When she was 14, Kirbey Geissler, a lifelong member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem, Oregon, was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. After hitting an emotional nadir six years later—for the first time, she understood why some people die by suicide—she was diagnosed with depression, as well.
“Having that experience made me realize you can do literally everything right, everything, have all the tools in the basket, all the support, and still feel yourself at a low point where it feels like things are not going to get better,” says Geissler.
Geissler, 25, now realizes she’s been dealing with mental health issues her entire life, even as a child. And among her generation, she is anything but alone. “I’d say most of the people around me have some sort of mental health issue they are dealing with in some capacity,” she says.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or visit 988lifeline.org.
The evidence is overwhelming: children and youth in the United States are in the midst of an unprecedented mental health crisis. While people of all ages struggle with mental health—one in five Americans faced mental health challenges in 2019—the incidence is significantly higher among youth. As just one indicator, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2019, 1 in 6 high school students reported making a suicide plan in the previous year, a 44 percent increase since 2009, according to the CDC, and more than one-third experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40 percent increase.
Youth from marginalized communities are at even greater risk due to additional pressures resulting from discrimination. Children who grow up in poverty are two to three times more likely to develop mental health issues than their peers, the Surgeon General found.
The number of Black youth who reported attempting suicide in 2019 increased by almost 50 percent compared to 2009, the CDC found, and Black children are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide than white children, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2021 Advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health.” According to the CDC, over half of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students have seriously considered suicide, “far more” than heterosexual kids. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that over half of trans male adolescents, about 30 percent of trans female adolescents, and over 41 percent of adolescents who identify as nonbinary have attempted suicide.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and social gatherings for over a year, it exacerbated feelings of isolation and stress over health, finances, and more. Fifty-three percent of Gen Zers—ages 13 to 25—polled in 2022 said the biggest challenge of the pandemic was their own mental health, according to the Springtide Research Institute.
“Gen Z is in the middle of the biggest mental health crisis we’ve ever seen,” according to Dr. Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide. The group surveyed nearly 10,000 Gen Zers for its annual report on young people and the state of religion, which focused on mental health in 2019’s “Belonging: Reconnecting America’s Loneliest Generation.” Among other things, it found that 47 percent of these youth reported being moderately or extremely depressed.
“Three decades ago, the gravest public health threats to teenagers in the United States came from binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, and smoking. These have since fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health concern: soaring rates of mental health disorders,” writes Matt Richtel, who spent a year interviewing adolescents and their families for an April 2022 New York Timesarticle.
Experts point to a number of proven or possible contributing factors, among them the growing rates of loneliness among youth, fears about the climate crisis, family adversity, and the often-destructive aspects of social media. At the same time, there is a chronic shortage of mental health professionals that became worse during the pandemic, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Mental health challenges are a medical condition and not a person’s fault, yet there is still stigma around the issue. The stigma is often greater toward members of the LGBTQIA+ community, who already face other targeted forms of injustice, including physical violence, that put them at higher risk. A queer white woman, Geissler says she believes there is less stigma within the LGBTQIA+ community about mental health issues, in part because so many share this experience due to discrimination, especially Black and Indigenous trans and queer people.
Facing serious mental health issues head-on, and working to remove stigma, will require centering the wisdom of youth and young adults as the experts in their own lives, says Jennica Davis-Hockett, Youth and Emerging Adult Ministry staff in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Lifespan Faith Engagement office. “Today’s young people come with incredible assets,” she says, including, often, a deep sensitivity of and commitment to dismantling the unjust conditions that contribute to or exacerbate mental health issues.
We’re at a critical moment for youth and mental health. Now what do we, as UUs, do?
“Recognizing that mental health challenges are real, and they are treatable, and you are not stuck for the rest of your life, you can emerge and have a successful, joyful life,” says Rev. Barbara F. Meyers, a UU community minister focused on mental health ministry, who herself has struggled with mental health. Meyers is board chair of the UU Mental Health Network, which launched several years ago to provide resources for anyone facing mental health issues. While it does not currently have a youth program, it would like to, and Meyers urges UUs to join the network so that there are more working in this space.
In May 2020, a few months after the pandemic started, Davis-Hockett began facilitating a monthly youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course online for religious educators and other adults concerned about youth mental health. The majority of attendees shared that they have “direct experience with someone who had been in distress or crisis or know a youth who died by suicide,” Davis-Hockett says. As a facilitator with a UU background, she imbued the course with UU values of agency and youth empowerment and providing options, she says, and she added more “trauma-informed aspects of peer support and care that are not inherent in the MHFA model.”
