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Want to reach Gen Z? Start with mental health.

skate park
Unsplash/John Verhoestra

Generation Z is a demographic that everyone seems to understand. Or at least, we think we do. We understand that they love their smartphones, they are passionate about social justice, and they want their student loans forgiven.

What fewer people know is that they are also alarmingly lonely and depressed. A new study on student mental health from Springtide Research Institute, where Josh is executive director, found that 42% of middle/high and college students say they’ve felt depressed “most” or “all of the time” over the last two weeks, while 49% say they’ve talked to a mental health professional in the last three months.

To connect with Gen Z these days, one needs to be prepared to engage them on the topic of mental health. The ability to relate to Gen Z on matters of mental health could make the difference when it comes to drawing them to faith or Christian community.

Healing and belonging

I (Jeff) am the executive director of Youth for Christ in Northern Colorado, where we are seeing nearly all youth coming out of the pandemic with some level of trauma or mental health fatigue. Fortunately, our ministry is prepared to navigate mental health issues among young people in a way that promotes faith and belonging.

First, we meet young people where they are. This is typically outside of religious institutions (or any institution, for that matter). We meet them at skateparks, ski hills, at our youth center, and our bicycle shop. Over the last several years, we’ve noticed that young people prioritize relationships over organizations. In the past, we as a nation required trust and engagement in an organization in order to survive and thrive. Sadly, over the years many of these institutions used that trust in nefarious ways that deteriorated trust and dependence on them. So youth now have a significant distrust in an organization and a much higher value in personal experiences. This can only be achieved through relationships.

Therefore we have an approach to help young people heal and belong so they can hear and believe. We focus on the fact that kids are valuable for who they are, not what they achieve. This ended up bringing us a lot of kids who feel rejected in one way or another from society because we were one of the only places they felt valuable. This also came with emotional trauma in many cases. So we discovered an approach to address mental health through Trust-Based Relational Intervention as well as using Round Tables with Motivational Interviewing techniques to professionally address the very serious situations our kids were living through. We call this heart ministry to harvest ministry where we focus on each kids' heart healing and belonging so they are powerfully ready to hear and believe.

It is very rare that a young person doesn't want us to be involved in their life because they just feel more valuable when we get to encourage them. It opens the door to talking about the Gospel where the kids want to hear about it before we begin explaining it–we let them determine the time frame for when this happens.

We have a young person who came to one of our skate competitions at a city park and got to talk to some of our staff. He quickly found that this place made him feel like he was family and he wanted to be around that family more. He began attending one of our first programs for our mental health pursuits where he started learning more ways for him to heal from some trauma that was in his life.

As he began healing, he also started asking us why this healing was working, which allowed us to tell him about how Jesus heals our hearts and cares for us.  Since he had already experienced what we were saying, he had much less opposition to our explanation. It was already his own story that he lived and just was asking us to explain why it was working.

What I have found interesting is the incredible likeness the definition of mental health shares with the fruit of the Spirit. What I believe is happening is that our world is doing everything we can to experience the fruit of the spirit, but they want to avoid doing this by going through Jesus. We define that successful pursuit as mental health.

What our program does is bring the absolute best mental health experience a kid can achieve, which is really just a tasting of the recipe that results in the fruit of the spirit. Once a kid tastes that and sees that it is good, this gives us the most viable entry point we have ever found to introduce a life of walking with Jesus as a way to not just taste the fruit, but for their friends and family to get a taste of what is so good that God has to offer.

Get trained

Any leader can attend training classes for the aforementioned techniques including Motivational Interviewing, Round Tables, and Trust Based Relational Intervention. Jeff’s ministry at Youth for Christ in Northern Colorado combines these three trainings into a curriculum with resources to deliver 12 classes for youth called Rebalance. Regardless of the approach you take, it’s very important that you stay connected to a professional therapist for referrals as you walk into these serious situations with youth.

Finally, a major takeaway from Springtide’s mental health study is that young people are drawn to communities that are mental health friendly, as opposed to those that rely solely on crisis response tools. To develop a culture that welcomes mental health conversations, consider integrating the topic into your teaching series, leaders meetings, and check-ins with students.

Faith and mental health have an important relationship, and Christian leaders have an opportunity to introduce the healing power of Christian faith and community to Gen Z.

Josh Packard (@drjoshpackard) is Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute. Jeff Neel is Executive Director of North Colorado Youth for Christ (@ncyfc).

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