10 Important Youth Ministry Practices That Could Prevent A Teen Suicide

Recent suicides by entrepreneur Kate Spade and chef/tv star Anthony Bordaine, reminded me that if money, power, influence, tons friends and excitement  can’t hold back depression and suicidal thoughts, what’s keeping a kid in my youth group from ending his or her life?

Here’s the podcast

This report, last year (2017) show that teen suicide is on the rise

Here are the notes

I have had, to my knowledge, only one student attempt suicide in my 30 years of youth ministry. I cannot tell you whether any of my youth ministry practices prevented any of these as there are no testimonies as such. But, my hope is, that everything I tried to do (listed below) was a speed bump for a kid who was heading down that path.

Let me share 10 youth ministry practices that could keep a kid from ending their life.

open ended questions…

So much of a midweek meeting with youth is about the program. Youth leaders are trying to make the program happen so the conversations with students can b very surface level. Regardless of the length of the conversation, we can ask open ended questions that would allow a student, who you’d consider at risk,  the room to answer openly and honestly.

Start with “how’s school going?” but go a little deeper with, “Do you feel like you have a strong group of friends to help you make it through school?”

affirm their worth & how much God values them

Kids are constantly hearing about how much they don’t measure up.  We have to pour on the love and affirmation to counteract that. I don’t just mean through messages, but though one on one, over lunch, or in a text message.

You don’t need to see them down and out before giving them a kind word. Give them the love they need long before they need it.

forgiveness and redemption 

Jesus is our hope. I, like you, have preached my share of fire and brimstone, not good enough to go to heaven, messages. I don’t deny the reality of hell, our own sinfulness or our inability to measure up to the holiness God asks of us, but if this is the only messages kids hear, what hope is there?

I’ve gotten much better at offering truth in love with a bunch of hope for good measure. God reveals to each of us how we do not measure up and pours grace upon our wounds. A student doesn’t need our condemnation and judgment, they need to know there is a way to be forgiven and that God has made a way out of the darkness they’r in.

follow up

This one is so simple, yet, the busyness of life steals it like Satan steals the seed. How many times has God checked my heart to call or contact a student who I thought was struggling and busyness swallowed that thought? Too many to count.

Whether it’s us or one of our leaders, we have to respond to the Spirit’s prompting towards those kids who are missing in action. If a student misses one night that’s one thing, but two in a row, that could means something else. We must be diligent to notice when students are not with us. When we call or text we are saying, “We noticed you were gone.” We care.

random kindness

I had a student who was sick recently. I could have sent a text and offered “thoughts and prayers” but I went deeper. I had a lady in our church, who’s a florist, put together some of this students favorite goodies and deliver them to her house by the time she was arriving home from a procedure.

This girl was not an “at risk” student, but I did it anyway. Why? Because I don’t know how much kindness she receives at school. She doesn’t fit the type of kid who might think about suicide (neither was Spade or Bordaine) and I hope, with healthy doses of kindness towards her, she never will.

be awkward, “how are you doing, really?”

Go ahead and be awkward. I had a conversation with a young man who, by his pictures on Instagram, was not going well for him, The pics, plus not looking well, plus hear say, led me to believe he might be at risk.

We sat at McDonald and I saw something in his eyes and demeanor I did not like. So I just asked him, “Have you thought about hurting yourself lately?” He denied having an inclinations, and it was awkward to ask, but I’m still glad I did. Now, he knows that I know he might have been having struggles. He might open up next time I ask.

train teens/leaders to be empathetic

Youth night at church should be a safe haven for kids, but sometimes the students in our ministry do not act any different than the kids they see at school. Youth night is filled with imperfect kids who do and say imperfect things just like we do, but we have the microphone or the floor,  and we can direct thoughts and attitudes.

We can teach on how Jesus who, rather than judge others, showed mercy and empathy. We can have practices like

  • getting to know each other’s names
  • meet and greet
  • small group time for conversation
  • affirmation times

These kind of things are not practiced regularly or enforced at school;  but at church, kids willfully come and we can design our meetings to encourage kids to practice empathy towards one another.

clearly defined standards, policies and procedures

I am a big fan of standards. If the house rule is not bullying, that’s the rule and no one is beyond it. If the house rule is no creeping on each other, that’s the rule and I enforce it to the best of my ability.

