Staying Sane in Youth Work
How much thought do we put into our own mental and emotional health and well-being as youth workers? Rob Waller looks at how we can establish strong foundations that will ensure that we don't over commit or burn out, and prepare us for the inevitable tough times in youth ministry.
If I asked you to tell me five things that keep you physically healthy, you could probably list them with no trouble. Less sugar in your tea; more veg on your plate; more walk and less car; more water; less beer (or is this just me?). However, if I asked you to tell me five things proven by scientists to keep you mentally healthy, would you know how to respond?
It’s not that the evidence is lacking, rather this is something we tend not to think about much – until the wheels come off and it’s a bit late. So here is a practical guide – full of tips, good habits and basic facts - that will help you keep as sane as you can be.
Anatomy of an emotion
Despite the ‘lid’ coming off emotions in the 1960s, most people are not that aware of what emotions actually are. We talk about them more, but is that talk effective? With the rates of mental illness rising, perhaps it’s time to get back to basics:
Emotions are normal. Though I’m sure many of the chaps would like the six-pack of Daniel Craig (as James Bond), we’d be unwise to wish for his ‘emotional desert’ ability to just brush things off. This is because emotions are our brains’ way of grabbing our attention about something really important – something a cold or logical approach might miss.
Emotions deserve a response. They are there to make us do something. If you are stressed, there is a reason and we need to find the cause. What are you feeling right now? What do you need to do about this?
Jesus had emotions. Which means it is okay to cry sometimes (John 11:35), say you love someone (Mark 10:21), be filled with joy (Luke 10:21), be angry (Mark 11:12-17), show frustration (Mark 8:12) and be overcome with sorrow (Matthew 26:37-38). Jesus gave himself space to let his emotions out; and in doing so they served Him, not Him them.
Identifying our emotions (and knowing what our patterns are) is the first step to emotional health. Spend a few moments, thinking of how many ‘mood words’ you know. Why not print off a mood chart and stick it on your fridge? Start each day with a reality check.
We all have different ‘personality types’ and so experience emotions in different ways. This is entirely normal and we should not try to change this. There are some wellknown personality ‘tests’ out there like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI, www.myersbriggs.com). You can find free versions online that can be fun to do in a peer group; they will provoke plenty of discussion and you will learn lots about each other!
However, the MBTI tends to undermeasure something psychologists call ‘neuroticism’ – which, importantly, is the personality type most associated with anxiety and depression. If this is you, then it will be helpful to learn how to manage this part of you well, and the MBTI will not do that. Boundaries are important – read the classic book by Cloud and Townsend. It is good to know that neuroticism has a number of strengths too: these people are often sensitive, caring, good listeners and in people-focussed
professions like youth work…
Stages of burnout
Mental health problems take time to develop, usually over a number of months. For some, familial childhood contributions are obvious; but even the person with the very best upbringing will struggle in some circumstances.
One good tip is to be aware of your early warning signs. Mine are a tension headache and a poor night’s sleep. If I have either of these for no reason for two nights, I know something is up. I ask my wife, ask God and take stock of what I am up to. Usually it is a matter of just saying ‘no’ to a couple of things, but it will save me problems later on.
The next stage is using up favours. Most youth workers rely on good networks and relationships. These will go through ups and downs, but they should average out, with you giving as many favours as you ask for and keeping a few hidden away for a rainy day. If your ‘favour equation’ is getting unbalanced or the reserve is running dry, then this is the start of a crisis. Good friends will also hopefully point this out – do you have these?
Then comes the first stage that is noticeable to others – a degree of burnout. There may be some snappiness; missed deadlines. Worse, you stop doing the things you enjoy – the very things that are keeping you sane. It is unhelpful for linemanagers to be rigid at this point, because what is probably needed is a few days off, permission to stop a few things and more encouragement. Get this from elsewhere if you have to, and it is always good to have a support group who are independent from your boss.
Tackling things now will help you to avoid the final stage – a ‘breakdown’. Again, as a psychiatrist, I am not entirely sure what this word means. But it is a good concept; meaning this car is broken down, and is going to pull over on the hard shoulder until the nice man from the AA takes a look under the bonnet and fixes whatever is wrong. It is your body wisely telling your sometimes over-keen brain that enough is enough for a while.
