"It's okay to cry, no matter what you are feeling. I just wanted you to know that I will always love you," I whisper with tears in my eyes.
This kindergartener is a long way off from her freshman year of high school, but she's not too young for "the talk" about mental health. Teaching our children that it's okay to not be okay is just as important as teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street. Both lessons are designed to prevent harm and keep our children safe.
On April 1, 2022, the Center for Disease Control released a new report and the data confirms what too many families and schools already knew: our youth are not okay. In a national survey, nearly half of the high school students reported feeling sad most of the time. While it's okay and even healthy to feel sadness sometimes as part of the full range of human experience, the persistent nature of this pandemic of sadness creates chronic levels of stress that will have a lifelong impact on youth. We have a whole generation of youth whose mental health is in crisis with the highest rates of youth suicide we have ever seen.
This is personal for me. We lost a family member to suicide during the first year of the pandemic. She was only 16. That is why I am having "the talk" now with my six-year-old niece.
The CDC report also confirms what we know in our gut: youth who feel connected to others have better mental health. The feeling of being socially disconnected, alone, and isolated from peers, friends, and family is bad for mental health. The youth who felt disconnected had double the rate of attempted suicide. The report shows that the connections can be in-person or online, it doesn't matter; the thing that matters most is knowing you are not alone. And it's why all of us need to break the silence with children and teens about mental illness. It's why I wrote Blessed Youth and the Blessed Youth Survival Guide for teens to create a personalized safety plan to prevent self-harm and suicide.
Now is the time for faith communities, schools, families, and community organizations to come together to support youth mental health. Together we can create networks of care and connection. Let's leave no child disconnected.
The Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund serves as Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice on the national staff of the United Church of Christ and as senior pastor of First Congregational UCC of Indianapolis, IN. She volunteers on the national boards of Pathways to Promise, Mental Health America, Bethany Fellows, and Piedmont University. In January of 2022, Sarah joined two US Department of Health and Human Services national Think Tanks, the first about faith communities and suicide, and the second about faith communities and youth mental health. Sarah is the author of several books about mental health: Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church (2014), Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage (2021), and Blessed Youth: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness with Children and Teens (2022), and a pocket-sized mental health resource book for youth: Blessed Youth Survival Guide (2022). Sarah blogs at www.sarahgriffithlund.com.