Burning the Candle at Both Ends – for Concrete Youth Work

Mental health is as important as physical health. So many of us are doing too much, finding it hard to say no, taking on more and more responsibility without really knowing where the extra time or headspace is going to come from and it’s time to stop. Before we reach the point of burnout.

For a moment, let’s just clarify that there is a distinction between mental health and a mental illness. We all need to look after our mental health, every single one of us, in the same way as we need to look after our physical health. Some of us will have a mental illness, like for example, depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder and for those with a long term condition like these or others it is even more crucial to look after our mental health. For those with a mental illness, GP lead interventions such as counselling or medication may well form the basis of looking after our mental health; managing our time so that stress does not trigger a relapse, watching for warning signs that things are changing from wellness to illness and understanding good and healthy ways to cope when the stressful situations do come up are all vital components of living life with a mental illness.

Youth workers are by definition, incredibly busy people, people who give and give and give of themselves, often with very little support either in the form of discipleship or Line Management. Interacting with and caring for other people is written all through the job description and it can take its toll very quickly if we don’t put in some boundaries. In addition to this, many youth groups have start or end times that mean it’s difficult to eat appropriately, exercise is often taken in the running around playing football with teenagers in the church hall, and, let’s be honest, we tend to have ‘Change the World, one young person at a time!’ as our motto or driving force. This all builds a picture that can result in some pretty catastrophic mental health scenarios. It used to be said that the average amount of time a youth worker stays in posts is 18 months, I don’t know how apocryphal that statement is – it feels like a pretty shocking statistic! And of course there could be many factors behind a youth worker moving out of their roles so quickly, but it’s worth asking ourselves: how long have you been in post? How long do you expect to be in this same role? And what will be the deciding factor in you moving on? If the answer to that last one is that you’ll stay in post until you can’t keep going anymore then we have a problem.

I recently picked up a notebook from my shelf that I thought was blank. I’m something of a stationery addict and particularly a sucker for a notebook, plus my friends and loved ones buy me them for birthdays and other occasions, meaning that I have A LOT of them! So I picked this particular one up to take with me to a meeting. When I got there I opened it and was amazed to find I’d written 5 or 6 pages of stuff about feeling overwhelmed and angry and stressed out, the dates I’d included showed it was from the early part of 2018, and here I was at the back end of September that same year, having continued to struggle on in my various roles all through the summer, still in the same position.

One of the things that has changed is that I’ve made the decision (and announced it!) to leave one especially stressful volunteer position, I just have to hold on until Christmas, if I can. Also, I’ve changed my eating habits, given up most sugar on the advice of my doctor and added in a whole heap more fruit and vegetables. 6 months on from that change and I’m feeling more like myself again; it’s no quick fix!

What should we be doing to help our minds stay healthy? Well, it probably won’t surprise you to know that it’s much the same stuff as to keep our bodies healthy: regular and enough sleep; 5 portions of fruit or veg a day; get outside as much as you can, in all kinds of weather; move more. One other thing I’ve found very helpful is to write about how I’m feeling – that outpouring I found in my notebook was probably what helped me keep going, once I’d named it, and realised I did have some control over what was happening, I was able to keep  going; albeit limping along rather than feeling my own kind of normal.

So, change is needed to ensure we don’t end up burning out and you know what they say about there being no time like the present! What one change could you make today, during Mental Health Awareness Week, in order to look after your mental health? Decide on the change and then tell someone, keep yourself accountable to those around you, and persevere with it. You might not see change straight away but it will happen!