Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written an important new book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It’s a lucid, eye-opening and (in my opinion) convincing work. I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. But I wanted to highlight a particular chapter that left me absolutely gobsmacked—and very worried about how evangelical churches are(n’t) responding to it.

One of Haidt and Lukianoff’s premises is that iGen, the generation that came of age in the late 2000s and accounts for most undergraduate students today, is exhibiting extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression. iGen’s mental and emotional struggles are a key component of the “coddling” ethos of the modern US college campus, the ethos that promotes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and administrative over-protection of students. In the authors’ view, because iGen students are entering college with these struggles, they expect and receive a disproportionate amount of deference from college administrators. This deference, though, is misguided, and it feeds the students’ perception that they are fragile and that the world outside them is threatening and must be held at bay—which in turn increases anxiety and emotional suffering.

Put aside for a moment whether you track with that argument (I do, but that’s for a later post). What Haidt and Lukianoff suggest is that there is a serious mental health crisis with young Americans, so serious that it has substantially transformed the philosophy and administration of centuries-old colleges and universities. If they are right, then I would submit that the anxiety and depression of a whole generation of Americans merits the focused attention of Christians and churches no less than their sociopolitical views or churchgoing habits.

Using data from the CDC, the authors put together a chart on adolescent depression rates that floored me:

According to the data, in 2011 about 11% of adolescent girls reported having had a “major depressive episode in the past year.” By 2016, that number had reached 19%. In other words, the depression rate for adolescent girls nearly doubled in just five years. For adolescent boys, the depression rate did not spike this dramatically, but it has risen. In fact, the suicide rate for adolescent boys has spiked:

From 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate for adolescent boys went on a fairly consistent trajectory downwards. Around 2008, however, the story is flipped: A consistent upward trajectory that results in an almost 20-year high suicide rate in 2016.

I’ve been trying to get my mind around these statistics, and there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Having been raised in evangelical church culture my entire life, and having quite a bit of experience in youth ministry and outreach, I don’t believe I ever, once, read or watched any treatise on discipling teens that emphasized anxiety and depression. I saw a lot on virginity, drugs, peer pressure, and the like, but never anything substantial about pointing the gospel directly and explicitly at these emotional and mental struggles. If the church hasn’t been helping here, who has?

Answer: Schools. I’m starting to believe that in the absence of serious attention to anxiety and depression within evangelical approaches to ministry, students have found their best resource in the guidance counselors and administrators of their schools. This has handed public education institutions a singular crisis that these administrators are unable to handle with anything more meaningful or life-giving than the creation of safe spaces. Conservative evangelicals like myself who rigorously criticize contemporary campus culture must awaken to the reality that this culture was created because spiritual and emotional problems went unaddressed by the people and places most in a position to offer help—not to mention the people and places that literally receive money to help!

Is there any serious movement afoot within evangelicalism to address anxiety and depression? If not, how can we blast the coddling of the American mind on college campuses, a coddling that very well may have roots in the silence of our culture’s Christian ministers on what amounts to an epidemic in our society? My thinking here is straightforward. Pastors and church leaders: think of anxiety and depression as just as real, just as serious, and just as worthy of your preaching, counseling, and attention as pornography, abortion, transgenderism, and divorce. Youth leaders: If you’re assuming that your students need help in overcoming temptation to sexual immorality, you should also assume that they need help in overcoming depression and emotional distress. We need within churches a culture of help, not of ignorance. The evidence is staring right at us.

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Letter to a Disappointed Graduate

Dear new college graduate,

I’m supposed to start off by saying “Congratulations,” but I doubt you want to hear that right now. If I’ve understood you correctly, today doesn’t feel like a victory to you. You say you’ve wasted most of the last few years. You’ve say you’ve been selfish, lazy, and unkind. You say for too long you were hung up on pornography and video games, and that your graduation today is mostly due to the kindness and forbearance of professors and the intervention of family and friends. Today, you say, feels good, but as you watch your classmates celebrate their high GPAs, their entrance in grad programs, and their lives that look way more fruitful than yours, all you can think about is how behind you are.

I imagine you’re frustrated at the kind of responses you get when you express this feeling to most people. I can hear in your voice a seriousness about the regrets of the past that I know from experience most Americans are deeply unable to process. I reckon you’ve been told everything from “Well, college is when you’re supposed to mess around, now it’s time to get serious,” to, “Live with no regrets,” to, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” (That last one deserves to be permanently affixed to something flammable) We modern people disagree about a lot, but the one thing we all seem able to agree on is that nothing is worth regretting, and that positive thinking is far more valuable than grief and guilt.

Everything in you is screaming that this attitude is nonsense, isn’t it? That’s because it is nonsense. The grief and regret you carry over bad that you did and the good you left undone are not your enemies (at least, not yet). Just like hunger points to the existence of food and desire to the existence of sex, shame points to the reality of sin. What you are feeling is sorrow over your sin. Don’t let misguided Christians tell you that sin in college years is insignificant. Your own conscience tells you that’s false, and in fact I could share with you a lot of stories of people I know whose youthful lusts did not stay youthful. Talking your shame down with meaningless platitudes won’t help you, as I think you know.

