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Our kids and mental health

Learning skills to cope — together

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterians Today

Youth group at Myers Park Presbyterian means learning how to cope in today’s world through prayer and mindfulness. Josh Richard

Every Wednesday, from 2:30 until about 7 p.m., high school students gather at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to connect, do homework, have dinner together — and practice a mental health coping skill.

The gathering could be called “youth group,” as it has been known for as long as youth leaders can remember. But instead it has taken on new urgency, becoming more of a weekly “mental health check-in,” said the Rev. Michelle Thomas-Bush, associate pastor for youth and their families at Myers Park.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association have declared child and adolescent mental health a national emergency. It’s a crisis that has been worsened by the pandemic, they said, and one that disproportionately impacts children and youth in communities of color.

Thomas-Bush launched mental health check-ins at the church last fall, which has led to the creation of a volunteer leadership team of mental health advocates. These advocates are high school students specially trained to lead workshops for middle school students in mindfulness and prayer practices. Currently there are seven students being trained. They are all in different places in their mental health journey and all want to help others learn these skills.

Some adults in the church also have requested the high school mental health advocates lead workshops to teach them these skills, Thomas-Bush said.

Emotionally showing up

A recent guided mindfulness activity involved squeezing hands tightly as if squeezing an orange, then letting go, while keeping eyes closed, then squeezing again and shaking off the juice. Another involved putting feet flat on the ground and curling your toes, like gathering sand at the beach, then noticing how your body feels.

Myers Park Presbyterian high school students are responding to the national crisis in children’s mental health by volunteering to be trained to lead mental health workshops for other teens and interested adults. Josh Richard

“Then the conversation afterward was that when you are doing things like this, you stop for a moment, and you’re present in the moment. You are kind to yourself without judgment and just ‘here,’ recognizing that this is the moment. It is what it is. You take that moment for what it is, without creating a narrative that’s different,” Thomas-Bush said.

Students lead their families in take-home activities at the dinner table, such as learning to name and show up with your emotions each day. One student said his father was angry because he had hurt his thumb. His dad came home and said, “I’m in a whole lot of pain, so I’m just letting you know this,” which was a helpful way to show up and be honest with his emotions that day.

“‘How are you showing up today?’ That’s a language we use a lot,” Thomas-Bush said.

“As a person of faith, how are we going to show up loving our neighbor, loving ourselves?”

Other mindfulness practices include a variety of deep breathing exercises, remembering a moment of joy or using the Mood Meter or RULER tool, co-developed by Dr. Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which emphasizes Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions.

Thomas-Bush became familiar with the benefits of practicing mindfulness during a sabbatical a few years ago. “It really changed my life,” she said. “I’m not a person who stops really well. I move all the time, so it has really helped me slow down and be present with myself and others.” She said research has shown time and time again that practicing mindfulness helps decrease stress, reduce anxiety, integrate emotions, relieve chronic pain and calm the body.

“I think it’s critical that young people embody mindfulness,” she said. “Young people don’t know what to do with their emotions. During COVID, we all stopped. We all had the time to stop and reflect on our lives, then we didn’t know what to do. I think the church needs to take up the mantle and teach some tools for how to embody the chaos of life.”

In addition to leading workshops for middle school students, the high school mental health advocates at Myers Park are creating a “mental health toolbox” that will be available to churches across the denomination and ecumenically. As part of their mental health awareness work, the students will lead a student book club with the first book being “The Visitors,” a tale of friendship and forgiveness by author Greg Howard, which includes issues of LGBTQIA+, suicide and race.

In 2019, more than 1 in 3 students indicated they persistently felt sad or hopeless, an 11% increase over 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report, 2009–2019. The report also showed that 16% of students made a suicide plan.

Staying connected

Thomas-Bush founded the Big Ideas in Youth Ministry Facebook group and podcast, co-hosted by the Rev. Cliff Haddox, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio, to have a space for a grassroots group of ecumenical youth leaders to connect and share practical ideas and resources. “We believe youth ministry is relational,” she said, “but we still have to do Sunday school in youth ministry and — especially in the last couple of years — it’s been a great space for me and other youth leaders to get ideas.”

In a recent parenting circle discussion of the book “Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World” by Dr. Madeline Levine, the author acknowledged that the world we live in is “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.”

Afterward, an adult in the group emailed Thomas-Bush to say that she had really been trying to create a world that’s “happy” and “good,” and that she had never thought that she was called to acknowledge that the world is “hard.”

“I think that we need to help our families and young people know that this is the world; nobody promises them that it’s going to be good and kind and peaceful,” said Thomas-Bush. “The world is chaotic, but they have the resources to deal with it.”

