Health Ministry with Teenagers

by Deborah Patterson

When one thinks of health ministry, working with teenagers is probably not the first group that comes to mind. Teens generally are very healthy, aside from the odd cold or flu. Any chronic illnesses diagnosed in childhood, such as asthma or diabetes, probably are well-managed by the teen years.

There are still many ways, however, that a congregation can be helpful to teens and their parents through health ministry. I would like to include ten of them here.

Having a parish nurse and a health cabinet to plan and implement programs would be ideal. Many of these programmatic ideas, however, can also be made available to congregations through the leadership of others, including local resources available in the community, often for a minimal cost.

  1. Sex education. The teen years are primary “wake-up” years for sexuality and our culture attempts to capitalize on this energy in a wide variety of ways, especially through advertising. Accurate information about sexuality is not nearly as readily available. Due to a wide variety of influences on school boards, sex education varies widely from place to place within educational institutions. In a world where sexually transmitted diseases can be as potentially lethal as ever, it is incumbent upon religious communities to share responsibility for education about sexuality with parents and schools. It is shocking to learn how often teens are unaware of the dangers of risky sexual behaviors other than intercourse. Parish nurses, who are used to dealing in a matter-of-fact manner with a wide variety of sensitive health issues, are the perfect resource persons to address these concerns with young people.
  2. Healthy eating. The World Health Organization calls childhood and teenage obesity, which can increase the risk of illnesses such as heart disease and stroke and lead to a significantly shorter life expectancy, a global health epidemic. Approximately 15 percent of American teenagers today are overweight, with another 15 percent at risk, the highest in U.S. history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On the other hand, the media is filled with frighteningly thin people – particularly young women.Eating disorders exist among all age groups, but teens are at highest risk for developing anorexia and/or bulimia. Parish nurses have offered classes as part of junior high and high school church education programs on body image and eating disorders and have helped families identify potential problems and access help early. A church-wide focus on healthy eating can be a support to teens.
  3. Exercise. Recently, I accompanied my daughter’s Girl Scout troop on a short hike and it was amazing to see fifth graders who could hardly walk a mile. We have convinced ourselves that it is dangerous for kids to just hang around outside and schools keep cutting back on physical education classes. According to the CDC, 43 percent of teens watch more than two hours of TV a day. Most teens also do an hour or more of homework and play computer and video games as well. By the time children reach their teen years, many have developed habits and interests that are primarily sedentary and teen girls are even less likely to be active than boys. “Girls on the Run” is an exercise program that is offered by Beth Durban at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in St. Louis that encourages teenage girls through peer support to get moving and have fun. Youth groups should include activities that get kids moving as often as possible.
  4. Automobile accidents. One of the most tragic tasks a pastor can have is ministering to grief-stricken families of car accident victims. Motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Safety Council, are the leading cause of death for teenagers between the ages of 15 and 20. A helpful program might be to have a survivor of a car accident along with a relative of someone who died in a crash, a police officer, and an EMS technician, speak to the teens. These could be separate presentations, or a panel discussion, with sensitivity toward the various emotions that may be experienced by the presenters. Teens learn best by listening to peers, so the younger the presenters, the better. A teen that has survived a car accident or lost a friend would probably have the largest impact.
  5. Mental health issues. We don’t like to talk about it, but mental health issues confront a significant number of teens. A number of teens are under care for ADHD and ADD, and others are diagnosed with disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and bi-polar disorder. Depression affects about 20 percent of teens at some time during their teenaged years. Of greatest concern is the risk of suicide. The Nemours Foundation, which specializes in children’s health issues, stated that the number of teen suicides continues to rise, and is a leading cause of death among teenagers, particularly in the middle teen years, when hormone shifts and changing sleep patterns cause the greatest disruption. Parish nurses are able to arrange for screenings for risk factors for depression and other mental health issues at all-church events such as health fairs, and are available to help families’ access counselors to help with mental health issues. In some places, parish nurses have been able to help congregations arrange to have mental health care providers come to the church once a week to provide one-on-one or family counseling on a sliding scale through a local mental health care provider.
  6. Safety. Personal safety is an issue for teens, who are given more freedom to travel around their communities on their own than are younger children. Some parish nurses have arranged for karate classes to be taught to teens, both for exercise, and for helping with a sense of personal security. They have found that the teens really enjoy the classes and show up regularly. Some have arranged for police officers to make presentations on issues such as personal safety in public spaces, date rape, etc. A new safety issue that has arisen is the rising incidence of teens playing the “choking game” in which a person obstructs the flow of oxygen to their brain (either alone or with a partner) through pressure on their carotid artery until he or she passes out, to enjoy the euphoria of oxygen returning, but it has, in many hundreds, if not thousands of cases per year, led to tragic death or permanent brain damage. Communication and education here is key.
  7. Tobacco use. Most life-long smokers begin smoking in their teens, so this issue must be a priority for anyone working with the holistic health of teens. Many parish nurses have helped people with smoking cessation programs, but few parish nurses have offered smoking prevention programs. This is a wide-open opportunity to make a difference in a community through peer support.
  8. Alcohol. The CDC found that nearly one in two 12th graders consumed alcohol in the previous month. Combined with other reckless behaviors, underage alcohol use can be deadly. It can also compound mental health issues, and be a contributing factor in self-injury or other violent behavior. Teen alcohol use is almost entirely peer-related. A youth group that makes alcohol seem less attractive would certainly help. Starting a church program similar to “Big Brothers-Big Sisters” that pairs a young teen with an adult church member might also help to address some of the pressures that teens are under, giving them a friendly ear during these challenging years.
  9. Drugs. Drug misuse among teens can range from use of illegal drugs, such as marijuana, methamphetamine or cocaine, to the use of medications prescribed for another person, or the use of inhalants, such as glue or other household chemicals. WebMD recommends talking with children and teen about substance abuse, and states, “involvement in church activities, YMCA programs or youth organizations helps young people feel connected and engaged in activities and social circles that are drug- and alcohol-free.” If WebMD is advocating church activities as a drug prevention strategy, there is obviously some room for faith communities to make a positive contribution to teen health here!
  10. Access to care. It is sad to say that far too many families in the United States do not have health insurance. In some cases, however, a family is not aware of the health insurance options available to them. Parish nurses can help ascertain whether all families in their congregation (and neighborhood?) have access to health care, so that teens can receive the medical care they need. They can encourage the church to speak out for the need for health care for all. Free materials are available through nonprofit organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The bottom line is that teens face somewhat unique health issues, several of which can have profoundly serious implications. The church can play a significant role in helping these young members navigate through the special challenges these issues present.

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