Our teenagers and often those still younger are taking their lives in increasing numbers, many seemingly without warning. Many more young people are suffering from depression, anxiety, or related mental-health problems. The reports often link to social media: bullying leading to suicide; serious self-harm in an attempt to deal with emotional pain; suicide pacts; a widely cited post giving reasons for suicide by a child who killed herself; drug abuse and other destructive behaviors; school shootings that often end in suicide.
Other evidence of youthful mental-health problems: Pre-adult suicides are up three to five times (depending on the source) since the 1950s and still increasing. One study reported that 10 percent of the young are taking anti-depressants. In “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” Susanna Schrobsdorff of Time magazine noted that “adolescents today have a reputation for being fragile, less resilient, and more overwhelmed than their parents growing up.” We are also seeing an increase in mental-health issues in college-age students. The average well-being of entering college students has been in decline since the 1970s, when the measuring began. During college years, mental-health problems are on the rise, according to recent studies.
Schrobsdorff proposed that the cause for the decline is the social climate that teenagers experience. She attributes this climate to social media, smart phones, and school pressures. These factors are recent, though, and did not emerge until well after the observed decline of adolescent mental health.
A far stronger case can be made for our society’s decline in religious faith as the cause of these mental pathologies in the young. The decline in religion that began in the ’60s has accelerated in the past 15 years and is especially great among young people. A recent Pew report noted that over a third of its young respondents described themselves as “believers in nothing in particular.” Schrobsdorff’s omission of religious decline is one indication of how great the decline in religion has been — and how much our secular culture is in denial on the issue. The media just doesn’t “get” religion.
What might be done? To begin, this is not a problem for government policy. The government just needs to get out of the way — and be less hostile to religion
Countless young people now live in a world without any real meaning; they feel there is nothing for them to believe in. Emotional numbness is one of the consequences. They no longer value themselves for their inherent worth and dignity as created by God; they no longer find self-worth in their efforts to lead lives based on truth and love. Instead, many of our young people look outside themselves for validation — to material goods and social feedback. But many find these superficial, transitory, and empty. In addition, the decline of religion has resulted in sexual relations becoming trivialized and deprived of any greater meaning. The “hook-up” culture leaves many wounded young people in its wake.
While the secular class and those victimized by their policies have been shedding their religious beliefs, evidence for the positive effects of religious life have been repeatedly reported by many studies over the past decades. Many of them show that strongly religious people are happier, healthier, and live longer than those with no religious belief and practice. Having faith in God and attributing a religious meaning to life anchors people, directs their efforts to things beyond the material world, protects them against setbacks, and provides supportive community.
What might be done to imrpovee mental health via religious practice? To begin, this is not a problem for government policy. The government just needs to get out of the way — and be less hostile to religion. Recent Supreme Court decisions dealing with religious issues suggest that this will happen.
Individuals can respond in many ways. Fathers and mothers can encourage their children in religious practice centered in family life and encourage them to join serious religious peer groups. Relatives — grandparents, aunts, and uncles — can give valuable advice. For young people drawn to atheism, many recent books address the topic brilliantly (see Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism,for instance). Darwinism, materialism, and atheism have received powerful recent critiques (as in Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, and Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God).
Religious and private schools can make a tremendous difference in their student communities by regularly emphasizing the importance of God and promoting faith.
Business leaders and others in the professions can speak out about their faith in public settings and implement new ideas about how to reach the young.
There have been times in America’s past when religion was in decline and seemed on the way out — especially according to its intellectual detractors. But at these moments, Biblical religion recovered with new movements and energies. We propose that we are now at the threshold of another such renewal. Let us pray so, since our secular culture offers no credible reasons to believe in higher meaning. It offers only empty materialist distractions on a slow march to societal suicide. The plight of our young sounds a wake-up call we can no longer ignore.
— Paul Vitz is a senior scholar at Divine Mercy University and a professor emeritus of psychology at New York University. Bruce Buff is a management consultant and the author of the scientific-spiritual thriller The Soul of the Matter.