I had a group of kids one time where one boy would not leave a girl alone. I asked that young Man to stop, I councils him, I told hime to take a few weeks off to think about it and call me every week to check in. He would not have any of it and neither would his friends, and they all left.

Not only should we have standards (rules) we enforce but when we have kids at risk, we need to have phone numbers in our phone for emergencies, numbers of counselors or therapists we can recommend, and other resources we can point to.

If a kid maks the claim that they are going to commit suicide, we need to have a policy, back up by the church, that allows the youth pastor to make that call in agreement with his pastor or boss.

be prophetic

If you’re older than a teenager, you have some thing they do not, perspective. You’ve lived through a few things. You know things because you came though some stuff with God’s help. We need to pass that on.

If you’re a youth worker or a Christian, like me, you have some idea of God’s word and the hope and promise it contains, and you need to spread it around.

We have to see kids, not as they are, but as they will be. Jesus called Peter the rock while he was still a pebble. We should be looking at kids and saying things like,

  • you can make an impact
  • you have potential
  • you have more courage in you than you think
  • you could be a leader

Positively prophesying over a student lets’ them know that you see something they may not and affirms their worth and value. Powerful, positive, Spirit-Filled words can change the course of life for a kid and lead them out of the darkness.

small groups and accountability

Connecting kids in a smaller group where they can know others and be known is powerful step for at risk kids. Being in a smaller group allows them to build trust and be more vulnerable as well as have a safety valve to release the pressures of life.

These groups do not have to be standard Bible study groups, but could be groups who are just committed to checking in, praying for one another, and lifting one another up on hard days.

Like I said, I cannot prove that any thing I just listed here has averted any kid from taking their life, but, I can’t disprove it either. So, I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and pray for the same outcome, that kids will find their way out of the darkness and into God’s marvelous light.

Here’s a free resource from my friend Jim Hancock on dealing with suicide

Here’s my interview with Jim on How To Deal With A Crisis

13 Take Aways From The Netflix Series 13 Reasons Why

In my last post I talked about what I hated about 13 Reasons Why.  The series was not devoid of meaning or purpose, the message was loud and clear: kids are killing themselves and it’s preventable.

There are no new revelations as far as youth culture goes. Stereotypes, acting out, drinking, smoking, sex, have all been a part of growing up in some form or another. Her are my 13 take aways from the show and why they’re important to me as a youth worker.

Attention: Possible spoilers ahead

Gossip is as deadly as anything

It’s easy to look at the drinking and drugs and think. “This is what’s killing our kids.” It’s actually not. The drinking and drugs are simply methods of dealing with  or staving off other kids from talking about them. But talkers are gonna ‘ talk.

Proverbs says

Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler. Proverbs 20:19

And Solomon lists it as one of God’s top six hates

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. Proverbs 6:16-19

We should all address the symptoms, but we need to get to the root.

Teenagers are complicated

Duh Paul ! I know, but the show reminded me of the politics of teens and the  manuvering each of them  has to do to avoid unwanted attention and to stay atop the food chain.

The show also reminded me that what I am saying to teens is not as clear as I think it is. I have to get better at communicating the gospel and what hope looks like.

I also understand that no matter how well I communicate, what I say could have no relevance or meaning to a kid. I have to let the Holy Spirit do his job of touching and changing hearts.

Pay Attention

Teachers are busy running their classrooms. Administrators are busy running a school. Parents are busy running their families, I get busy running a youth program. These are the excuses we use for not paying attention.

I have to pay attention to the signs, but beyond the signs I have to listen to my heart and the Spirt. After Hannah was done talking with the guidance counselor she waited outside, hoping he would come after her. He did not. We have to pay attention to our gut not matter how stupid or weak it may make us look.

Cruelty

These kids weren’t just mean, they were cruel. They acted out of their own insecurities and did everything they could to protect themselves. I have to remember that the kids who enter our youth meeting have been chipped away at by many hammers by the time they enter my room.

Cruel words can crush you. I know. I had a substitute teacher tell me one time that I would not about to anything. Silence is equally as deadly. I had a Pastor one time refuse to answer me when I asked, “Do you think I am the best person for this job.” Crushing.

Words can be like hammers pounding at our souls  until it break or words can be the balm of healing that covers the wounds.

It’s Still Far Worse For Girls

I can’t imagine being a girl in today’s society. It must suck. As a youth worker, I cannot completely identity with all the struggles of the girls of my youth group but I can be like Jesus to them.

