Mental health: helping young people flourish

Hannah, Viva’s lead youth worker in Oxford, talking with a young person


The mental health challenges of our children and young people can feel like a hopeless situation.

One in eight 5 to 19 year olds has a diagnosable mental health condition, yet only a quarter of these have had contact with specialists in the past year. This statistic, released by NHS Digital in November 2018, is the first such data highlighting the scale of the youth mental health problem.

There are a variety of pressures on young people today such as stress in education, family life, body image issues, bullying on and offline, around-the-clock social media and uncertain job prospects. In many areas across the UK, church youth workers are providing some of the last remaining youth work, and, as such, play a crucial role in this area of mental health.

As Christians, we are a people who know we have access to the hope and love of God. We can find grace and restoration as we walk alongside young people. We have a God who cares for young people whose lives hold sorrow, and we have a hope that is ​“real and true, an anchor to steady our restless souls” (Hebrews 6: 19).

Much of young people’s world is on social media. This can be a dangerous and unhealthy place; excessive use has been linked to mental health problems. In surveys of more than 500,000 American adolescents, psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues found that young people, especially girls, who spent more time on screen activities were significantly more likely to have symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation than those who spent more time on non-screen activities. ^

However, it can also be a positive place of community and support. The website Reddit has a ​‘Roast Me’ thread, through which people share an image of themselves inviting others to make scathing comments. A teenager recently uploaded his own photo with the title ​‘17-year-old Russian with crippling depression – roast me and give me a reason to end it all’.* (This goes against the Reddit guidelines for the ​‘Roast Me’ thread.)

Reddit, a site not known for being warm and fuzzy, turned out to be full of people who understood and spoke sincere words of truth and encouragement. The post has received more than 6,000 comments. This young man was supported in his vulnerability, with overwhelming positivity and understanding. If Reddit can offer young people a place to be heard and accepted, so can the church.

At Viva we are passionate about protecting vulnerable children and releasing them from issues such as mental health to fulfil their God-given potential. We connect local churches, creating dynamic networks that have much greater impact and influence than any individual initiatives. One of the 27 countries we work in is the UK through a partner network in Oxford named Doorsteps.

At Doorsteps, we invest in early interventions; it’s easier and gentler to begin mending small problems than wait for a crisis. Together with the NHS School Health Nurse we run annual ​‘January Recharge’ wellbeing workshops for young people. These are not high-profile kids causing concerns, but low-profile ones who drift through and just need someone to listen to them. Those workshops provide an opportunity to develop relationships and give early help with anxiety, stress, insomnia and other worries.

Hannah Woods, Doorsteps lead youth worker, says, ​“Last year’s workshops introduced me to Geoff. He wasn’t on my radar, but I’m glad he is now; he’s become a core member of a group I run. When a family crisis exacerbated the depression he’s working through, his mum rang me and we put together a support plan. Geoff isn’t out of the water, but he’s not lost in the system. There is hope, and it started with a day of small beginnings” (Zechariah 4: 10).

Ten years ago, Hannah led a small group of eccentric 16-year-old boys exploring the Christian faith. One of them, Ben, disappeared from social contact, seeming to develop depression and disengaging from peers and school. With her resources at the time, Hannah could only encourage and equip his friends to support him. A few years ago, she bumped into Ben in a supermarket. She continues: ​“He asked if I remembered him and told me he was doing so much better: he enjoyed his steady job and had greatly improved mental health.”

The benefits of Hannah committing to and investing in a community over a long time were twofold: Ben had someone to share with, who could acknowledge his history, how far he’d come and what he’d accomplished. ​“And I was so encouraged by seeing a young person who had recovered and come out the other side,” says Hannah.

Prayer underpins all the work that Hannah and others are doing to support and restore young people’s mental health in Oxford. We are grateful for churches and individual supporters who are regularly interceding for the ministry in the city and those who want to be part of it. We know that hopelessness can easily saturate families, communities, cities and the entire nation, leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders. Yet, as Christians, we have hope in God – in His promises, His miracles, and in the strength He gives.

Find out more about our Doorsteps network in Oxford by clicking here.


^ Clinical Psychological Science, (Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, & Martin, 2018)

* http://​bit​.ly/​2​F​qLw8f

This article first appeared on the Evangelical Alliance’s website.