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Mental health crisis and means of grace

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WORLD Radio - Mental health crisis and means of grace

Sources such as the CDC and the American Psychological Association have declared a mental health crisis among kids and teens. How can parents and educators approach mental health from a biblical perspective?


KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. We’re here to come alongside you as you disciple kids and students through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.

JONATHAN BOES: Hello!

KELSEY: Together, we want to model conversation and apply tools you can use at home or in the classroom. We would love for you to send in questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send your questions to newscoach@wng.org.

JONATHAN: Today we’re talking about something we’re seeing in the news from multiple sources. And if the news is right, it’s something you as a parent or educator very well may have seen for yourself. Sources such as the CDC, the American Psychological Association, and Pew Research Center—they’re all talking about a mental health crisis among kids and teens, a crisis that has become particularly severe following the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Pew, four in 10 American parents with children under the age of 18 now worry their children might struggle with anxiety or depression. A poll by CVS and Harris found that 67% of teens experienced worsening depression or suicidal thoughts since COVID. And those are just two data points from a wealth of data. The CDC has also reported an increase in the use of antidepressants. So all in all, we’re left with a picture that honestly seems a bit bleak—the picture of a mental health crisis among kids and teens. So how do we, as parents and educators dealing directly with kids and teens, and as followers of Christ, begin to engage with this?

KELSEY: Whenever we approach a story like this, we want to start with the tool of observation, like you’ve already done a little bit. What are we seeing in the news? What are we hearing? What’s being reported? We want to ground our response in a careful observation of the texts, the studies, the data.

This problem might have been exacerbated by COVID. But honestly, the discouraging bit is that it’s been going on for really 10 years or more, increasing significantly—up to about 40% more—than it was in 2013. So it is a scary data point. We want to observe a little bit more though, before we start having a response. From the American Psychological Association, we hear the CDC reported that, during the pandemic alone, 29% of U.S. high school students had a parent or caregiver who lost their job. 55% of high school students were emotionally abused by a parent or caregiver during that time. 11% were physically abused. So we’re seeing these stark details. And we’re noticing there’s particularly a connection to what have been known as ACE’s, or “adverse childhood experiences.”

JONATHAN: So we’re talking about things that might be contributing factors to a mental health crisis, things that were going on even before COVID, but that COVID and all the surrounding circumstances might have made even worse. I also think those years brought a sense of a changing world, a sense of systems that seemed secure suddenly failing. I felt that even in my heart, and I assume it was similar for people in my generation and below, who were born into relative security. You think of the ’90s, the 2000s, the 2010s—a pretty secure time to live in America, generally. Generally positive, with a few exceptions, things like 9/11 or the housing crisis in 2008. But generally, when you looked at the broad swath of history—we weren’t in a world war, we weren’t in a pandemic. Suddenly 2020 hits. Pandemic, racial tensions, political tensions, Ukraine gets invaded, it seems like there’s going to be a world war—all of these cultural issues outside of the home making it seem like the world outside the home is a dangerous place. I also think about the rising influence of social media, since we’re talking about things that may have contributed to a mental health crisis even before COVID. You can only imagine the COVID years, our reliance on screens, making everything on social media worse. Even the phenomenon of “doom-scrolling.” People setting these habits for themselves, going online to find bad news.

KELSEY: Like we’ve talked about before, you get on there, and you’re looking at first for connection. And then in the absence of those better things, you turn towards feeding the depressive spirit. That happened with that doom-scrolling phenomenon. It’s tragic that we have a loss of those wholesome habits that help push back against habits that otherwise contribute to a worsening mental perspective, a worsening emotional posture. We’ve talked about the mental, we’ve talked about the emotional. There’s also a biological aspect to this. We’re talking specifically about the phenomenon in teens, a time which, physically and hormonally, is tied to the biological. There’s a lot of change going on. The mind is adjusting in this one area called the limbic system that’s controlling our emotional response to things and our social engagement of things. That’s going through a huge arc of maturity in the teen years, with the tensions and with a lack of connection, and with the certain pressures. Also, again, particularly for girls, there is this need for just that growth to happen within community, and a loss of community.

