What is at the root of the mental health crisis?
Everyone agrees that we have a mental health crisis. Not everyone agrees on why. In fact, we have reached a time where we aren’t allowed to have honest conversations about the root issues of any problem. Certain narratives are allowed to be considered, and everything else is off the table. One of the accepted reasons that is often parroted is that there is not enough access to mental health services. I think that could be a circular argument and may not address the issue of causality. Couldn’t it be true that the reason we know the scope of this crisis is that we have more mental health services that are in touch with people struggling? Also, the fact that we need more services doesn’t mean that the lack of services is causing the problem.
Another reason that is often given for mental health issues is chemical imbalances. For years I have asked if there are blood tests that can be used to determine if a person has a chemical imbalance, or could it be that we are prescribing medicine to just see if it helps. I have been unable to get an answer to that question. That seems odd to me because, with other illnesses, we run tests to find out if the body needs another substance to fix an issue. Obviously, the mind is a very different organ, but if the point of the medicine is to address a chemical imbalance, then it seems logical that we would first test to determine that before giving medication.
I just came across an article, written in 2021, that said that experts have started exploring the use of blood tests to diagnose these conditions.1 You may say, “Doesn’t that answer your question?” To which I would say, “How long have we been giving people chemicals to address these issues without any biological way of seeing if their bodies need them?” I’m no scientist (And I am in no way suggesting you shouldn’t see a doctor about these issues), but it seems clear that this is a backward way of addressing something. Am I saying I don’t believe that chemical imbalances exist? Absolutely not. There is plenty of evidence that shows that certain chemicals, such as dopamine, in the brain can change a person’s mood. I’m just concerned that we are making blanket diagnoses without a way to verify them. I also question why there are so many more cases of chemical imbalance now compared to the past. Is there a chance that mental health issues are multiplying because we are not getting to the root of what is causing many of them? Even in writing that, I know that certain people are going to be angry when they read it. However, that is exactly my point. Can we not ask those questions?
Of course, there can also be external causes for mental health issues as well. A person may have gone through a traumatic event or been abused. Those types of scenarios will naturally cause a person to struggle. The Bible has a ton to say about the way God can help us have peace and purpose amid hard times. That doesn’t change the fact that we will face worry, sadness, grief, and even deep remorse at times. It just means that we have access to supernatural power to deal with those emotions.
We’ve talked about the narratives that are allowed, but let’s get into a few that I think we are missing and see why they are so important to the conversation.
Loss of purpose
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl shows us that a person can survive even the most terrible circumstances if he has a sense of meaning and purpose. Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” There are lots of things that a person can find purpose in. Some of them are healthy, and some of them are not. People often try to find purpose in their jobs. They try to find purpose in their relationships. They try to find purpose in things that they are passionate about. However, those things can change or be taken away. As a culture, we have removed from the public square the one place we can find unchanging purpose, a relationship with God. We are running as quickly as we can away from admitting that God is our Creator and therefore the source of our purpose. Young people today are searching for purpose, but are continually disappointed as they seek it everywhere except in the one person who designed them, knows them completely, and has given them the opportunity to have a purpose that extends beyond this life. This is the reason that Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life has had such an impact on so many. It has helped people find their purpose in living for and with Jesus.
Loss of true social connections
We are more connected than ever through technology. However, those connections tend to be shallow and, at times, unhealthy. Here’s a part of a 2019 blog on NBCnews.com by Jillian Richardson:
Let’s look at the numbers: The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review. One in four people has no confidantes at all. Zero. To make things worse, 75 percent of people say that they're unsatisfied with the friendships that they do have, according to a 2013 study. Meanwhile, religious service attendance is on the decline. New ways to gather in community can be hard to find.2
As much as I’m surprised, I am thrilled that she mentioned that people are struggling to find new connections since the Church has been removed as the social hub of communities. She may have unknowingly solved the very problem she is discussing. The unique thing about the Christian life is that God didn’t really give us the option of living it alone.
Another unique aspect of Christianity is that we are told to hold each other accountable. Some of our self-esteem issues, depression, guilt, and relationship struggles stem from living in sin. We aren’t designed to feel good about ourselves when we are living contrary to God’s design for us. Those feelings are God’s way of letting us know that something is not right with how we are living. They are dashboard lights. God graciously puts us in relationships within the Church to challenge us when we are going astray. Our culture doesn’t like this feature of Christianity. Culture tells us that the greatest path to mental health is to live how you feel like living. Whatever makes you happy. But for some reason, people seem to be less at peace than ever. God knows we need true friends that can tell us that the way we are living doesn’t lead to peace and true fulfillment.
