Are Conservatives Finally Waking Up to the Mental Health Crisis in America?

America’s youth are crumbling from a long running epidemic of mental illness, says Mona Charen over at National Review Online.   I’ve been shouting this message from the rooftops for close to two years now—and most recently, from the rooftops of Duke Medical School. It is encouraging to see this frightening tragedy finally get the attention it deserves from the conservative media. Hopefully Charen’s  well researched article will spark more discussion among conservatives. Here is an excerpt:

Research throughout the last several decades has shown a consistent pattern of rising anxiety, depression, suicide, and suicide attempts among American adolescents. A 2001 paper published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that the suicide rate tripled between 1950 and 1990. The rise in depression and other psychological suffering cannot be written off as an artifact of changing definitions. As Psychology Today reported, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a test of psychological well-being, has been administered to large samples of college students throughout the United States going as far back as 1938. A similar test called the MMPI-A has been given to samples of high-school students since 1951. The results are unambiguous: Children, adolescents, and young adults have all experienced dramatic increases in anxiety and depression over the past several decades. The rates of these ailments were much lower during the Great Depression, World War II, and the turbulent 1970s than they are today.

Charen blames the epidemic on the decline of the nuclear family, and she certainly has her finger on a major contributor to the problem. But as Eric Metaxas points out, the crisis really goes deeper than that.  For the decline of the family is itself a symptom of deeper cultural currents.  Metaxas blames the deterioration of mental health on the loss of Christianity:

Somewhere deep inside, unhappy young people know that they were meant for more, much more, than this world can possibly offer. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

While this thesis may not be obvious to most people, including most Christians, there is nevertheless a large amount of intriguing data to back it up.  The most credible source for this evidence comes from the mental health profession itself.  A Google search on the topic will yield a bounty of books, articles, and studies which have consistently shown that religious practices improve mental health.  The mental health field has put this research into practice

Millennials: Least Religious

by developing many therapeutic techniques that are derived from ancient religious traditions.  Ever heard of MBSR? It stands for “mindfulness based stress reduction,” and it is a therapeutic technique derived from Buddhist meditation practices.  At a recent Duke lecture, the Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Peteet stated that it was time that spiritual direction be covered by insurance companies as a mental health treatment.

The medical field is prescribing religion for mental illness!  Take a moment to process the radical implications here. If in response to depression and anxiety disorders, mental health experts are now prescribing prayer, meditation, spiritual direction, and other spiritual practices, are they not suggesting that poor mental health is the result of poor spiritual health?  As I have pointed out many times before, we are now witnessing the convergence of two very troubling events:  the rapid disappearance of Christianity from our culture at the same time that suicide and mental illness are increasing at pandemic levels. The clear message from the mental health community is that this is no coincidence.  Whether mental health professionals want to admit the logical but politically incorrect conclusion of their research is beside the point. The conclusion is unavoidable: The mental health community is telling us that our poor mental health is due to an impoverished spiritual life—that secularism has made us sick. We have lost our minds because we have lost our faith.

An Epidemic of Mental Illness in Millennial Youth. Source: Robert Whitaker

The Millennial generation illustrates the point dramatically. They are the least religious generation according to Pew research, and they are also the most mentally ill. (See the two graphics.)

This is exactly the message of much of the Gospel.  Pay close attention to the New Testament Epistles—Galatians, chapter 5 in particular—and what you will uncover is a long-forgotten theology of mind and mental health.  And this Theology of Mind says that mental health  is essentially spiritual. (Brain health is a different story.)

More than twenty years of mental health research confirm this Biblical teaching by showing that religious people are psychologically healthier than secular people. Science is now discovering what the Bible has taught for over two-thousand years:  A robust spiritual life is necessary for happiness and peace of mind.  There just is no substitute.

Our children desperately need to hear this message.  And the rest of the world cannot get this message soon enough either.  Just take a look at the high rates of mental illness in the LGBT community. Thus we have a great evangelizing opportunity before us. The harvest is ripe. But unfortunately, the number of conservative Christian laborers is few. Hopefully, that will begin to change. JG

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