Charlotte, North Carolina
A roomful of teenagers — some old friends and some strangers — stood with their hands, feet or backs together and their eyes closed.
“We’re never alone in this world,” says Davis Cooke, an 18-year-old high school sophomore and founder of the group, which guides teenagers in meditation. “We’re connected to larger communities that support us.”
It’s not a Wednesday night you’d expect teenagers to be excited about after homework and extracurricular activities, but this group of eight said they look forward to monthly mental health sessions with church leaders at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.
Many high school students are affected by what experts have called the teen mental health crisis, according to a survey released in March by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, more than a third of high school students in the United States experienced poor mental health during most of the Covid-19 pandemic, a CDC survey found. More than 2 out of 5 students felt persistent sadness or hopelessness that caused them to stop doing some of their usual activities. About 1 in 5 were seriously suicidal, and about 1 in 10 students attempted suicide.
“(The teenagers) realized that this is a national emergency, and this is about life and death,” said Michelle Thomas-Bush, associate youth pastor at Myers Park Presbyterian. “If they’re given some resources … for the chronic stress they’re dealing with, that can be a lifelong gift.”
The church program came together in 2021 after a longer period of occasional mental health programming. Then the church leadership learned of the number of teenage suicides, and members of their congregation were informed. While eight teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 attended the last September meeting, around 40 teenagers have participated in the program, and 12 have become certified advocates.
Advocates receive church leadership training such as problem solving, breathing techniques, self-compassion, mindfulness and meditation. They can then bring these tools to teach their peers at monthly check-ins — always guided by the adults in the room to provide structure and support.
“This past year, I’ve learned that mental health is something that most high school students deal with. Sometimes we forget, we think everyone else is fine, when really they might not be,” said one student at the meeting. “Check the ones you think are fine. They might not be.”
Most teens who attended the September meeting said they had lost someone to suicide, received a phone call from a friend who was thinking about suicide, had suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning suicide), or a combination of the three.
Mental health screenings can help teens in crisis, connect friends with adults who can intervene, and help students who feel good invest in their own mental health, Thomas-Bush said.
“We’re all going to have a crisis, we’re all going to have a hard day,” Thomas-Bush said. “We want to give them the tools to live and resources to be able to cope.”
One of the highlights of the evening was the time the teenagers spent getting to know each other.
First the group happened to be hunched over sofas, chairs and beans. They went one by one, with a card, classifying different words to describe their emotions, to say how they felt that day.
Words like stress became clear to mean frustration, and in the discussion someone realized that they weren’t just content, they were elated.
Then they moved around a table full of bowls of Chipotle, and eating together helped them break into smaller groups and open up more to each other. They shared laughs and giggles, complaints and moans about school, family and friends.
To help group members get the vulnerability they need to support each other, Thomas-Bush said the adults who run the group make sure teens can share time to talk about tough things, as well as let loose and have fun.
At the September session, one teenager said she came to her first meeting because it was important, but she kept coming back because she had so much fun and saw the benefit of coming together with friends to share their mental health.
Another girl agreed, saying that she usually sees people keeping quiet about their feelings because talking about them could be seen as attention-seeking. But now that she can meet up with friends from different schools, she has more confidence to talk directly about her experiences.
Let’s talk about something that’s stressing you out, Thomas-Bush told the teenagers. It was not surprising that the university was founded.
Teenagers came up with a worst-case scenario: they don’t get into the universities they apply to. They then learned how to de-catastrophize, a psychological tool that examines the reality of a fearful situation, to minimize perceived risk, according to the American Psychological Association.
The consequences of not entering college would be that it would affect the future, but there was something they could do, the teenagers argued from the seats of the comfortable room. They can take a gap year to volunteer, work abroad, or intern for a future career, then try again.
Now that they knew how to fix the problem, what were the real chances of the worst-case scenario coming true? After thinking about it, they decided that even if they didn’t get into the school of their choice, they might get into other options.
Descatastrophization is one of the tools that team members have worked on to return to their daily lives.
One teen mentioned that her parents often ask her if something she’s worried about won’t matter in three minutes, three hours, three days, three months, or three years to help her keep perspective.
Cooke, the group’s founder, responded, saying that while it’s good to keep perspective, it’s also worth feeling the short-term pain.
“It might not matter in three days, but I might need a minute,” Cook said.
When asked what parents should know about their children, many students said that sometimes teenagers just need space to open up about their feelings. They also suggested that parents should learn to use these psychological tools.
Psychologist Lisa Damour, author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents,” suggested a few things for such a list. First, adults need to make sure that teenagers, although they are good at helping each other, do not feel completely responsible for the mental well-being of their peers.
“Being a teenager is hard enough, and I would never want a teenager to feel like their friend’s life is in their hands,” said Damour, who lives in Ohio.
“Although these groups are willing to help each other, they are not always equipped with the tools that mental health professionals are trained to use,” adds Chicago psychologist John Duffy. “The well-being of adolescents in need of professional care can sometimes be in the hands of adolescents.”
As he said, it is essential to have a professional adult present for such groups.
“That’s why there are adults in the room, because they can let us know, and we can take that away from them,” Thomas-Bush said. “We are not in charge of doing therapy, we are not in charge of helping to solve the situation. We are not concerned with protecting them every minute of the day. We are responsible for notifying parents when we know they will harm themselves.’
That’s where Damour comes in with the second thing families want to know: respect teens’ self-help skills, teach them how to reach out to adults for help, so they or their friends can get more professional help when they need it.
“There’s work to be done to talk to teenagers about whether they would feel comfortable telling an adult, what might get in the way, what adults can do to be more accessible to teens when they’re worried about their friends,” she added. .
The last of the salsa was pulled from the bucket and students were piling into their parents’ cars as Cooke looked out over the church parking lot.
One of the girls on the show seemed quieter than usual, she said. He decided that he would consult with her privately later and ask how she felt.
Cooke returned to speak with Thomas-Bush, who was locked in the church, so he could get help to help his friend.