Anxiety and Younger Generations


The New York Times reports that more teenagers than ever are suffering from anxiety.

The news is bad. Benoit Denizet-Lewis reports:

Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

Those numbers — combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall — come as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students.

Denizet-Lewis profiles several teenagers struggling with anxiety in addition to citing numerous unsettling statistics. Young people are under tremendous pressures to perform academically, athletically, and socially. Accomplishments, if they are celebrated at all, aren’t dwelled upon for long, because there is always more to do.

Social media amplifies these pressures. Denizet-Lewis writes, “Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits — round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers — were partly to blame for their children’s struggles.”

In an age of anxiety, how can church leaders respond faithfully? How can pastors learn to recognize anxiety and create space within the church to address, rather than reinforce, the pressures plaguing the young?

Churches can be anxiety inducing, too, pressuring teens to have it all together spiritually.

Many of the teens Denizet-Lewis chronicles seek help through therapy and treatment, where they learn to cope with anxiety, set boundaries, and prioritize their commitments. In some cases in this report, teens are prescribed medication to help manage their disorder.

Church leaders are right to encourage teenagers to pray, have faith, and endure, but it is also helpful when pastors and spiritual leaders connect individuals with wise physicians and other medical experts who can offer specialized knowledge in treating anxiety.

If you are a church leader and you do not have a short list of doctors who can help those who are struggling, ask around. Have sound references who can help your congregants in ways you cannot, and support them with your presence and prayers as they seek to become healthy.

But also remember that there are truths within the Christian faith that can dispel anxiety before it takes hold. The gospel can be both medicine and food, healing sick souls but also strengthening the human spirit, helping teenagers to know the peace of Christ. Healthy churches can help teens safely discuss their challenges and struggles with their peers in a supportive environment. They can also encounter God’s immense love.

When Gen Zers in your congregation hear pastors and spiritual leaders acknowledge anxiety as a reality they face, perhaps they will also hear the church is a place that is willing to help them as they face their challenges. Perhaps they will see it as a sign you care.

Perhaps they will discover a peace that passes all understanding, embracing the love of Christ.