During my freshman year of high school, a student in our youth ministry took her own life. It shook me and a number of the other students to the core. I couldn’t understand what had brought Bailey to the point of believing her life wasn’t worth it anymore. I thought, If she had Jesus in her life, wouldn’t that be enough?
Bailey was outgoing, loving and compassionate. She welcomed every single person into the youth ministry, making him or her feel at home. She was known for her big warm hugs and a ginormous smile that made you feel like everything was okay.
What I didn’t realize was Bailey was deeply hurting inside. When I got the phone call explaining what had happened, I was left with a lot of questions and I was mad at myself for not getting to know her better.
In this confusing time, my youth group rallied together while we were looking for answers and clarity while giving support to one another. The church opened its doors and the leaders took off work just so they could sit and cry with us. We prayed and asked questions we didn’t have answers to. Nobody had words, nobody had answers, and that was okay.
If you Google, “leading causes of death of teens in 2018”, you’ll find suicide falls in second place after accidents. Second place! Accidents can’t always be prevented, but maybe suicides can be. Maybe as youth ministers, we can push it down on the list by detecting and preventing teen suicide in our own ministry.
Education is Key
I believe the key to preventing suicide in our teens is education.
After one of our students took his life this past year, our team decided we needed to start educating ourselves, our volunteers, and the parents of our students on the stresses and anxieties impacting preteens and teenagers today.
We brought in some professionals to work with students who are hurting and to teach us the signs we can look for. When we don’t have the answers, we need to rely on those who do. Partner with your church’s care department and pastor, or find an expert in your area to train you and your people. Trust me, your leaders and parents will take the time to come and learn!
See the Signs
There are a number of resources out there that share the signs of depression and suicide in teens. Signs include (but, are not limited to) posting on social media about wanting to die, changes in weight or appearance, withdrawing from friends, losing interest in hobbies, etc.
Not everyone shows signs, but there are great resources out there that can help us identify if someone is hurting.
Be a Caring Adult
Open communication with our students is vital. Our youth groups need to be places where students can talk, and we can listen without judgment. We want to be the first place our students can come to and feel safe opening up about their lives. Building a safe place of communication and trust starts with showing up every week. When we show up to youth group, it says we care.
Know it’s NOT Your Fault
Last year, a well-known and active student in our youth ministry took his own life. I was beside myself thinking, “What did I miss? How could I have loved him better? Did I not give him enough attention? This student was in my youth ministry, and we let him down.”
NO. Those are lies from Satan himself. Don’t play the what if game and do not carry the weight of this situation on your shoulders alone. Talk to a counselor. Just because we’re leaders does not mean we have to have it all together. We bear a lot of burdens and sometimes the weight is more than we can bear.
Bailey was full of life and displayed Jesus’s love in her smiles and hugs. Her passing pushed me to move past the quick, “Hey! How are you?” conversations and challenged me to start digging deeper in conversations.
Our students are hurting, so let’s educate ourselves and give them space to speak.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255
Haley got dragged to a youth ministry by a friend when she was 12 years old and hasn’t been able to leave ever since! She started serving in junior high ministry back in 2006 and now leads the Junior High program at Parkview Christian Church. Her heart is for the lost, infinity scarves, and family.