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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The Bible Is Not a Slideshow For Your Hot Take

The suicide of a public figure almost invariably triggers a cringe-worthy season in the evangelical blogosphere. Time after time, Christian writers succumb to the temptation to wring a tragedy for its newsworthiness, then smash out a 700-word blog about it. At that point it almost doesn’t matter what the blog says. Meaning is irrelevant. The point of cranking out #content in the immediate aftermath of a celebrity suicide is that social media analytics make it more likely you’ll get clicks. On the one hand, this kind of base motivation is almost a relief, because in the majority of cases what goes into these hot takes is simply copy–perhaps a brief recitation of why this celebrity was a celebrity, a 1 paragraph personal appreciation, and then a quick tour of creation-fall-redemption, with a post script about the fleeting pleasures of fame and fortune. Perhaps banal, but all harmless, and most of it true.

On the other hand, though, there is often something pernicious in all this, even if unintended. And one particular example stands out.

Three years ago, Robin Williams’ suicide was a shocking cultural moment. For weeks social media reeled under the news, and Christians were no exception. Williams was beloved by many in my generation, and it seemed he was omnipresent in the movies and media we grew up loving (and then became nostalgic for). There’s no question that we would talk about his death, no dispute that the circumstances of it put the topic of depression and self-harm into our conversation. This was good, and normal.

What wasn’t normal, what still isn’t normal and what must never be taken as normal, is the way some Christian writers responded to it. Yet again, many Christian bloggers succumbed to the pull for easy “reflections” on Williams, and even worse, on depression and suicide. I saw blog after blog, article after article, about why Williams’ death was a “reminder” that only Jesus could satisfy us, that the fame and fortune and prescription drugs Williams took refuge in is never enough, and that self-hatred and suicide were the inevitable fate of those who missed the gospel. (“Like what you see? Please click share!”)

Let me explain briefly why Christians should never, ever write like this.

Three years after Robin Williams’ death, I am reading an editorial that his widow wrote in Neurology magazine. It’s a lengthy read, so I’ll summarize the most important part. Robin Williams suffered from an aggressive form of dementia known as “Lewy body dementia,” or LBD. While this is not an uncommon disease, doctors who studied Williams’ brain tissue after his death concluded that his was an uncommonly advanced case. From the article:

Not until the coroner’s report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem.

Dopamine, you may recall, is the chemical created by the brain that helps us rest and feel at peace. Williams’ LBD literally robbed his brain of its ability to naturally rest and feel calm. This was not an effect of Williams’ being a Hollywood actor or not being “gospel-centered.” This was the effect of a brain illness.

Hear me: I’m not saying that spiritual issues are irrelevant when it comes depression and mental issues. I’m not saying there’s nothing distinctively Christian to say about Robin Williams or about other public figures, like Chester Bennington, who commit suicide. What I am saying is that cheaply thought, cheaply written responses to these events by definition betray the Christian commitment to the centrality of truth. As Christians, we believe in objective truth, and that means objective truth exists both in the soul and the body. We are not disembodied spirits whose only problems are sin and lostness. We are enfleshed creatures whose bodies, under the degenerative curse of a cosmos waiting for its redemption, can wage war against our spirits.

To ignore this, to draw straight lines from suicide and self-harm to theological cliches, is to foully disrespect the Bible. The Bible is not a PowerPoint slideshow in our hot takes. It doesn’t exist so that we can have answers to current events that come quick enough to get hot blog traffic. Turning the Scriptures into slogans devalues both the Bible and the people to whom we would proclaim it. Admitting our fallibility, our lack of comprehensive knowledge, and even our inability to perfectly apply the truths of Scripture doesn’t make for good platforming, but it does make for more honest, more effective, and more Christ-like people.

I realize there are intense debates amongst Christians about how to think and talk about issues of mental illness and the sufficiency of Scripture. That’s a discussion worth having. But wrestling with these deep questions is not the same as presuming to know how it all works, and cranking out Tweetable aphorisms that would make you look like an utter fool if someone with more knowledge read them. The Christian blogosphere can do better than that.

Sympathy and Suicide

Netflix’s newest original miniseries, 13 Reasons Why, is compelling TV. It’s well-acted and hauntingly written. But while watching it, something bothered me, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. I fear that 13 Reasons Why might be the latest example of how Hollywood hitmakers tend, even unwittingly, to romanticize suicide.

The show is focused on the suicide of high-schooler Hannah. Shaken by her death, her friends and classmates discover that Hannah had recorded 13 audio tapes, discussing various people and incidents that drove her to kill herself. Each episode of the series centers on a the revelations of a particular tape; as the series progresses, secrets of Hannah’s classmates are exposed, and the series ends on a sober note of justice as many classmates and even some school administrators are implicated in Hannah’s death.

Critics have almost universally praised 13 Reasons Why for its intelligent script and mature narrative. It is indeed a well-produced series, and the writers and actors deserve credit for handling such a brutal story with a measure of dignity and hope. But therein lies my concern. While it’s true that teenage bullying, depression and suicide are stories we need to be telling, I fear that 13 Reasons Why may tell a story that, even unwittingly, valorizes a teen’s death.

Hannah is clearly a smart girl. Her quick wit and observational skills clearly outpace most of her peers, especially the boys. The recordings she leaves behind are likewise clever and incisive. Without giving away too much of the plot, let me briefly explain that Hannah’s tapes serve as a crucial instrument of her revenge, a revenge that exposes criminal activity at her school and culminates in a lawsuit. By the end of the series, Hannah, though driven, as we see in flashbacks, to despair by the cruelty of her world, has achieved something very much like a vindication. Her tapes win; her bullies lose.

Poetic justice? Yes. But at what cost? Does Hannah’s posthumous vindication make her decision to kill herself more tragic, or less so?

We need to remind ourselves that art moves us first at a level beyond rational thought, ultimately because art is not about information but about desire. I have no doubt that 13 Reasons Why will be an emotionally compelling experience for many, especially teens. And that is troubles me. It unnerves me to think of a teen, caught in a cycle of abuse and neglect like Hannah, watching this story unfold and desiring the self-sacrificing heroism that they see. While 13 Reasons is engrossing story, it’s also not real life. Suicide is not heroic. Killing oneself is not a strategy for revenge. It is a monumental act of selfishness. Hannah’s friends process her death and her tapes exactly how she expected them to. The empathy that she didn’t feel in life she receives in death.

That’s a fairy tale. And it’s a fairy tale that might have lethal consequences for people struggling to value their life.

Death is not a friend. It’s not a vehicle for your self-actualization. Suicide will not give you a front row seat to watch as your friends and family understand you and love you for the first time. But that’s what happens for Hannah. The filmmakers behind 13 Reasons Why know that Hannah’s death is tragic. They do not rejoice in it. But unfortunately, by giving Hannah a godlike intelligence and an ephemeral sort of control over the unfolding events after her death, the makers of 13 Reasons have told a profoundly wrong and morally confused story. It’s a story that poses a unique threat to audiences who may be considering Hannah’s path, simply to feel the love shown to her.

Because life is immeasurably precious, displaying its worth is immeasurably precarious. The power of stories is their ability to shape our intuitions, our loves, our expectations of the world. Trying to help despairing friends see the value in their life requires more than telling a story of someone like them. It requires sifting through beguiling myths and being honest about our enemy Death. I’m afraid 13 Reasons Why makes this harder, not easier.