The Beatles tell us, ‘All you need is love’, but we all know it’s a bit more complicated than that. Youth workers in churches can tell themselves that ‘all they need is Jesus’ and to have more faith. But it’s not so easy; Jesus can seem far away and ‘Jesus’ can seem to be the cause of the problem. Others ram this ‘cure’ so far down our throats that we gag.
All this can leave us with the feeling that ‘I’m not supposed to feel like this’ (see a great book on this topic I’m Not Supposed to Feel Like This: A Christian Approach to Depression and Anxiety by Williams, Richards and Whitton, Hodder, 2002); and this can undermine our faith. However, if we go for the more complex answer, we can learn things about ourselves a stress-free life cannot teach. The Bible calls this ‘refining’, the world calls it ‘the school of hard knocks’.
We can rebuild the foundations of our faith, making them our own and not our parents, seeing Jesus as a brother and not a Santa Claus or Headmaster, sharing God’s frustration with disunity and inequality. This is also a time for being kind to ourselves, for being as generous to ourselves as we would be to others and for being patient with ourselves as we work this one out.
Five ‘F’s to help you stay mentally healthy
Classic English poet John Donne said, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ We all need people, even those of us who are introverts. Aim for a couple of close friends and build these relationships slowly over time, with love, sacrifice and laughter. Aim for a handful of ‘mates’ who you see or talk to often. Allow many more to be at a distance; care for them, but
don’t expect too much and don’t let them break your heart. And don’t feel that you have to get on with EVERYONE all the time – the Bible never says this (see Romans 12:18 if you don’t believe me!).
You’d be amazed at how seriously people can take the topic of emotional health. We hope that this edition of Youthwork is read in the relaxed style that it was created. We need to ‘get Jamaican’ on our emotions. If simply trying harder was going to work, wouldn’t it have done so by now? So, take some time out from the planning, the reviewing and the self-condemning – and have a bit of fun.
As a Christian youth worker, church will be hard to avoid – but it is important to keep faith alive in the middle of it all. Some things you might try are: a) listen to worship music and try some different styles to your usual, b) go to an early morning holy communion service (at your church or another) – God can speak powerfully in times of stress through liturgy and space, c) get away from it all to a conference, but don’t ram in too many seminars – take time to receive prayer and be alone, d) visit the Mind and Soul testimonies area (www.mindandsoul.info/testimonies), and e) go to another church on your day off – it is a day off after all…
It’s hard to have good emotional health on a diet of chips and beer, just as it’s hard to have good skin. You know the basics – a balanced diet and all that – but now it is time to actually put it into practice. Look at www.5aday.nhs.uk for the science and some healthy meal ideas. Why not cook for some of those friends you want to make?
Whether you enjoy football, ballet, swimming or long walks in the countryside, getting your pulse up makes you feel fitter, releases mood-enhancing endorphins and gives you something to talk about. Look at www.nhs.uk/livewell/ fitness for ideas, and www.sustrans.org.uk for the National Cycle Network (which has a funky iPhone app).
One of my favourite descriptions of the Holy Spirit is the ‘Paraclete’ (Greek: paráklētos), which is literally translated as ‘called to the side of God’. Some preaching can make the Holy Spirit sound like a carrot of ‘if you had more faith you’d be healed’ – and this just makes people feel unworthy and unready. Other preaching makes the Spirit sounds like a stick of ‘you’re saved and you’ve got the Bible so what more do you want’ – and this just makes people feel useless and inadequate. Neither of these definitions are correct.
Instead, He wants us to journey with Him through the good times and the bad, maybe even the sane and the insane; and he wants to journey with the sick as much as (or maybe even more than, Matthew 9:12) the well. This is illustrated in the well-known Footprints poem: there are times when He actually has to carry us.
This article is food for the journey – nourishment and principles to make us strong before the ‘carrying’ section comes. Now is as good a time as any to put in the preparation, to make sure you can hear the voice of the Alongside God for times of sickness as well as health.
Dr Rob Waller is a Consultant Psychiatrist working for the NHS in Scotland. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two sons and is a Director of Premier Mind and Soul www.mindandsoul.info