After connecting with the UU Mental Health Network (uumentalhealth.org), she is now deprioritizing the MHFA program, which is more reliant on a medical model that centers the role of the behavioral health industry in mental healthcare and highlighting additional “social models more in line with our UU values” such as “our peer pastoral care model, which has been around for decades,” she says. While it’s important for everyone who cares about youth mental health to have a list of trusted, culturally competent mental health professionals and organizations that they can suggest to youth and families who are in distress, UUs are called to do more than outsource care; they can be communities of care that know how to show up for each other in times of distress, she says. To that end, the Lifespan Faith Engagement office is currently developing the UUA’s own standardized set of materials on peer support that will address youth mental health for a multigenerational audience. (Email email@example.com to get access to these resources.)
Springtide Research Institute, which does empirical research at the intersection of youth and religion, found a number of perhaps surprising results in its mental health survey of Gen Zers, including that nearly 10 percent didn’t have a single meaningful social interaction on any given day. For that reason, it agrees that Gen Z is the "loneliest generation," as a 2018 study of 20,000 youth by the global health service company Cigna describes them. And 61 percent said adults don’t truly understand how much they are struggling with mental health, the Springtide study found.
This sense of loneliness and disconnection is an important challenge to religious organizations to more deeply support their youth. But belonging to a religious organization, by itself, doesn’t help much, in large part because youth have low levels of trust in institutions of any type, the study found.
“As a place of hope when things feel hopeless, religious education spaces are essential.” — Rev. Leslie Takahashi
So what does make a difference? Having trusted adults in their lives, according to the Springtide survey, a result confirmed by the Surgeon General’s advisory report. Having one trusted adult in a young person’s life cuts severe isolation in half, Springtide found, and with even more trusted adults to confide in, feelings of isolation, loneliness, and stress plummet. Sixty-two percent of youth with no trusted adults in their life report feeling isolated, compared to just 9 percent who had five trusted adults.
“The data is clear: severe loneliness, social isolation, and stress can be substantially reduced by increasing the number of connections young people have to trusted adults,” the Springtide survey found.
Geissler says that’s what helped her. She felt safe in revealing her struggles to her parents, who are also UUs. They took her seriously and made sure she was never alone where she could put herself in an unsafe situation. They helped her find good therapists, and she began taking medication, says Geissler.
What else helped? “Family, friends, people in the UU community and people outside it,” says Geissler.
Religious education programs are a naturally supportive place for UU youth, which is why congregations must support them, says the Rev. Leslie Takahashi, lead minister at Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, California.
“Over the years I’ve come to understand that our RE spaces create an alternative community for children and youth who might not have that sense of community always in other places. As a place of hope when things feel hopeless, they’re essential,” says Takahashi, who is writing a book for Skinner House Books on what congregations should know about trauma.
Yet in an effort to conserve resources, many congregations have defunded their RE programs in recent years, a trend that started before the pandemic and accelerated when people could no longer gather together, she says. “Don’t defund your RE program. Whatever you have to do, resource it—because it’s needed,” Takahashi urges. “Don’t get rid of the professionals who know how to deal with this, don’t get rid of the support systems for our children and youth.” Be patient about the time it takes to build these relationships and spaces. Even if only a handful of kids attend RE, “If you do it right, you’ll see more,” Takahashi says.
Both in her religious education classes and elsewhere at her congregation, Geissler felt loved, adding, “I always found it so comforting to be around fellow UUs because there were so many people who understood or were able to empathize or sympathize with what I was going through.”
And at UU youth conferences, colloquially known as cons, she found more support, including from Davis-Hockett. “Just the sheer volume of people willing to sit with me, take a walk with me, suggest options to me when I was in a very anxious and uncomfortable mindset, it helped,” Geissler says. While the support didn’t stop her from having mental health issues, it continues to make a critical difference in navigating those challenges.
“Just having a safe environment growing up, I don’t think it necessarily affects the chances of having mental health [issues] happen, but having a safe environment outside home with people of all ages who want the absolute best for me is a great resource,” says Geissler. “Especially when I was in RE and attending church every week and getting involved with different lessons and the youth community, that was a really important resource for me.” She continues with therapy and medication because mental health challenges are “an ongoing thing, but I have a good support network. I can’t say for sure I won’t have a low moment, but I haven’t had one in a while.”