JONATHAN: So we see a whole soup of issues that may contribute to the mental health crisis people are reporting. We’ve brought up some words so far, such as “emotional,” “spiritual,” and “physical.” One question a lot of Christian parents and educators might have is: Where do mental health issues reside? Is it the body? Is it the soul? Where do we begin to find these issues in us, so we can begin to find some sort of solution?

KELSEY: I love being able to kind of argue with that question a little bit. It’s a false choice to say that it is either body or soul. I want to begin at the beginning, as we often do, when we talk about this narrative we’ve been given that tells us who we are and whose we are. From the very beginning, we were made out of the same material—the same matter—as everything else. We were made as creatures in the flesh, of physical matter, embodied, as in with bodies.

JONATHAN: We even see, in that same redemptive narrative of scripture, that what began in matter, in bodies, is also going to end in resurrected physical bodies. Not just floating, disembodied souls.

KELSEY: Whatever we do, it is going to have a unique connection with the matter we were made of. And so when we ask that question—mental health: Is it in the soul, is it in the body?—we actually need to expand our thinking to address multiple categories. We’ve talked before about being mind, heart, and body—about needing to address heart-level things, head-level analysis. Part of where we see that in scripture is rooted in something as familiar as the shema of Deuteronomy 6:5.

JONATHAN: You’re going to have to unpack that word.

KELSEY: So first of all, “shema” means “hear and obey.” It’s this statement that Israel was supposed to pass on, parent to child, in order to tell them who and whose they are, and what it meant for their action. The verse goes, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” I think I actually added a fourth category that comes in when Jesus is talking to the rich young ruler, and He repeats the shema, but with that fourth category: heart, soul, mind, and strength.

From that, we get that idea of being mind, heart, body, united in soul. There’s a richness to the Hebrew words. “Shema” means listen and obey, hear and obey at the same time. When we talk about the Hebrew words there, they’re all very full words that talk about an encompassing nature, even of each of those categories—which reflects really what we know of psychology, as we think the Lord’s thoughts after Him, and it’s revealed to us more and more this beautiful, complicated system that we are as humans. The mind tells the body what to do. It sends signals through hormones to how the kidneys are supposed to respond, or how the heart is supposed to respond, or the lungs, or any number of things that are controlled in the mind but have result in the body.

JONATHAN: That’s so good. Because I look at the world and often see an approach to mental health that says, “It is just the physical; it is only chemicals in your brain.” And then, honestly, I look to some parts of the church and hear people saying, “It’s only spiritual; the body doesn’t matter at all.” But when we look to scripture, we see this picture of humanity that is, like you said, an embodied creature, soul and flesh.

One writer I have encountered who really articulates this well is the Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland. He is somebody who personally struggles with, or struggled with, anxiety and depression. I will say “struggled with” because he actually seems to have found some real victory over that in his life. He struggled with anxiety and depression, and he writes about the relationship of the soul to the body. It gets somewhat metaphysical, but just the idea that our body does aid the faculties of the soul. The body part of the eye gives our soul the capacity to see, the body part of the brain affects the emotional capacities of the soul. Again, we are not all body or just disembodied spirit. We’re this unity, and it all affects each other.

KELSEY: When you quote from him, you remind me of a quote in Matthew, where it talks about the eye being the “lamp of the soul,” and that if the eye goes dark, then the soul cannot see. Maybe I’m paraphrasing it not quite as clearly. But you’re illustrating for me that idea that the eye is a part of—the vessel for, the tool of—the soul, in terms of how it engages with the world around. And if the eye or the mind is dark, and then it gives us a depressive view, a depressive experience of that which is going into our hearts, our souls.

JONATHAN: So we’re addressing this mental health crisis among kids and teens, particularly. But even among adults, we’ve seen rising levels of mental health problems. We’ve talked about some of those potential causes. And among those causes, we’ve identified spiritual things and physical things. And now we’re talking about the Bible’s picture of humanity, that there is a spiritual aspect and a physical aspect. With all of that in mind, what can we begin to move into—what practices what solutions could we begin to explore?

