Daniel Dacombe: Youth, Mental Illness, and the Role of the Church

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Mental Health Initiative 2018

by Daniel Dacombe

After working with youth for 15 years in ministry and then in social services, you get used to hearing a lot of the same questions. The first questions I hear usually go like this. From parents: “Why won’t my child listen to me?” From youth: “Why won’t my parents listen to me?” Even from other youth workers: “How do I get parents and kids to listen to each other?”

One of the next questions I frequently encounter after working with someone for a time is, “What is a mental illness?” My answer is this: mental illnesses are real, complex disorders of the mind that affect an increasing number of Canadians each year. They are not the result of bad decisions, a weak mind, or personal sin. In many cases a person who is experiencing a mental illness can get help. However, there can be severe consequences if youth don’t get the help that they need. These consequences could include difficulty living a normal life, relationship problems, or even suicide.

I eventually hear interested persons ask me another important question. And it isn’t just parents or youth who ask it. It comes up at my workplace, at my church, at the grocery store, and anywhere else that my fellow believers can manage to corner me. And I love answering it! “Why do we need to talk about youth and mental illness?”

Youth and Mental Illness in Canada

Why do we need to talk about youth and mental illness? Perhaps because adolescence is the most likely time for the development of mental illness. If someone is going to get depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, or more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, chances are they will begin to have symptoms in their teen years.

Between 10 to 20 per cent of teens in Canada are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness. The number of adolescents in Canada who are at risk of developing depression is over three million. About 5% of male youth and 12% of female youth will or have experienced a major depressive episode. Youth mental illness issues are the second highest hospital care expenditure in the country—and we aren’t even treating half of the people who need help.

Suicide in Canada

Why do we need to talk about youth and mental illness? We need to talk because suicide is among the leading causes of death for adolescents in Canada. Canada is a great country, and we have many freedoms and benefits of which to be proud. Despite this, our suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world.

When I worked in professional ministry, many teenagers told me their thoughts or plans of suicide. It was terrifying, but the fear I was experiencing at hearing their words was nothing compared to the fear they lived in every day. It was the fear that no one could understand how they felt, or could help them to get better. Chances are someone you care about in your church or family has felt this way.

Mental Illness and the Church

As a church, we have a responsibility to work toward the healing of our beautiful, but broken world. And healing is definitely needed in a timely manner when it comes to youth. Research shows only one in five youth who experience a mental illness will actually receive any help.

However, while adolescence is the “prime time” for the development of mental illnesses, it is also the time when interventions for these disorders are most likely to produce successful results and alleviate or eliminate the distressing symptoms.

Returning to a Normal Life

With proper help, about 80% of youth who are experiencing depression can return to a normal life. This help could be seeing a counsellor, a therapist, or a community mental health worker. It might mean talking to a doctor about taking special medication that can help correct some of the problems in the young person’s mind.

The church can also be a big part of this help. While the counsellors and social services in our country do a great job, statistics show most young people will not receive help for the mental illnesses they deal with. I’ve spent seven and a half years in the social services field, and I can tell you there is more than enough work to go around.

A Message to Volunteers

I have a message for youth pastors, youth workers, and volunteers: All of you have an opportunity to help contribute to the solution. You spend more time with the adolescents in our churches than I think anyone realizes. This means when symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses begin to appear, you are poised to be a significant help to the young people of your congregation.

How great would it be if youth pastors and youth workers in our churches had the necessary training to recognize symptoms of mental illness in adolescents? How useful would it be if they knew of appropriate resources to connect with these young people in order for them to get timely, qualified care? And how amazing would it be if these professionals and volunteers could walk with the youth as they received care, being a community of support to them as the Body of Christ?

We Open the Door!

Why do we need to talk about youth and mental illness? For me, the most important reason is this: Because by talking about it, we open the door to talking about mental health and the best ways in which we—youth workers, parents, members of the church—can support our young people though the challenges they are facing in an already challenging world.

I am excited to be a part of the conversation in the E M Conference. Please keep reading The Messenger for further articles this year about understanding different mental illnesses and promoting positive mental health in our churches.


Daniel Dacombe

Check out this source for statistics used here: https://cmha.ca/media/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/

Daniel Dacombe has worked with youth for nearly fifteen years, first at Youth for Christ and more recently at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba. He has attended Providence College and Seminary for Social Sciences and Counselling education. He attends Heartland Community Church and lives with his wife, two daughters, and a very large dog. 


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