New youth mental health toolkit: focus on peer support and welcoming digital spaces

Mental Health Awareness Month is coming to an end, but the work of advocating for mental health, especially among youth and young adults, is ramping up within the United Church of Christ.

Beginning in June, the UCC Mental Health Network will begin breaking ground for a new “Youth Mental Health Peer Advocates for the Digital World” toolkit, which will focus on strengthening the connections and support systems among peers to create welcoming and inclusive digital spaces.

The Rev. Sarah Lund, UCC minister for disabilities and mental health justice, says this project could not have come soon enough as the U.S. youth mental health crisis continues, with many studies citing social media as one of the leading culprits.

“There’s an urgency for this project,” said Lund.

A vital component

As the toolkit’s title indicates, equipping peers to help youth and young adults struggling with mental health issues will be the key focus. In recent years, peer-to-peer support has been emerging as a vital component in treatment for mental health.

“Peer-to-peer is the most effective way to get the messages of support out to youth. They know how to speak the local dialect — the barriers to language are gone,” said Lund.

Peers also have a better understanding of the challenges the other is facing. “There is a shared lived experience in the peer-to-peer model,” said Lund.

Peers help with project

The UCC Mental Health Network welcomes two such peers who have joined the toolkit team as project interns.

Over the summer, Chapman University sophomores Callie Yates and Alexa Forbes will be collecting stories of struggles and hope from a cross-section of youth and young adults. Among the voices to be heard are that of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth. Studies reveal a higher risk for mental health challenges among LGBTQ+  and BIPOC youth.  

“We are intentionally seeking a wider circle of youth for this toolkit,” said Lund.

Yates and Forbes are eager to begin their work.

“Growing up in the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, I learned from an early age the importance of spirituality in one’s everyday life and how community can be built through spirituality. It is an honor to play a part in supporting youth mental health, which has been stigmatized for far too long,” said Yates.

For Forbes, a UCC member “her entire life,” her interest in the toolkit project came from her observation that mental health is not discussed enough nor are the resources to help seem readily available.

“Having the opportunity to help advocate for better mental health practices and open the conversation to larger forums of individuals, especially those that are young adults trying to start off on their own, is a high honor for me,” she said.

The toolkit, which is being funded by a $10,000 grant from Columbia University’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute, will be completed this fall. It will “live” on the UCC Mental Health Network website where congregations, campus ministers, chaplains and other organizations can access and make use of it, Lund says.

An older congregation does its part

The Naples United Church of Christ in Florida will eagerly embrace the new toolkit, not because its pews are overflowing with young people, but because the aging congregation is actively doing their part to help those in their community.

“The average age of our congregation is 72 years old. It would be easy for us to overlook the youth mental health crisis as something that doesn’t affect us. However, the presence of just ONE supportive adult in a young person’s life can be the difference between life and death,” said the Rev. Angela Wells-Bean, minister for congregational care.

“Our church is committed to raising awareness about the mental health concerns our youth are struggling with, as well as equipping ourselves with the tools we need to support the youth in our community,” she added.

This past winter, the church, which is also a W.I.S.E. (Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive and Engaged) congregation, hosted a community mental health forum, inviting local health experts to share the work being done to create a healthier Naples for its youth.

Why does a church go the extra mental health distance?

“We want to make sure our congregation has the education they need so they’re ready to step up when such an opportunity arises,” said Wells-Bean. “We also seek out opportunities as individuals and as a congregation to tell all the young people in our midst that they’re loved, they matter, and that we’re here with them every step of the way.”

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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