Of course, those same relationships are there to encourage us and remind us that God has a plan that He is busy working out, no matter how hard the current circumstances are. We are told to build one another up. We are told to use the gifts that we have to grow each other. We are called to be a spiritual family that could even heal the wounds a person has experienced in their biological family. Yes, relationships inside the Church get messy. Yes, we hurt each other at times. But God also gives us clear instructions on how to work through those moments and continue to love each other. That’s healthy! That sets you free from bitterness. That sets you free from guilt if the fault was on your side. That keeps you connected to people who are in it for the long haul.
Loss of hope for the future
This generation is the least hopeful generation we’ve ever seen. They are the first generation to not believe they have a chance to have a better life than their parents. They live in a time when news from around the globe is instantly in your hand. Let’s be honest, bad news sells. Whereas previous generations have watched political debates rage and different parties control policy (while not breaking the systems), transferring power peacefully without arresting their opponents, all of that has changed. They are being told that everything about our country is terrible and needs to be thrown out. They have lived through a once-in-a-century pandemic. They see nothing but economic collapse in the future. And they have been told that if we don’t switch to electric cars right away the planet will no longer sustain life in 15 years.
Some of those problems are real. Some of them, frankly, are not. This is where protecting free speech is so important. Without outlets where the truth can be told about some of these issues, people will continue to have a very negative outlook. Traditional news outlets will, more than likely, never take responsibility to put truth over ratings. The social justice movement is founded on the Marxist concept that all the systems are stacked against the common man. Amplifying any incident that could be spun to fit that narrative, whether the facts bear that out or not, has only created a generation that is angry all the time.
While the truth may keep people from becoming more and more hopeless, Jesus actually brings hope. Jesus gives us a hope that true reconciliation between people can happen. Jesus can bring unity.
The last issue that is not talked about enough is how unhealthy our culture’s obsession with “self” is. In fact, we are told that focusing on self is the way to mental health. The Bible takes a completely different approach. First of all, passages like Romans 12:3 encourage us not to think too highly of ourselves, but rather think about the ways God has gifted you to bless others. Paul tells his audience in Philippians 2 to put the interests of others ahead of their own and to follow Christ’s example of humbling Himself to serve and sacrifice for others. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus did that for the “joy set before Him.” Jesus found joy in serving and sacrifice. That’s not a message we hear in our culture. And yet, the more we focus on ourselves, the less healthy we become.
I have noticed that in our efforts to “normalize mental illness,” we may have caused people to “get in their own heads” and focus on themselves to an unhealthy extent. There is no doubt that there needs to be a balance. In the past, no one ever talked about these issues. People didn’t get help and would just be found beside a suicide note. That’s clearly not healthy. But now we almost see it as a badge of honor to let people know that we have a diagnosis. We are quick to identify ourselves by that diagnosis. We are told to focus on those issues and spend lots of time doing “self-care.” And yet, this approach does not seem to be producing more and more people who are productive and well-adjusted. Could it be that we are missing this principle that Christ modeled for us? Could it be that focusing on the needs of others would change our perspective?
*Disclaimer: I’m not making light of “self-care.” I even have talked to my staff often about making sure they are getting a Sabbath (God’s original self-care plan) and finding ways to be refreshed. I understand that burnout is real. I’m just concerned that we are overly focused on ourselves, which does not appear to be what the Bible would define as healthy.
Like so many other areas of our culture, this area will only improve if we can have a full and honest discussion. We have to be able to ask hard and uncomfortable questions. We have to be able to weigh all the factors. Have we really considered the idea that real purpose and hope can only be found in a relationship with our Creator? Have we thought about the fact that God has designed an environment for us to find the social connections we need to not just encourage us but challenge us? Have we become so inwardly focused that we have missed the joy that comes from pouring into others?
I’ll say it again - Some people will be angry about this article. They will think that I’ve set mental health back two decades. That’s not my intention, and I’m not saying that many approaches used today have no merit. What I am saying is that because the Christian worldview is no longer part of the discussion, we may be missing some factors that align with the reality the Bible reveals.
3 Suicide rates increased 37% between 2000-2018 and decreased 5% between 2018-2020. However, rates nearly returned to their peak in 2021. While we have more mental healthcare than we ever have, rates are rising. Either some of our methods for dealing with issues are ineffective, or something we are doing as a culture is multiplying mental struggles faster than those methods can keep up. One was or the other, we are missing something. https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/suicide-data-statistics.html