Tammy Warren is a retired communications associate with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Caring in the school halls

by Tammy Warren

Heather Herring of First Presbyterian-Charlotte, left, and Malacy Williams, principal of Westerly Hills Academy, fill shelves in the school’s food pantry. Grant Baldwin

“The mental health impacts of the pandemic obviously are severe among children and families, but among teachers, there’s also been a big impact,” said Heather Herring, a child and family partnership coordinator at First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Herring leads a group of volunteers in supporting staff, students and families at Westerly Hills Academy, an elementary school of about 400 students in West Charlotte. The school is about a 10-minute drive from the church. “They’re so overwhelmed and tired, and so we’ve put a lot of effort this year into supporting them, whether it’s holiday gifts, meals or ‘We’re praying for you’ messages,” said Herring.

Church volunteers returned to in-person tutoring and parent dinners last fall, with a greater understanding of how hard teachers have been working.

First Presbyterian-Charlotte hosts a Loaves and Fishes pantry in the basement of the church, but most of the students’ parents are essential workers and have a difficult time getting to food pantries.

“So, when the principal asked if we’d be interested in establishing a pantry at the school, we said, ‘Absolutely.’ It’s been such a great project to work on together. Immediately the church responded by providing the food and shelving. It’s really charming. It’s meant to be a fun, welcoming shopping experience. The principal did an amazing job of that,” said Herring.

More than two decades ago, First Presbyterian-Charlotte requested to be partnered with a public school in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. The church was randomly matched with Westerly Hills Academy. In her role with the church, Herring attends Zoom meetings with the principal and staff monthly and works with church volunteers and community partners such as Core Church-Charlotte, Heart Math Tutoring, Helps Education Fund and Augustine Literacy Project to meet identified needs. Many of these needs have been exacerbated by the recent pandemic. Principal Malacy Williams said Westerly Hills Academy will be catching up for a while due to the pandemic’s broad impact.

“It’s not just one group of students. It’s all students. It’s not one particular grade. It’s all grades that are going to have that educational gap,” Williams said.

Virtual tutoring provided by community partners provided a blessing of continuity for students during remote learning, Herring said. A six-week summer camp for rising first through third grade students, held at First Presbyterian-Charlotte, will return this year.

“With the weekly field trips and enrichment activities, it doesn’t feel too much like school,” Herring said. “Most summers we see a one-to-two month improvement in literacy and math, instead of backsliding.”

Other children will also get to have a camp experience to connect with nature and one another. For more than 50 years, First Presbyterian-Charlotte has sent about 60 students to Camp Grier each summer, an outdoor ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the mountains of North Carolina.

The Westerly Hills partnership has helped identify students to send to camp — younger children to day camp at the church and older children to Camp Grier for summer camp and/or Streets to Peaks (S2P), a quarterly outdoor adventure leadership program for middle and high school students.

Herring received an email from a former camper who now works as an analyst at Wells Fargo. She expressed interest in serving as a camp connector. “That was a great way of validating how meaningful that program is, and it was exciting to see that it was special to her. She wanted to do the same for others.”

Whether it’s providing food or a camp adventure or tutoring, Herring believes it’s the connection, the caring that makes all the difference.

“I think the encouragement of knowing somebody is there is valuable,” Herring said. “It’s not that First Presbyterian is there. It’s that God’s there, too. We want to be the hands and feet, and we want to share that light, especially at such a hard time.”

A Prayer for the Hard Times

By Sarah Are Speed


Sarah Are Speed, associate pastor for Young Adults and Membership at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, is a seventh-generation Presbyterian pastor. She is a founding creative of the multimedia ministry, “A Sanctified Art,” and, a poetry blog that nourishes her soul and serves as a source of connection in our hurting world. Hannah Bri Photography

Dear God,
I don’t have a lot of words these days.
Depression does that.
Anxiety does that.
They steal your words.
They hide your logic.
They siphon your energy.
I can’t remember which direction
the sun is supposed to rise.
It feels like it’s always raining.

So here I am,
soaked to the bone,
bringing you the words I have left
because you are the one who calmed the storm.
You are the one who walked on water,
so please, God,
walk my way.

Come find me.
Remind me that I am not alone.
Calm the waters.
Stop the wind.
Bring the sun back.
Throw me a life jacket.
Give me strength.
Send a lifeboat.
Turn on the searchlights.
Teach me how to swim.
Walk my way.
That would be enough.

I might be soaked to the bone,
but I’m not giving up
because you are the God who calmed the storm.
You are the God who walked on water,
so even on the hardest days
I’ll keep my eye on the horizon.
I’m looking.
I’m waiting.
I’m not giving up.
I know the sun will rise.


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