Role of religious leaders in adolescent health

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One cannot make a blanket statement that the church is a gathering of people who are godly and upright. On the contrary, both people who pursue a closer walk with God go to church for spiritual guidance and growth and those who feel inadequate and condemned by society hope to get help and refuge in the congregation of worshippers.

Depending on church groups dynamics and how well they are organized church members can either feel a part of and contribute to advance the objectives of the church including luring new members to join it or they may feel detached or discriminated against and may walk away as empty as they came.

People, especially adolescents and young adults stay in church or in religious setting for various reasons. Some adolescents have literally grown up in church as their parents introduced them to the act of worship when they were still young.

They are involved in youth groups and activities that keep them away from illicit activities. Others feel religious settings do not respond to their individual needs to help them develop capabilities to lead productive, healthy and satisfying lives. The church has a role to play as regards adolescent health.

It is a well known fact that adolescents face unique challenges as they transition from childhood to adulthood. Religious settings or churches which form part of the community adolescents grow up in play an important in shaping the lives of young people.

Ministry of Health Assistant Director Adolescent Health Dr. Kakungu Simpungwe explains that the starting point is the church to acknowledge that adolescents in and outside the church are faced with health challenges ranging from early sexual debut, school dropout arising from unintended pregnancies, HIV/STI infections, violence, alcohol and substance use.

Parents and leaders of religious settings have children affected by these health problems.

A side from listening to the preaching of the word of God and singing in choirs adolescents require accurate information to make informed decisions or to avoid making mistakes. Adolescents are hungry for information to learn how to resist peer pressure, how to delay sexual debut, puberty related concerns, alcohol and substance use, sexuality and sexual abuse and general health.

Religious settings should therefore provide a platform for health workers and other professionals to talk to adolescents on such issues on a regular basis.

They should also consider training leaders of youth groups or Sunday school teachers in these topical health issues to respond to the needs of adolescents.

Failure to do so will push adolescents to look for answers and counsel from wrong sources including their equally ill-informed peers, and the above listed health problems will be perpetuated even in religious families.

While some adolescents have confidants outside the church who listen and provide counsel and support to them in the face of desperate and embarrassing experiences such as sexual abuse or ‘having made a mistake’ most of those who faithfully spend time in religious settings do not open up to grownups for fear of being judged, ex-communicated or exposed or simply because the church has not assigned anyone to help adolescents facing emotional and psychological problems. It is

important for religious settings to identify female and male grownups who are approachable and acceptable by most youths to serve as counselors to help adolescents resolve their problems in a safe space.

Diverse activities should be organized by religious settings to attract and keep adolescents with different interests busy. Not everyone likes to sing or dance. Young people don’t enjoy to participate in activities that subject them to listening to only one or two people give talks all the time. They are drawn to activities that give them an opportunity to express themselves and to explore their potential.

The church should also play a role in shaping the environment adolescents grow up in by teaching and encouraging parents and guardians to provide a conducive and safe environment for their children. Parents should be urged and given skills to initiate discussions with their children regarding puberty and other adolescence related issues to complement efforts by teachers and religious activities.

When parents are involved and comfortable to talk to their children, they will instill confidence to in their children to protect them from wrong decision making based on information obtained from wrong sources.

The writer says ‘Show a child the way he should go and when he grows up he will not depart from it’. It is the parents’ responsibility to guide their children on the right path in all spheres of their life; it is the teachers’ responsibility to empower adolescents with comprehensive sexuality education for informed decision making and it is the responsibility of religious leaders to respond to the spiritual, physical, emotional and psychological needs of adolescents so that they develop into responsible, healthy and productive God fearing citizens.

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