Saint Augustine famously observed that the human heart is restless until its rest is found in God. That applies not only to individuals but also to cultures and entire generations. Practically speaking, this “restlessness” can take many forms, including an unprecedented mental health crisis.
The recent and much talked about report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes precisely that. As a CDC spokeswoman bluntly stated, “young people”— especially young women — “are in crisis.” An article in The New York Times summarized, “Nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021 … and one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide.” Jonathan Haidt, author of The Coddling of the American Mind, painted an even starker picture: “We are now 11 years into the largest epidemic of adolescent mental illness ever recorded.”
The timing of this unprecedented outbreak of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, Haidt points out, corresponds suspiciously with the rise of smartphones and social media apps. This technology led to a culture-wide exchange of what he calls a “play-based childhood” for a “screen-based” one. That exchange likely helped create a generation with fragile psyches unable to deal with life’s challenges.
A reason that teen girls are especially hard-hit in this crisis is they spend more time on social media platforms and websites that engender social and body anxiety. However, political views also predict psychological issues. Using Pew Research’s American Trends Panel, Haidt demonstrates that liberal leanings predict the worst mental health outcomes. In fact, a majority of self-identified progressive women in Generation Z report that they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
Age, sex, and politics are not the only predictors of trouble. Using the same set of data, political scientist and pastor Ryan Burge suggests that religious commitment is another important factor. Those who rarely or never attend religious services suffer worse mental health than those who attend regularly or weekly.
Altogether, and controlling for economics and education, Americans under 25 are doing very badly when it comes to mental health. Those suffering the worst are young, female, liberal, and secular. For them, brokenness is, incredibly, the norm.
On the other hand, the apparent insulating effect of religious faith and conservative philosophy is fascinating. Highly religious people are, in fact, more likely than their secular peers to describe themselves as “very happy.” One explanation for this is the proven positive social effects of religious belonging, including higher occurrences of stable, loving family relationships. For example, in 2020, the Institute for Family Studies reported that those who attend church regularly are more likely to get married than their nonreligious neighbors and less likely to divorce.
Still, it’s worth considering whether the social benefits of religious commitment have something to do with the belief itself. Does an active faith in God reduce the impact of the mental health crisis on young people? Does a lack of religious faith leave others more vulnerable to it?
Though a tough question to answer via social science, St. Augustine would say “yes.” Despite his lack of familiarity with Gen Z, he would speak of their “restless hearts” seeking in politics, gender identity, and self-expression what can only be found in a relationship with our Maker.
In the face of Gen Z’s mental health crisis, it is the Gospel and not gloom that should motivate and inform us. As blogger and author Samuel James pointed out on Twitter, mentally broken young people may be primed to hear the truth: “Evangelicals need to disabuse themselves of the idea that Gen-Z is a wholly unreachable mass of buffered selves. The mental health crisis may cut right through secularization like butter.”
God has made us for Himself. The kind of postmodern individualism that Gen Z was raised with will never deliver on its promises. This mental health crisis is a spiritual crisis. We have the opportunity to introduce a generation of restless hearts to the One able to deliver on His promises to bring rest to their souls.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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