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Robin Williams, Teen Suicide, and the Church

Robin WilliamsTeens and students everywhere struggle with depression and teen suicide is on the rise, sort of.  In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, conversations about suicide and depression abound.  I have counselled a number of teens contemplating suicide, and an even larger number of teens struggling with depression.

Since 1991 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that annually, the number of teens contemplating suicide has dropped, from 29% to 17%, while the number of teens actually attempting suicide have gradually increased, from 7.3% to 8%.  Take note; 17% is nearly one in five teens.  Let’s put that in perspective.  For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.

For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.

 

The CDC also reports that suicide is the number three cause of teen death in America, followed by homicide and accidents.  Student ministers should have a plan for ministering to suicidal teens and their families, because if you stay in youth ministry long enough, a teen will confide in you that they have hurt themselves, or have thought about suicide.  So how should youth leaders and volunteers respond?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA) has some great tips that all youth workers should take to heart.  This list is adapted from their full list of tips, which can be found here.  When a teen mentions suicide or exhibits signs they may be suicidal:

  1. Be direct.  Do not change the subject.  Do not appear uncomfortable or act shocked.  Speak matter-of-factly and be open to hearing everything the teen has to say.  Many teens are an open book, especially if they trust you.  They have extremely high B.S. meters, and can tell if you are not being direct.  If a teen comes to you and wants to discuss hurting himself or suicide, give them (and their conversation) the seriousness and frankness they deserve.
  2. Listen.  Many times a mention of suicide is a plea for help itself.  The teen came to you!  They want to talk, and more important Helpthan any advice you could give them, you can give them your undivided attention.  I had a teen approach me with suicidal thoughts one time and instead of starting Bible study on time, I gave more time to our conversation.  I had a parent volunteer who was irate that I didn’t start the lesson on time and that Bible study was only ten minutes that evening, but my conversation with the potentially suicidal teen took priority.
  3. No secrets. Never guarantee confidence in a conversation when a student’s safety is on the line.  Their parents have a right to know if the teen is threatening to hurt themselves, and once a teen has mentioned suicide, you have a responsibility to try and seek out help for the student.
  4. Take Action.  When a student says they are going to hurt themselves, parents should be notified in a loving and calm way.  Telling a parent that their teen is contemplating suicide is one of the most uncomfortable and heartbreaking conversations a youth minister can have.  Parents will exhibit a variety of emotions, like failure, denial, and even anger.  Suggest agencies and organizations in your area equipped to handle crisis intervention and suicide prevention.  If the student comes from an abusive home, contact the agencies directly on the student’s behalf.
  5. Offer them sincere hope.  Depression is no joke.  The home lives of students are no joke.  Bullying is no joke.  Anxiety over sexuality is no joke.  Any one of these factors (and many more) can potentially lead to suicidal thoughts.  As Christian mentor, you may have the great privilege and responsibility of reminding a teen that they are loved by you and by the Lord.  You can remind them that God is constantly present.  You can read some scripture together, and you can pray with them.  Most importantly, never gloss over their pain by saying things like “just give your sadness over to Jesus,” or “God wants you to be happy,” or “living in defeat is a sin.”  The only thing these statements to is mask our own discomfort.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and I have passed it out to an entire youth group before, knowing the three kids I was really targeting.  Suicide is a serious topic and it effects too many teens for the church to not take note and speak out.  How have you addressed suicide with your students and parents?  Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.

The Biggest Mistake Christian Parents May Make

Mistakes Road SignJeff Strong, an associate pastor and emergent church leader in Waterdown, Ontario shares some great insight on his blog as to mistakes parents make concerning their teenager’s faith.  His list includes:

 10. Not spending time with your teen.

 9. Letting your teen’s activities take top priority for your family.

 8. Spoiling your teen.

 7. Permissive parenting.

 6. Trying to be your teen’s best friend.

 5. Holding low expectations for your teen.

 4. Not prioritizing youth group/church involvement.

 3. Outsourcing your teen’s spiritual formation.

 2. Not expressing genuine love and like to your teen.

 1. Expecting your teen to have a devotion to God that you are not

cultivating within yourself.

I have seen each of these in youth parents over the years.  Some parents struggle exclusively with one of these “mistakes,” and other parents struggled with all ten!  Jeff’s list was posted a while back, but I saw it for the first time today, and thought, “He NAILED IT!”

The list is quite overarching, but I would add one mistake to the list… 11.) Letting your teen think discipleship is all about being in a church program of some sort.  Go with your family on mission projects, find service opportunities like the food bank or a soup kitchen, and teach your kids that following Christ is more than having a “quiet time” or attending church for an hour a week.

oops signMany families in our culture are guilty of consumerism when it comes to faith.  We consume faith like we consume reality TV shows, the latest smart-phones, or name brand clothing.  Many families bounce from one church to the next based on who has the biggest youth program.  I have heard parents come to my church and say, “we left ____________ church because they didn’t offer enough for our kids.”  That may be true on both counts, but the consumer mentality underlies the frustration of the parents.  For many, church is not a community of believers participating in the ushering in of God’s kingdom on earth; Church is a non-profit that provides religious goods to for consumption, like hip worship, good programs, and entertaining youth facilities.

Parents should not buy into the consumer mentality, but rather teach their kids that discipleship is finding where God is active and present, and serving in that place.  Serving as family can have a powerful impact on teens.  Many parents never volunteer with the youth group because they feel like they will be intruding on their teen’s “time with friends.”  My experience has been that teens who see their parents model faithful discipleship are more rooted in their faith, and better equipped to live as disciples after leaving home.

Some churches provide few opportunities for parents to model Christians discipleship and service to teens, because their strategy for youth ministry is to split families apart on Sundays, offering age graded ministry from cradle to grave.  Teens who experience inter-generational ministry are more likely to grow up with the understanding of church as community, rather than an understanding of “church is here to serve me.”  Millennials highly value community and authenticity.  Parents can disciple their teens by modeling both community and authenticity with the way they serve.  Just taking the kids to church on Sunday, dropping them off in the youth building, and picking them up an hour later after “big church,” fails to model true Christian community.  When teens see that the teachings of Christ do not impact, in any way, their parent’s concern for the poor, their family’s spending habits, or concern for the environment, the faith parents think they model loses a great deal of authenticity in the mind of teens.  So don’t let your teen think discipleship is all about being in a church program of some sort.  That may be the biggest mistake of all.