By Erica Whitt
SPARTANBURG—Early in the pandemic, the pastors at Bethel United Methodist Church began to create a plan for how to respond to what was sure to be a mental health crisis in response to the pandemic. They had insight that people interacting through Zoom meetings without face-to-face contact would quickly take a toll on the emotional wellbeing of our community.
They reached out, and we compiled a list of local therapists and nonprofits that could be shared with individuals in need. At this meeting, we discussed creating a plan to address big-picture mental wellness concepts with the youth in our church when we returned to regular in-person meetings.
In fall 2021, we started a seven-week group focused on growth mindset. Our curriculum was based on “Big Life Journal,” of which each participant received a copy. I led the group through the journal, and Chad Deetz, our youth minster, brought in the spiritual component that reinforced the concepts being presented. We felt this allowed youth the opportunity to see that mental health and spiritually can stand together to help us be happy and whole individuals.
We discussed forming new neural pathways for positive thinking, setting goals, recognizing strengths, and seeking support in times of adversity. We also tried to normalized failure, letting our youth know that failure can be the greatest teacher of all and that there is a support system around them when they do mess up.
But following a week with multiple losses in the community, we went off-script from “Big Life Journal” to focus on two hard topics: death and suicide.
The entire mood of the group shifted this night.
Our youth went from typical teens, who would get distracted at times, to one hour of total attention and respect for anyone who shared. We discussed the importance of asking for help when you need it and appropriate ways to be there for your friends when they might need it. We talked about the value that every youth had no matter what they may be struggling with or feeling rejected about.
Older youth took on a leadership role and shared personal stories of struggling but also overcoming. The vulnerability displayed by those who shared allowed younger youth to better recognize that some of the people they look up to have gone through hard things, but they have also been able to overcome those challenges.
I know that the seeds planted, and the stories shared that night will stick with our youth. I am hopeful that it will allow them to not only support each other but also support friends outside of youth group as they face the challenges that come with middle and high school and into their adult years.
While the youth met, parents were invited to meet with Bethel’s pastors, the Revs. Megan and Brad Gray. This integrative approach allowed the parents to know what the youth were being taught. The idea was this would allow them, when appropriate, to reinforce these skills.
Yet it was just as much to remind them that they don’t have to save their children every time they struggle. Parents were able to explore coping skills to use in times of stress as well as work to identify the different strengths in each member of their family. Parents were able to process the struggles of parenting teens growing up with constant connection and discuss ways to set healthy boundaries.
Overall, the parents may have taken away as much as the youth and hopefully were able to remember that our church family can be one of our greatest supports.
By Erica Whitt