KELSEY: I love that you’re asking this question in light of this understanding, that there is a hope we can explore, a solution. And so before I get into what I would recommend as those pieces of solution, I want to step back to that place of hope, and why we would have hope for a solution. Again, I’m going to connect with the redemptive narrative, using it as the lens through which we can see our bodies.

If the Father made us and said that creation was “very good,” He said that our bodies are good. He tends to those bodies. He cares for them even more than we care for them. And we care for them an awful lot, because it’s where we’re living, right? We see His care pronounced through Jesus, who says, “Do not be anxious about your life” in Matthew 6:25. “Don’t be anxious for what you will eat, what you will drink, about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

It goes on through the end of that chapter in verse 34, tending to our hearts, reminding us that we can have hope, that we have someone who cares for our body far more than we do, and who cares for our mind and who seeks to encourage us with peace and says, “Still that anxiety.” So I’m going to answer that idea about what we can do, what disciplines we might engage through the lens of recognizing that those disciplines were given to us by a loving parent. And I’m going to continue to go back to that idea of the parent setting the good habits and the good disciplines for the child.

JONATHAN: So we’re talking about good disciplines. We’ve touched on the idea of bad disciplines, like doom-scrolling. That’s actually another thing that J.P. Moreland brings out in his book on anxiety and depression. That book, by the way, is called Finding Quiet. He talks about an aspect of anxiety which worsens as we set these negative patterns, literally in our brains. And things like doom-scrolling can really set those negative habits, those negative connections. I think the phrase Moreland references is “neurons that fire together wire together.” I thought that’s really catchy. If we’re wiring together these neurons of doom-scrolling and that feedback loop of always looking for bad news—that’s a negative example of a habit. But you’re talking here about good habits.

KELSEY: Yes, and the fact that there is a provision for them in the Father and in Christ. I’m directly linking them to parenthood for a specific reason, that we even see revealed in the secular world of psychology, or in secular psychology. Secular psychology shows, as we see in the CDC article, that there is a direct link between our children’s mental and emotional health, and parent mental and emotional health. So a parent’s ability to engage with how they are feeling and how they are thinking, to engage in healthy disciplines, directly has impact on that child.

JONATHAN: Yes, that CDC report you are referencing explicitly states that, when they surveyed children between the ages of zero and 17, it was found that those who had parents with poor mental health—and that was one in 14 of them—those children tended to have worse mental health than other children.

KELSEY: And likewise, when you said “the neurons that fire together wire together,” this is something I need to actually pause and identify. We are made with what’s called “mirror neurons,” which is why this parent-child relationship on the mental level has such a beautiful, intimate correlation. Because we are made with neurons that fire empathically, in response to what we view across from us. For example, if my mom is sad, and I look at her and I see an expression of sadness on her face, my mind has an empathetic response, or empathic response. I respond to her sadness with sadness. My brain recognizes it. And it wires me for understanding what sadness looks like, and what a grief response looks like.

The same thing unfortunately works for anxiety. It works for fear. It works for depression. But it also works for joy. And it works for contentment, and for peace. If you’ve ever had a child who is falling apart—they’re exhausted, they’re losing it, and they get so out of sorts—but you can see through it. You can recognize they’re hungry, they’re tired, they’re lonely, they’re angry, whatever. You’re not having the same tantrum. You’re not falling apart. You’re not losing it. So you gather them into your arms. And just by having them near you, they start reading your response, your heart rate, your calm, your breathing.

We’re made for a unique parent-child shaping or shepherding of the mental, emotional, and even physical. I’m rooting that back to breathing—their heart rate slows, their breathing slows down. Now, I want to go back to your question of disciplines, because I’ve connected parent and child with Father and human, image bearer. And this question that’s lingering in the background, of “How do we push back against those aspects of anxiety? What do we look for instead of those negative habits? How do we reform and rewire?” I would argue that what we really need to lean into is the provision we were given in the disciplines of grace.