Jesus defended the woman who was to be stoned

Jesus talked to the woman at the well

Jesus defended the woman who washed his feet with her tears

There are times I  have to stand up for the girls in my youth group because no one else will. I have to be a ‘dad” of sorts when their real dads are not being the father they should be.

I have a daughter. She’s the greatest thing to me. I have always tried to be careful with my words but I know I have failed. My words have had an impact on her both for good and bad. She is married now and  still text her I love you and do my best to affirm her in every way I can.

Work Harder, Talk Less, Observe More, Pray Always.

    These are simple phrases that I have to practice if they are to have any impact.  Platitudes are useless for handling the serious matters of teenagers.

Pain is compounded

I have to remember that pains is multiplied. Pain at school, pain at home, pain online leaves a kid no where that is pain free.

I have to remember that the life of a teen is attacked from all sides and I have a chance, every week, to not only create a pain free environment, but a healing place to put that pain.

Life is demanding. Friends demand us to be like them. Parents demand that we get our crap together. School demands we get good grades. What does God demand? If we keep is simple it should be

 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30,31

and

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.  Micah 6:8

If a kids is already feeling like he is failing everyone, the last thing I want to do is make him feel like he is failing God.

I Was A Jerk

I was sadly reminded of what a jerk I was in High School. I was very much like Clay from the show. I was way awkward and both, as he put it, “The bully and the bullied.”

When someone dumped on me I had sure to pass it along. I was not like this all the time,  but I can remember a few key moments.

I wish I could back and apologize to all the girls I dated and say, “I’m sorry, I had no clue.”

Remembering who I was is helping me more empathetic and less self-righteous.

Good Parents Are Not Enough 

Of the families featured on the show there were five families that had two parents in the mix. They were not enough. Hannah, the girl who committed suicided, had a great mom and dad who had normal struggles. They loved their daughter and did anything they could for her, but it was not enough .

Kids need all kinds of people in the life to make it. Teens need good parents, good teachers, good coaches, and yes, good youth workers to help them through, what is for many (it was for me ) a miserable stretch of life.

I have a FB group for our parents and I do my best to not only put event stuff but links to culture and parenting  articles. I cannot afford to only be a youth pastor, I have to be a family pastor whether I am any good at #adulting or not.

The Soundtrack 

I did not know many of the songs from the series but I did know two: The Call and The Alarm. Two of my favorite bands growing up. You can check out the full list of songs here 

Don’t Hype The Show 

If I’ve learned anything from almost 30 years of work with teenagers, is not to hype the culture. Yes, many teens have watched this show, by many or even most of the teens in my youth ministry have not.

I don’t want them t watch it. It’s horribly graphic and it, in some ways, romanticizes the notion of suicide as being a noble deed.

The 22 year old me would be tempted to do a 13 week series on the show or suicide or to over blow the use of show quotes or clips for street cred with the kids. This is not good. To glorify the show could do more damage than good. I’ll stick with overhyping Guardians of the Galaxy instead.

Moral Relavatism Still Does Not Work 

    In the show there is a character named Tony, In discussing the tapes, he refers to the as “her truth” . The truth, the absolute truth, of God’s love for and her worth and value were never shard with her. She had only her own thoughts and the thoughts of others to form and opinion.
    God’s word is Truth. All the small “truths” are only revenant as to how they connect with the absolute truth of God’s word and character.
    1. If any of these character had the absolute truth spoken to them, the story changes drastically. Clay and the guidance counselor talk towards the end of the series. Clay says, “We have to do a better job of loving each other.” The guidance counselor responds of our (his)  inability to be be perfect (since he was one of the reasons), and he is right, we are flawed. But Clay comes back, “But can’t we try harder?”

 

    Yes Clay, we can. When we get grip on what real, absolute love is, we can.
    It Will Never End
    Sadly, for every day a kid watches 13 Reasons, another teenager commits suicide or attempts suicide. You can get more facts on suicide
    Here

https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/

    and
    Here

https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.pdf

    If you are a youth worker/minster I recommend these resources
    • The Youth Workers Guide To Helping Teenagers In Crisis.

http://amzn.to/2p4HCY7

What Do I Do When Teenagers Are Depressed and Contemplate Suicide

I do not recommend kids watch 13 Reasons Why.

I do recommend parents watch 13 Reasons Why if their kids have watched it so they may have a context for conversation. 

Did you have any take aways from the show? What were they?

Feel free to leave a comment below.