On teenagers, depression, and growing up; or five ways the Church can help prevent teenage suicide
Has your best friend ever looked you in the eye and told you you’re “just so G– damned depressed all the time”?
Has your grandma ever looked at you and said she was worried about you because you weren’t smiling?
Have your friends ever stopped inviting you to things because you simply weren’t any fun to be around anymore?
Those things all happened to me within a three month span my first year of seminary. A few months earlier, over the course of a weekend, I lost the job I loved, got dumped by the girl I loved, and got in an ATV wreck where I flipped over the handlebars without a helmet. Oh, and I was starting grad school working in a program that I ended up hating.
It wasn’t a fun time.
The whole thing led to a downward spiral of depression. The only thing is I didn’t actually realize it was depression. To me, in my world, depression was only something the crazy person down the street or the weird emo kids went through. It wasn’t something that I – a “normal” 21 year old kid who people liked being around and seemed to have it all together – dealt with.
I didn’t realize 70% of all teenagers experienced at least one event that leads to depression before they graduate high school.
I didn’t realize nearly 40% of all teenagers took medicine or saw a doctor for depression.
I didn’t realize depression was normal.
I was a teenager at the start of the current social technology boom. I joined MySpace a few months after it was invented. I got texting (300 a month) the summer after I graduated high school. I was excited the day my college got access to Facebook and eagerly put in my @coastal.edu email address so I could create a profile. Luckily for me, most of my screw ups and mistakes didn’t hit the internet. Or if they did, it was before the internet was in everyone’s hands 24/7.
Today’s kids aren’t so lucky.
You don’t need another blog post telling you about all the hard things teenagers are dealing with in 2017. However, with teenage suicide getting brought to the forefront because of 13 Reasons Why, I wanted to start a conversation about how the Church and the Christians who make it up can help today’s kids navigate one of the most challenging times of their lives, deal with their depression, and hopefully prevent teenage suicide.
1 – Stop telling them what to do.
I get it: you’ve been there, made the mistakes, and have more wisdom than the teenager in your life. You’re just trying to help by telling them what they should do in any given circumstance. Here’s the problem with that: you don’t actually know what they’re going through because you’re not them and you aren’t going through what they’re going through. You’ve been through similar things, but you haven’t been through this. By telling them what they should do, you’re giving them another set of expectations to live up to.
2 – Instead, walk through life with them.
Knowing how to fix someone’s problems and letting them figure it out on their own is one of the hardest things you can do in life. Especially if you care about the person. But by journeying with a student and helping them figure out how to navigate their emotions, decisions, and experiences, you’re helping them grow into someone who can independently process their feelings as they mature and get older. That’s one of the most valuable things you can ever give them.
3 – Give them room to fail.
If backing off and not fixing their problems is hard, watching them run off the road is excruciating. We learn most from our failures. If, while walking beside a student, we see them going a certain direction, we have to be able to point out the danger. We even have to be willing to let them crash a little. It’s painful and feels helpless, but if done right, it leads to growth that can only happen after failing.
4 – Be the guardrail they crash into.
While it’s important to let students have room to fail, we don’t want them running completely off the cliff. We’ve been down the road they’re currently on so we know where the most dangerous parts are. We need to be there for them to bounce off of or crash into in those dangerous places. It’s still our job to protect them when needed.
5 – Let them know it’s okay to not be okay.
The pressure teenagers are under today is completed ridiculous. Whether it’s having to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives at 16 or figuring out who they are in a society that shames people for making mistakes, the pressure they live under to get things right is greater than anything we’ve ever experienced. We have to create spaces and relationships where they know it’s okay to not have it all together. There’s relief in knowing you don’t have to get it right 100% of the time.
I struggled with depression off and on from the time I was 17 until I was 22. And I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t want to be judged or thought less of. I wanted people to think I had it all together and that I knew what I was doing.
We have to let our students know that’s not the expectation.
They have to know they can have questions and make mistakes and it be okay.
They have to know what they’re feeling is normal.
Our teenagers are our future, and it’s our role to help them develop into the best people they can be. Even if it’s not easy.
Especially when it’s not easy.
Say your prayers and take your vitamins.
Have a nice day.