JONATHAN: Can you unpack that a bit, what you mean when you say the “disciplines of grace”? Is that the same as the spiritual disciplines?

KELSEY: Yes. I think sometimes using the word spiritual disciplines can make us fall into that same fallacy of hyper-spiritualization, and forgetting that the disciplines given to us—they’re actually all-encompassing. They aren’t merely going to this meditative other plane, and having an out-of-body experience. They are nurturing to us spiritually, but they include far more than just a quiet meditation. They incorporate our senses. Naming the disciplines of grace, they include being in the word, which speaks to our minds and also shepherds the affections of our hearts. It includes worship, that speaks to us emotionally, and engages our senses. We hear the words of the gospel on the voices of our brothers and our sisters. So we’re engaged in that with our senses, as well as with our emotions. And then we’re given sacrament—what an amazing indicator, again, that the Lord affirms the flesh. He gave us a meal to share in person with one another, to remind us of the union we have with Him, because of His death and resurrection. It’s a meal we taste, and we smell, and we partake in, in relationship.

JONATHAN: So all of those disciplines of grace are addressing what we see as the biblical picture of the whole person: the body, the spirit, the mind, the strength, the emotions. All of those are somewhere in those disciplines of grace. I would even add on things we don’t think of as disciplines of grace, but just ordinary disciplines that can contribute to mental health. We sometimes tend to drive this stake between what is a “secular” discipline versus a “spiritual” discipline, but eating food that is good for your body, getting up and taking a walk, getting sunlight, drinking water—all of those things can have a massive effect on your body, your brain, and by extension, the emotions you feel.

KELSEY: Taking care of our bodies has a direct correlation to care for our heart, for our soul. I was reading some of these great articles, in terms of how they diligently parse out the things we understand, going back to the way the brain works and how the brain signals for the kidneys to release cortisol. That’s a part of our fight or flight response. Our brain starts by seeing something out there in the world that it views as a threat. And so this fear, this anxious response, it sends a signal to our body so that our body will act. But if we are in the midst of such urgent-feeling times, and we’re constantly in that anxious response to the outward stimuli, we’re in a state where our body is over-producing cortisol, and we can actually get sick from that.

So our mind is telling our hearts and our bodies, “Be anxious, be ready, act.” Alternatively, the Lord and His apostles are saying, “Do not be anxious for anything. By prayer and supplication, present your requests to God. Spend time with me. I am your peace.” Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid of the world, for I have overcome the world.”

I trace that back to how we engage our children for the sake of their health, their mental health. I’ve already talked about that holding of the child, so we’re physically calming their limbic system or regulating their affections. Psychology calls it affect regulation. We’re helping them attune their heart’s response to what’s going on in the world and calm them. We’re starting from a physical place to help bring them emotional and mental calm.

JONATHAN: If I can pivot slightly, there’s an aspect of this whole conversation around mental health and kids that I think, for the sake of parents, especially needs to be addressed. And that’s the feeling of guilt.

If you are a parent whose child is experiencing some sort of mental health issue, anxiety or depression, there can be a guilt associated with that. Unfortunately, that guilt is sometimes stoked by people in the church. I think it’s so important to remember what we’ve been talking about here, the interconnectedness of all these parts of the body, and that—there is an aspect of anxiety and depression which we can make worse with bad habits or we can heal with good habits—but there’s an aspect of it that is sometimes just medical. And it’s important to remember that it is not a fault in us. You think about Jesus, and people asking, “Who sinned to make this man blind?” That was the wrong question. “Who sinned to give my child anxiety?” Nobody. There is grace for all of it.

KELSEY: Alternatively, we could even say, “Who sinned? Everybody.” Unfortunately, anxiety, depression, and fear are a part of the consequences of Adam’s sin. And maybe that allows for us to tap into that abundance of grace that is there in supply. The Lord cared so much about His children that He bent all things. He changed all expectation, sending His Son, the high Lord, the Prince of Heaven, to come into this world to solve that very human problem.

