In December 2021, the United States surgeon general issued an advisory regarding mental health issues in today’s youth. Since the year 2000, eighteen such reports, fourteen of them in regards to physical health issues, have been issued. But only the December 2021 report is titled an “advisory.”
Why is this significant? The office of the surgeon general explains: “Surgeon General Advisories are public statements that call the American people’s attention to a public health issue and provide recommendations for how that issue should be addressed. Advisories are typically shorter than Reports or Calls to Action, and they are reserved for significant public health challenges that demand the American people’s immediate attention” (emphasis added).
Significant issues that demand immediate attention. This is not a “let’s wait and see what happens” scenario.
It seems this situation has been brewing for quite some time and COVID-19 has been an accelerant that nobody anticipated or wanted. The advisory references global research that shows mental health issues in youth have doubled since the pandemic. There are many contributing factors, the wide majority of which are environmental in nature. A two-fold increase in such issues in such a relatively short period of time is startling. I’ve been a licensed psychologist for more than twenty years and have had a front row seat to mental health problems in the more than 10,000 people I’ve treated or evaluated during that time. I know the power of mental health to propel forward and to hold back. I’ve seen how mental health issues have disproportionately affected the rising generation compared to their parents or grandparents. We can no longer afford to view such issues simply as “growing pains” or “lack of grit.” Here are some things I’ve observed.
Considering an Adjusted Perspective
I believe the older generation could benefit from a different perspective on today’s mental health issues. When I say, “the older generation,” I include myself. I’m talking about those who are empty nesters, those who have parents or grandparents who fought in world wars, and those who grew up in a time when mental health issues were either scarce or not discussed.
When I talk with many of my contemporaries about rising mental health issues in today’s youth, I often hear a recurring sentiment: “They need to toughen up. We went through things way more challenging and didn’t complain.” I’m not here to argue whether world wars are more personally difficult than Major Depressive Disorder or Agoraphobia, but I’m suggesting that things have changed in general.
The rising generation is different, faces unique challenges, and needs new tools to prevail. A 1970s playbook for success will not be sufficient for those facing 21st century trials. It is profoundly unhelpful for suffering youth to hear their parents or leaders tell them to “suck it up.” Improved mental health will undoubtedly involve action on the sufferer’s part, but to reduce the entire situation to a simplified calculus of “get more grit” is foolishly unsophisticated.
Today’s challenges are simply different than yesterday's. The Lord has always permitted a certain degree of adversity to enter our lives. Even from the very beginning of this earth, Satan was allowed to access the Garden of Eden. The tree of knowledge of good and evil, which brought death, was placed opposite the tree of life. As Lehi taught his son Jacob about adversity, he said that such trials bring about God’s “eternal purposes” (see 2 Nephi 2:15). What eternal purposes? “To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). While the comforts of the Garden of Eden were lovely, they would never provide the necessary tests to reforge fallen human souls into the image of God.
As technology improves, our lives are made easier and easier. This is a blessing from heaven. I think it pleases Heavenly Father that we have cars, planes, smart phones, the internet, and so many other things that enhance our lives. But since we no longer must chop our own trees to build houses or make our own wax to light a room, we need our own version of such trials to build personal strength. As mental health issues increase in prevalence, perhaps they are part of these trials. They are burdensome to bear and carry their own brand of difficulty. The older generation should not discount the tremendous struggles faced by those who suffer with mental health afflictions.
Gaining Spiritual Traction
The idyllic days of the Garden of Eden are a tempting scenario. Wouldn’t it have been better to live our lives without stress, anxiety, depression, or other challenges that bring so much grief? Having never experienced the carefree life of that garden, I cannot say for sure. But Eve and Adam knew firsthand the stark difference between flowery Eden and fallen Earth. And yet in Moses 5:10–11 we read thatEve and Adam rejoiced in the many blessings they received while traveling a difficult road. They viewed their fall as fortunate. Yet as a church culture, we sometimes embrace the idea that the best way through life is the smooth way. There is a mistaken belief that righteousness will somehow limit adversity. A quick review of some of the most righteous people in scripture will show that such a belief is folly. Indeed, “For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son he receiveth” (Hebrews 12:6).
Elder David A. Bednar taught that having difficulties in life can help us progress spiritually. He compared it to a snow-bound truck that could not move until wood was piled into the truck bed. The increased burden gave the vehicle the needed traction to escape a sticky situation. We are in a similar circumstance. The burdens, the challenges, and the griefs we carry can become needed ballast to improve traction and give us power to move forward.
Elder Bednar stated, “Each of us also carries a load. Our individual load is comprised of demands and opportunities, obligations and privileges, afflictions and blessings, and options and constraints…. Sometimes we mistakenly may believe that happiness is the absence of a load. But bearing a load is a necessary and essential part of the plan of happiness.”
For some, mental health issues may be part of the load that can help them along their journey back to heaven. Despite the overwhelming challenge this can present, we can be confident that the Savior has experienced all things on our behalf, including mental health challenges, so He can provide personalized and helpful assistance as we seek it (see Alma 7:12).
A Helpful Tool
The Surgeon General’s advisory also acknowledged that some youth have fared well during the pandemic: “They got more sleep, spent more quality time with family, experienced less academic stress and bullying, had more flexible schedules, and improved their coping skills. Many young people are resilient, able to bounce back from difficult experiences such as stress, adversity, and trauma.”
The reasons for such differential reactions are myriad and complex, but there is one concept that appears to be helpful across many circumstances to promote better adaptation. Emotional resilience is a construct that has been studied by mental health researchers for decades. Such researchers have defined this concept as “individuals’ ability to adapt to, and recover from disturbing events” or “personal qualities that enable one to thrive in the face of adversity.” A course of study on this topic has recently been added to the self-reliance library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The manual describes emotional resilience as “The ability to adapt to emotional challenges with courage and faith centered in Jesus Christ.”
Emotional resilience is a broad, multifaceted tool that can help with any number of trials and difficulties. It includes skills such as tenacity, tolerance for disruption, utilizing stress for good, and building healthy relationships. It is not the definitive answer to mental health issues but is a powerful tool to improve outcomes. Experts agree that mental health challenges are caused by a marginally understood but complex combination of biology, genetics, environment, physical health, trauma, and other conditions. We need to address mental health from multiple angles in order to increase success.
Let’s take courage that mental health can be improved. Let’s be compassionate with those who suffer and try to understand them before passing judgment. Let’s recognize that personal difficulties are often the road to greater spiritual development. And let’s rejoice in the knowledge that our loving and perfect Savior is always there for us, no matter the challenge or difficulty.