It’s important to offer genuine support to young people, even those who you don’t think seem to be struggling. Notice them, call them by their self-identified names and pronouns, accept them without judgment, and pay attention to their stories and experiences with intentionality, Springtide’s research advises.
“If they come to religious professionals and lay people, and they say they are feeling alone and unloved, and our response is anything but ‘I hear you and see you, and how can I support you?’ then we are failing them,” says roddy bell-shelton biggs, 29, a queer, non-binary, multicultural African American with ancestry out of the West African coast, some of whose ancestors were once enslaved. “That goes for adults, too, but especially for children.”
biggs, a seminarian serving as part-time intern minister for the UU Fellowship of Fredericksburg, Virginia, while continuing their seminary education at Meadville Lombard Theological School, speaks from personal experience. At the age of 12 or 13 they began to deal with mental health challenges, which they describe as “complete isolation, deep depression, a longing for community that I didn’t know how to find.” But no one around biggs suspected those struggles since they were always smiling and had many friends.
After some unpleasant experiences with therapists when they were a young teen, including one who refused to see them again once they revealed they were queer, biggs avoided therapy for years. But once they enrolled in seminary, they wanted to avoid harming their future congregants due to their own wounds and found an excellent trauma therapist who was a queer man. Based on their own experiences as a youth, biggs, who plans to become a parish minister, has some guidance for adults seeking to support young people.
“The number one thing, which is also the easiest thing to do but also the thing we tend to do the worst, is to listen,” they say. “I can’t tell you the number of times as a teen I told somebody, ‘I’m not feeling well; I’m really struggling’ or ‘I’m feeling suicidal, feeling I might harm myself’ and got told, ‘Oh, you’re young, you’ll be okay,’ or, ‘Yes, that’s really hard but you’ll get through it.” Instead, stay in conversation, explore what they are feeling, and ask if they are having suicidal ideation, biggs urges.
Ways to Help
61 percent of youth say adults don’t understand how much they are struggling with mental health, according to Springtide Research Institute.
Here’s how to help:
*Reach out to youth, help them feel understood, know and use their self-identified names and pronouns, and be present to their stories and experiences, without judgment.
*Support an increase in mental health resources for youth, including more school counselors, especially those with BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ identities/cultural training.
*Help youth connect to mental health professionals, peer groups, and other resources.
*To help prevent suicides, it is “really important” to minimize youth access to firearms or prescription medicines, says the Rev. Barbara F. Meyers, board chair of the UU Mental Health Network.
*988 is the new national suicide and crisis lifeline number, operating through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
*The Trevor Project (thetrevorproject.org), the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people, offers 24/7 crisis services.
*Hold congregational programming on youth mental health, with an emphasis on removing stigma and offering support. The UUA’s Worship Web has worship service materials related to mental health; others, collected by Meyers, are available at: mpuuc.org/mental-health-resources/mental-health-sermons. Another resource is the UU Mental Health Network: uumentalhealth.org
Congregations, biggs says, “can create a culture of love and support around mental health in religious education classes, a system in RE where children and youth feel empowered enough to where they can share these things without feeling like they’re going to be judged.” That might include creating a mental health curriculum to be included in UU coming of age classes, they say. “If we go about pretending like children and youth aren’t suicidal or don’t have mental health challenges, that’s where we are failing them. We are not failing them by talking about it, by normalizing it, by validating it—we are making them feel heard.”
Adult UUs should approach this as a social justice issue to be available and supportive of young adults and children, including and especially those who have no or few trusted adults in their lives, and those from marginalized communities, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ youth. Friends in the First UU Congregation of Nashville, where biggs was a member, helped them find their therapist, who in addition to sharing their identity gave them a significant discount on services. Thus, biggs was able to get professional help where many BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ youth can’t afford to, they say.
“We’re a religion that is supportive to people that are LGBTQ+,” says Meyers, author of Held: Showing Up for Each Other’s Mental Health (Skinner House, 2020). “To have those kinds of adults around them and show positive role models is really important.”
Moreover, she adds, there is an important precedent in this area. In the nineteenth century, Dorothea Dix, a Unitarian, was the foremost advocate striving for humane treatment for people with mental health issues. “So, I think,” says Meyers, “it is part of our religious heritage to work on this.”