Youth Pastors Challenged by Adolescent Mental Health Issues

Adolescence is a time in life when mental health issues often lead youth to seek counsel from college and youth pastors.

The pastors can either provide assistance or steer youths elsewhere to obtain help. However, new research discovers many of those pastors feel ill-prepared to recognize and treat mental illness.

A new study discussing this observation is published in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture.

Youth pastors are expected to have more extensive contact with their congregants (than senior pastors) because their work likely occurs outside of church services.

Small youth groups allow a greater chance for development of deep relationships between pastors and adolescents.

“Youth and pastors are brought together through one-on-one counseling, Bible study groups, mission trips, and service opportunities,” said researcher Matthew S. Stanford, Ph.D., a Baylor University professor of psychology and neuroscience.

In the study, 94 youth and college pastors representing churches ranging in size from 45 to 8,000 members were assessed.

The survey showed that:

  • 50 percent said they had received training related to mental illness, but only 26 percent reported they felt qualified to work with young people dealing with significant mental health issues.
  • 78.7 percent had worked with one to 10 adolescents a year whom they knew or thought had mental health issues.
  • 76 percent had referred an adolescent congregant to a Christian counselor, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, but pastors who made referrals were most likely to do so to a Christian counselor.

Youth pastors ranked depression as the most prevalent mental health issue they have seen among youths.

Pastors say they also must deal with issues including pornography, grief/bereavement, anxiety, aggression/anger, sexual behavior, alcohol/drug abuse, eating disorders, and ADHD.

Events such as emotional abuse, eating disorders, stress from having a family member with a mental health issue, domestic or spousal abuse, juvenile delinquency, gender identity, sexual assault/abuse, and physical abuse are additional issues that drive adolescents to youth pastors.

The study showed that youth and college pastors’ most common method of intervention was to meet with the adolescent and refer the individual to a mental health professional.

While many of the pastors described using biblical counseling methods, some counseled primarily with psychological concepts, using such methods as talking through coping skills or role-playing.

The sample of youth pastors showed they believe that psychological well-being affects spiritual development.

However, the youth pastors expressed a lack of confidence and complained of insufficient training to interact with the mental health system.

Researchers also discovered that some tensions and conflicts exist between pastors and mental health professionals.

A youth pastor’s “unique role as gatekeeper can be improved,” and pastors are interested in knowing more about counseling, researchers said.

Many are unaware of mental health professionals with whom to work and did not know what psychotherapy would entail — including time, cost, and scope of services.

Researchers recommended that mental health professionals working with religious youths consider the role of the youth pastor and reach out to faith communities to collaborate.

“Outreach will allow the pastor and mental health professional to gain an understanding of the other while becoming familiar with each other’s ‘language’ and view of mental health,” researchers said.

Source: Baylor University