person alone, seeking validation and resolution to their journey. This happens more often than we realize in ministry. If you ever find yourself or someone else saying, “I just want to do for them what I wish someone would have done for me,” you are treading in dangerous territory. It is understandable to desire to help others avoid mistakes we’ve made or to make positive decisions – we should want something wonderful for the people we serve. However, this statement can sometimes mask countertransference and reveal unresolved issues. When we adopt a “savior complex,” we can start to run outside of our lane in ministry and try to treat a teenager rather than walk with that person. This is dangerous. This is why the talk show guest needed an intervention rather than an interview.

Avoidance, Triggers, and Staying Healthy

The prevalence of mental health issues among teenagers means that we will need to confront our individual challenges and seek to be healthy. We cannot avoid these challenging issues. Just as getting in too deep and developing a savior complex is dangerous, avoiding these issues altogether is dangerous, as well. The best way to confront them is to confront them in ourselves.

If you are in the heat of a battle with anxiety or depression, you may consider stepping back from ministry for a while to do work on yourself. This isn’t selfish, it is healthy. If the thought of that makes you feel frustrated, ask yourself, “Why?” The likely answer is that you’ve already begun some countertransference in order to avoid your issues. Take some time off to heal – you will come back better for it in all areas of your life.

You may be like me and have anxiety and depression as part of your story, but have those areas of your life under control. Be aware of areas that may trigger you and know what your coping plan is for them. A young person caught in an anxious spiral may emotionally impact you and trigger some anxiety. Don’t avoid the situation, but do engage in your coping plan so you can control your reactions. Be continually aware of a pull toward a savior complex, and remember that your experience is unique to the experience of a teenager. Share your story as is appropriate, but remember that there is no one size fits all approach. You are not a therapist; you are a companion on the journey who can encourage, celebrate, and accompany a teenager.

Beyond the Talk Show Trap

In ministry, we have a wonderful opportunity to help teenagers know Jesus Christ and encounter him in all of their circumstances and challenges. Being aware of our emotional background and history can help us accompany teenagers in a healthy and holistic way. If anxiety and depression are a part of your story, you have a unique opportunity to understand and accompany young people, but only if you are in a healthy place. Ultimately, just as was the case for the talk show guest, it won’t matter how many young people we help or walk with if inside we are broken and refuse to find healing. God desires your good first, in order to leverage the good work He has done in you as a witness to others.

Photo by Stephen Monterroso on Unsplash