The reality is that a lot of people want to take college students seriously without actually taking them seriously. They want to traffic in cliches about the “next generation” and “your utterly unique place in history,” but they don’t want to hear stories about frat boys whose athletic scholarships couldn’t keep them from getting addicted to opiates, or about the National Merit scholar who seriously contemplated suicide when she realized her grades were slipping. I understand why they don’t want to hear these things. They don’t have the resources to respond well to them. Anything bad that happens in college is always the fault of “the system,” or can be solved with medication. In college there are plenty of paid counselors available to help you understand why it’s your parents’ fault, why it’s the patriarchy’s fault, or why it’s your brain’s fault.

But, happily, you know better than that. You know it’s your fault. You are reckoning with the shame. I am proud of you for doing this.

The thing about shame, though, is that you’ve got to do something with it. You can’t hold onto it forever. Some people try to hold onto it  because they don’t know what else to do, or because the regret and the anguish can be hidden in a way that real change and real reconciliation can’t be. This is a recipe for self-destruction, and I know you realize that. You don’t want to flippantly dismiss the shame and regret you feel over the last few years, but neither do you want it to swallow you whole. That’s where you need to be.

Some of the shame you feel is about academics. You didn’t always try your best (in fact, you say you rarely did). You weren’t thankful for the opportunity to live in a community of learning. You didn’t take advantage of your world of books, lectures, discussion, open professor’s doors, and late night conversation over pizza or coffee. You say, with admirable transparency, you were probably in your room watching porn while these things were happening. Now, you say, you’ve realized that walking across that graduation platform is almost certainly the last moment you will ever be in a season of life like that one, and your heart aches for the books you didn’t read, the papers you didn’t turn in, and the conversations you didn’t have.

Some of the shame you feel has to do with relationships. This is painful stuff. It’s absolutely wrenching to realize that some of the friends you shared memories with in sophomore year are no longer on speaking terms with you. You say you know it’s mostly your fault (though you are honest and humble enough to admit there were a lot of two-way streets). You were so consumed with yourself in those years that you hurt others and barely registered their pain.

And then some of the shame is just about the future. You don’t feel prepared. You don’t feel enriched for the last few years. You feel behind, almost as if you’re starting over from scratch. That GPA isn’t going to change, and employers and graduate school departments know it won’t. You told me that your mom and dad have offered to let you stay with them for a bit while you work out your next steps, but you say you’re too embarrassed to do that while many of your friends are moving across the world, or getting married, or starting med and law school.

I know this hurts. I know it does. You’re being honest, and that’s good. You know the truth about yourself. But you need to consider the whole truth, too.

The whole truth is that, at one point over the last few years, you say you came to Jesus. You say God broke you over your sin and you cried out to him, not just to save you from the power of the sins that enslaved you but from the justice that you felt in your soul you deserved. In that moment you saw God for who He really is: all-beautiful, all-loving, all-kind, all-powerful, all-just, all-compassionate, all-knowing. You saw God for the glorious One he is, and you knew in that moment that he was the source of all beauty, all kindness, all power, all compassion, and all knowledge. He was the sun that every beam that ever shone on your soul was looking for. You didn’t find him, but he found you. You knew you didn’t deserve it, but you knew he was giving it anyway. He offered his life in exchange for your death, his death in exchange for your shame.

And you took it.

I’ve got good news, my friend. There’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. You are new, and the old things have passed away. You were dead and have been raised back to life again. You are forgiven and free.

Here’s what this means:

-It means for you all the knowledge in the world starts not with your GPA but with Jesus Christ. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You are no longer a student at college but you are barely a freshman in God’s wisdom. So, read. Talk. Listen. Get coffee at 8pm. Get dinner and talk about the movie. You aren’t in college anymore, but you are still learning. Wasting years in college does not mean you have wasted your mind forever, because (spoiler alert) college isn’t the end all, be all of education. God is giving you a richer portion in himself than you ever had in the classroom without Him. Take advantage of him. Pursue truth, beauty, and goodness.

-It means that no amount of pornographic images can withstand the red-hot beauty of Christ. You are not doomed to live forever with shameful memories. Your mind can and will be renewed day by day, and one glorious day soon the hands that built the Milky Way will touch your eyes and every wasted, selfish second will evaporate like water on a hot iron, never to be known again. Walk in the victory you’ve already experienced, because it really is victory. You are free indeed. Become what you are, invite others into your life to help keep you from sliding back into old habits.

