Learning skills to cope — together
August 10, 2022
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
Tammy Warren, Retired Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Kids and mental health
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Nathaniel Carter, 1001 Apprentice, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Theology, Formation & Education, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Katie Carter, Associate, Faith-Based Investing & Corporate Engagement, Compassion, Peace & Justice, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray
Gracious God, as siblings come together, we pray that you will wrap your loving arms around each of them as they worship, work and share with one another. In Christ’s name, amen.