So parents, this definitely needs to be about encouraging your eyes to turn towards Him and the manifold provision in Him, and the grace to cover the brokenness we experience in the flesh, in our minds and our hearts. It’s interesting, we recently saw in WORLD Opinions an article that asks the question about medicine and medical responses to things. I would want to be careful to say that it deserves a holistic response, that we don’t find all the solutions in a magic pill, something that treats us merely in the body—recognizing that as whole persons, we may need medicine, but we also need one another. We need more of Christ. Children need parents, parents may need their parents. We need our community. And we need all of the manifold provision that the Lord has for us.

JONATHAN: Again, that biblical whole-person approach. We are not just bodies that need medicine. We’re also not just disembodied spirits that only need teaching. We are whole people who are affected by everything from the physical, to the spiritual, to the emotional, our families, our communities. I would just add the encouragement to parents, especially those who are wondering about seeking help for their children, if they feel like that’s something that needs to happen. Again, maybe they feel that guilt, that sense of “If I take my kid to a doctor, am I failing?”

Remember that God works through people and things, such as the work of a doctor to help heal. You could divorce that from God in your mind, if you wanted to. You could see that as something purely secular. You could put your faith in chariots, so to speak, to pull from scripture. But you could also see that as: God called somebody to be a doctor, and He gave that person the gift of knowing how to help heal people, so that God could actually love you through that person’s work. Again, you’re not putting your faith just in the knowledge of doctors. You are putting your faith in a God who works through the spiritual, the physical, every aspect of His creation.

KELSEY: Amen to that. Some tools that can help us with our own discernment of what our child’s needs are: There’s this tool we call “emotional intelligence,” towards the idea of developing emotional health. Emotional intelligence, or “EQ,” which we may say in future episodes as we refer to it in shorthand, signifies the ability to discern and name our own and others’ emotions. When we’re exercising “EQ self,” it increases our awareness of our emotional posture—how we might need to adjust towards a non-anxious presence in order to help regulate the affect of the child in front of us. That non-anxious posture is vital to teaching, to learning, to shepherding our children. “EQ others,” or emotional intelligence as we attune it to those across from us, allows us to take care of the needs of our kids, our students. It helps them to name and process their emotions, then to affirm and shape them with biblical truth.

We need to ask questions in order to draw out what’s going on with someone across from us at that heart level, because we don’t see more than the physical manifestation. Sometimes we can accurately define, “You’re crying. Are you sad?” But sometimes there’s a look on the face that requires gentle probing, and question-asking. I love that tool. I talk about it all the time. We ask questions. It gets us into, if we’re tender with them, that deep level of the heart. It helps to open our children to a learning experience, to bring them through a process, whether that is soothing them, or just helping them think about their thinking and their feeling as they learn something else about the world and the Lord.

Here are some key questions to help you apply this at home. What are you feeling right now? Help me to understand. What are you believing right now? What caused you to feel that way? How are you feeling physically that might be affecting your perspective right now?

There are complementary tools we will put in the show notes. They include Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, which you might have seen. It helps supply vocabulary, helps us to identify and maybe put our finger on and expand our ability to answer these questions. How are you feeling right now?

JONATHAN: Those are great resources. Those are great questions to ask ourselves and our kids.

We’d like to close with the supply from scripture. I want to read Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not.” Now let’s pause there. Fear not. Okay. How do I fear not? Is that something else I need to do? Is that another command I have to follow? Oh my gosh, how do I stop fearing?

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” So again, in all of this, in that call not to fear—where is our strength? It is in being upheld by God’s righteous hand.

KELSEY: Amen. Thank you for joining us. Parents, teachers, mentors of students, you are uniquely positioned to have the greatest impact on the kids and students in your lives. He has equipped you for the work.

 


 

Show Notes

Sources such as the CDC and the American Psychological Association have declared a mental health crisis among kids and teens. How can parents and educators approach mental health from a biblical perspective?

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.

Further Resources:

 

 

Concurrently is produced by God’s WORLD News. We provide current events materials for kids and teens that show how God is working in the world. To learn more about God’s WORLD News and browse sample magazines, visit gwnews.com.

This episode is sponsored by Frameworks.

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