At The Refuge this weekend, we’ll be taking on a difficult, but vastly important topic.
About once a month at The Refuge, which is what we call our Sunday night youth programming, we have a Worship Night where we gather in the prayer room, worship together, and take on a topic that is relevant to the adolescent experience, but is either too heavy or needs too much time to unpack for us to do on a Sunday morning.
In the past, we’ve covered topics like substance abuse, divorce, anxiety, dating, body image, and bullying. These nights are often powerful times of connection, honesty, and hope for teenagers as we seek to speak the unspeakable and provide them space to talk about — and resources to deal with — real issues in their world.
This Sunday, we’ll be talking about self-harm. If you aren’t around teenagers and aren’t familiar with this language, please forgive me for being direct: self-harm is the practice of intentionally hurting yourself, often through things like cutting or burning, as a way of coping with overwhelming emotions.
Self-harm is an extremely taboo subject in our world, often because of the visceral reaction it elicits from others. We tend to respond to self-harm as though it is the extremely rare reaction of very mentally ill people.
Here’s the thing, though: it isn’t.
Self-harm is actually fairly common, particularly among teenagers, and not just for teenagers who seem, on the outside, to be struggling. In my three and a half years at First Church, I’ve had at least a dozen teenagers talk to me about their struggles with self-harm, and I’m confident that there are many more who just haven’t spoken up about it.
Most every teenager knows someone who struggles with self-harm, even if they don’t do it themselves. Self-harming, while clearly in the realm of mental health struggles, is not usually the issue itself, but is rather a maladaptive coping mechanism — a response to stress or hurt that winds up causing even more hurt, like substance abuse, or compulsive gambling, or disassociating.
Self-harm has an incredible stigma around it, in a way that makes it actually harder for people who struggle with it to get help and speak out. It’s a struggle that encourages secrecy and lies, which makes the person struggling feel even more alone and degrades their access to healthier coping mechanisms. Usually, this makes them even more likely to turn to self-harm, and perpetuating a cycle of shame.
The most powerful and effective tool we have to intercede in self-harm is a simple one: telling the truth. Just telling someone the truth, and being validated that you’re loved and cared for, that it must be hard to be suffering so much, and that it’s going to be OK and that you have people alongside you who are going to help you get through it, can make all the difference.
So we’re going to talk about it. We’re also going to be hearing a story from a staff member who had struggled with it, and can offer hope and insight in response.
Because the fact is, no matter what lies of unworthiness, inadequacy, or of being “too far gone” those struggling with self-harm may believe about themselves, the truth is that nothing — no secret, no struggle, no shame — can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. There is nowhere they can go, no hurt they can cause, to themselves or others, that will disqualify them from their status of the beloved of Christ. That reality is our anchor, our hope, and our answer to the struggles that our teenagers may be carrying. And, because of this reality, it will be OK, that they are never “too far gone,” and that they are called into love over and over and over again by a God who came to earth to be with them, no matter what.
We as those whose role it is to love teenagers as Jesus loves them must model this reality as well, to show them that nothing — no secret, no struggle, no shame — can disqualify them from our love, either.
I firmly believe that this Sunday’s talk could be a lifeline and lighthouse of hope for kids who may be experiencing one of the most difficult undersides of adolescent struggle. Talking about it, naming it, and speaking a hopeful and better truth in the face of it, is among the most gracious and loving things we can do for our young people.
Please keep us and our sweet teenagers in your prayers this weekend, and remember that this truth applies to you as much as it does to them, that you are never “too far gone,” and nothing can separate you from the love of Christ.
Director of Youth Ministries