-It means that your future is more secure now than it ever has been. I honestly don’t know what you’ll end up doing in life, but I know that God has pledged to work everything for your good. Don’t be ashamed to receive kindness from your Mom and Dad while you look for a more permanent situation. Don’t mooch off them, but don’t reject the healing power of family either. You are not a failure because you need people who love you. Don’t be enslaved to economics. Trust the Lord, work hard, show up on time, don’t talk yourself out of opportunities. If God can raise you from death to life, and if he can send your deepest shame to the bottom of the ocean, can’t he give you a career? Be so in awe of the love being shown to you that you forget to compare yourself to others. This can happen!

Friend, I hope this encourages you. I love seeing what Jesus is doing in your life. I know college isn’t what you hoped it would be, but I know the future is more already glorious than you could possibly hope it to be. You are loved, you are purchased, you are commissioned. You are alive.

Congratulations!

Millennials, Free Speech, and Analog Learning

I think it’s past time to admit that the hostility we see from college students toward speech and ideas they dislike is a generational issue. I know this sounds like I’m encouraging stereotypes of millennials, and reasonable people are not supposed to talk about any group in that kind of systemic language (well, almost any group). But denying the generational character of anti-free speech attitudes puts us at a serious risk, I think, of failing to understand why so many millennials feel this way in the first place.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up in an internet age. Note the wording carefully, because millennials are not the first generation to come of age with the internet (Gen-X). They are, however, the first Americans to have had their childhood shaped by the rhythms and cultures of online life. This is enormously important, because it means that millions of millennials grew up having their worldview and (more importantly) their relational identity calibrated by technology that is ephemeral. Because many millennials were online at formative intellectual and emotional times of their life, their expectations of what life is really like are shaped by digital technology…which means, among many other things, that many millennials have, since their early childhood, practiced a semi-autonomous sort of mastery over their world. The delete, cancel, log off, and block buttons have always been right by them. And for many of these millennials, adolescence meant the mobilization of this technology. Whether it’s the family PC or their own iPhone, millennials have, for what is functionally their entire existence, related to the “other” through digital medium.

To me, this suggests that what anti-free speech millennials misunderstand is not “free” but “speech.” The idea that words and ideas can exist outside their personal power to mediate them is a confusing idea, because that’s simply not how they learned about the world. When Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro or Ross Douthat write or say something that aggrieves their presuppositions, the millennial brain responds by insisting that not only are those words wrong (which is a legitimate response), but the fact that they had to hear them is a moral negative (which is not). If ideas are nothing more than words, and if words are nothing more than customizable strokes on an interface, then it does not make any moral sense that anyone should have to read or hear anything they dislike. Such a concept runs afoul of the techno-epistemological system that millennials raised on the digital age were shaped by. The entire premise of the internet is that you get what you want, and nothing more.

Analog learning, by contrast, impresses upon our minds the objective reality of words. Nothing you can do can make the words in that book go away. You can throw it out, tear out the pages, burn it if you wish (you wouldn’t be the first!), but the words are there, the book is there, and the meeting of ink with paper has produced, however small, a moment of cognitive everlastingness that can only be ignored, not erased.

Human nature craves absolutism and uniformity, not dissent and debate. Learning from books does not by itself stem this craving. Wisdom is not merely about form. But in analog learning, the relationship between me and the other is given definite shape and texture. The words will always be there, and it is my choice how to respond to them. By contrast, the internet temporalizes and commodifies thinking, so as to make the consumer as intellectually plastic and capable of more consumption as possible. This might mean, then, that shouting at millennials on Twitter to be more accepting of free speech is a loser’s cause. Recommending that they log off and read some books, however, might be a start.

Why You Should (Probably) Major in Philosophy

  1. Philosophy is difficult.
  2. But it is not very difficult. It’s easier than calculus and a lot easier than physics.
  3. Philosophy is all about books, books, books.
  4. An enormous amount of the most important philosophy books you can read are public domain and therefore (legally) free. If you want to build a library on a budget, philosophy is the way to go.
  5. Philosophy is about ideas.
  6. Philosophy isn’t just about old ideas
  7. Philosophy isn’t just about new ideas
  8. A good philosophical education will give you a foundation in literature
  9. …in history
  10. …in logic
  11. …in art
  12. …in math
  13. ….in science
  14. …in law
  15. …in writing
  16. ….in theology
  17. ….in politics
  18. and much more.
  19. Philosophy is one of the few subjects that will actually affect how you watch movies like The Matrix, Star Wars, Inception, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and lots of others (if you want to learn how to interpret movies well, skip the film degree and do philosophy).
  20. Aside from theology, philosophy boasts the richest contributions from Christians.
  21. Within philosophy you can study a mind-boggling number of topics and traditions, like epistemology (how do we know things?), ethics (what is right and wrong?), metaphysics (is there a God?), linguistics (what do our words mean?), aesthetics (what makes something beautiful?), philosophy of history (what does it all mean?), philosophy of science (is science really worth anything?), etc.
  22. Philosophy will help you have better conversations.
  23. Philosophy will help you have better reasoning skills
  24. Philosophy may help you get a job.
  25. Philosophy will make you, if you let it, into a lifetime learner.