What can the Church can do to help transform the mental health of a current generation of children and young people? For it is hard to think of a more valuable issue for the Church to be engaged with right now.
A major NHS report in November 2018 into the mental health of children and young people was sobering. Among other findings, it showed that nearly one in four young women has a mental illness, with depression and anxiety being especially common. We know something is not right and it appears to be getting worse for both young women and young men, and symptoms are presenting at an earlier age. Understanding the whole picture is difficult as there are many issues to factor in and the picture itself seems to shift like a kaleidoscope.
Faced with such uncertainty, some people fall back on easy remedies or, better still, finger-pointing, so others take the blame. Chief among these is a tendency to criticise so-called Generation Snowflake for not being robust enough to deal with today’s world. We should not tolerate such talk in the Church. There is already a developing generational rift between baby-boomers and millennials, with the latter well aware that their futures look much less rosy because of decisions taken by their elders that impact upon debt, pay and housing.
Generation Z (let me call our children and young people this) has not been well-served by its elders either. In my first address as a Bishop, I referenced a battle taking place today for the human soul. While many of us wish children and young people to know the length, depth and height of the love of God in Christ for them – there are powerful, subliminal messages telling everyone that they must come as close to perfection as they can in their lives in order to be respected by both their elders and their peers.
This manifests itself in different ways to each age group, but for Generation Z it presents as a need to be perfect academically, socially and physically. What the authors Stephen Hinshaw and Rachel Kranz have described as the ‘triple bind’. The academic pressures are driven by the educational system, parents and wider society, and yet it sets most up to fail in the terms it sets, for not everyone has this kind of gifting, but will have other kinds of gifting which we should cherish more than we do.
Each generation of young people faces social pressures, but this is the first to be born into a world where the boundary lines between public and private have more or less been extinguished. It’s not as if this has been by accident, either. Mark Zuckerberg is on record as saying the distinction in our lives between public and private is inauthentic. Really? Think that one through. Facebook certainly has: the more it and other social media giants know about us, the more they profit by advertising revenue. But the more Generation Z reveals of itself, the more they are exposed to unforgiving scrutiny.
And then there are the pressures of physical perfection. Few people seem to feel great about their body image, but it is a particular source of anxiety for young people, whose bodies are changing rapidly and often do not look as they would wish to in the process. The visual recording of personal images is relentless, exposing teenagers to the harsh judgment of others. The standard for physical perfection was not set by Generation Z. It has been set – and continues to be monitored by – older generations with control of the media. And it is almost exclusively interested in how women look, not men. For this, and other reasons related to particular friendship circles, teenage girls are especially prone to a standard of scrutiny which is hard to bear. And it shows in those indices of mental health.
And all these trends are magnified by social media, which itself is built on an edifice which privileges abuse over encouragement.
For many who suffer from clinical mental illness, it can feel like someone has put you into a room with no light, turned the key and left you there. Like the darkest prison, with no sense of release. The cuts to budgets for mental illness among children and young people are some of the cruellest to be made. When you cannot see yourself getting to the end of the day, the idea that a referral will result in an initial appointment over a year away may feel like someone opening that prison door to kick you before closing the door again.
The Church is one of the few truly inter-generational bodies in UK society. We have the capacity to offer care across the generations and to use the sizeable local spaces we have to bless those who have no safe space. And we believe in a Gospel of healing and of flourishing, for the Saviour we believe in has come that we might have life - and have it in all its fulness. The Church spends a lot of time pouring over how it might reach young people, but not enough time reflecting on their felt needs. Assisting in recovery from mental illness is a cause staring us in the face.
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