I told this to my grandparents around the dinner table, and their responses seemed largely indicative of a generation that has not experienced or acknowledged the sweeping lows of mental health and its ever-present grip on today’s youth.
My grandmother’s knee-jerk reaction was: it isn’t healthy to hang around a person who is like that; that’s dark, dark stuff. She seemed surprised that Christian students at Gordon College would suffer so greatly from mental illness.
My grandfather’s reaction was less dismissive; he expressed great despair at my anecdote. And this is something to be rightfully shocking. My experience could very well be an extreme outlier, but the reality is that clinical depression is on the rise, and has been on the rise, among young people for more than a decade.
According to a Johns Hopkins study, “the odds of adolescents suffering from clinical depression grew by 37% between 2005 and 2014. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 3 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
“Teen depression appears to be on the rise equally among urban, rural, and suburban populations. Research also shows that more dangerous behaviors, like self-harm, are increasing.”
It is wrenching to hear my little sister, in tears, say things like “I want to want to do something with you Collin. But I don’t. I don’t know why I’m sad and I hate it so much.” I know how she feels; I have been there before. She is not an outlier, and neither is this study.
Why are young people suffering so? I wish so badly that I had the “answer,” whatever that means. I can only speak for my own experiences with anxiety and depression.
Some days it’s hard to just get out of bed; my limbs feel heavy with burden and the vibrant colors of life seem muted. At its worst, I can hardly enjoy anything; time with family, a favorite video game, a good book.
The burden of depression is at once visceral, numbing and unexplainable. Life can be rich and full of blessings and excess, but the bubbling stench of depression and anxiety is always waiting to strike like a hidden specter.
I wrote a brief research paper last semester on the links between heavy cellphone usage, social media usage, and depression or anxiety. There’s extensive research that shows a damning link between heavy social media usage and mental health issues.
We are a generation which has grown up with the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips through the internet; what does this power do to the human psyche? Social media has infiltrated the daily routine of most young people. We create unnecessary portals of comparison between ourselves and peers we might care little about.
What did my classmate have for lunch? What exciting things are they doing this weekend? What do they look like in a bathing suit? These are questions that social media can answer in an instant. Do these points of comparison edify me in any meaningful way?
In my understanding, younger people turn away from the traditional religion of America, Christianity, because so many diverse viewpoints and understandings of the world are available readily. Internet savvy young people see the world from more perspectives than perhaps any subset of people who have ever walked the Earth.
It is easy to see immense worldwide suffering and despair; many cannot process the reality of a cruel Earth without turning to existentialism or absurdism.
But it would be wrong to say that mental health problems are exclusive to a certain set of beliefs. Some of the best young Christians I know battle mental health problems every day.
This reality isn’t one that should be dismissed by calling the up-and-coming generation “snowflakes” or “coddled.” People my age aren’t inherently more sensitive or self-pitying than any other generation, but the environment we grew up in is one very different than the world has ever seen.
Maybe a generation of parents has failed us; we are the first generation to grow up post 9/11. That is a huge factor in how Americans understand risk, as well as how much there is to be afraid.
Maybe the digital age harbors as much terror and sullenness as it does comfort and advancement. Maybe our generation is one that feels oppressed by the universal reality of suffering, the growing influence of large corporations, gross political corruption, and our grave smallness in an unfathomable universe.
I cling to my faith in the ways I know how, but even Paul had a thorn in his side that wounded him his whole life.
But do not dismiss the very real mental health crisis that is sweeping our younger generation. Be there for your loved ones, and realize that depression can often feel out of control for the one suffering. It isn’t always as easy as ‘getting up and doing something.’
Maybe, as a good friend of mine said, "Vulnerability is finally fashionable, and people finally seek help when they need it." Hopefully, my generation will not be remembered as one conquered by despair, but as one that fought tooth-and-nail to overcome it.