That same morning another parishioner, Heidi Erdahl, a mental health nurse at Concord Hospital (Concord, New Hampshire), also posted an article on Facebook from Nursetogether.com that looked more closely at a killer that is taking the lives of over 41,000 people per year in the U.S.
I've worked with Heidi for a number of years here in New Hampshire, on the Youth Suicide Prevention Assembly. Each month a group of incredibly talented and dedicated mental health professionals and interested people gather to bring their expertise to bear on decreasing the suicide rate among young people. The difficult work includes looking at individual suicides to glean what might have been done differently, what was missed (if anything); we look for systemic problems in the treatment system, etc., all in order to prevent, as many suicides as possible. It is emotionally and spiritually taxing work, but the dedication of this group and others like it, have had a lasting impact on many lives.
However, while this group works within the mental health system, and the various support systems in our communities and schools, it cannot address some of the larger societal messaging that, I believe, plays a role in so many young people contemplating suicide. The Bruni article does a good job bringing to the front the pressure that is placed upon our youth in regard to achieving academic success, but it doesn't delve into the suicide crisis among youth who have been bullied, or youth who are challenged by their sexual identity. Nor can it begin to address the larger question of societal messaging to our children and young adults, as to what constitutes a beautiful and meaningful life.
I believe that as a society, we have so narrowed the definition of what a beautiful and meaningful life is, and put so much pressure on young people to live out that definition, that when some of them realize the vision is beyond their reach, they cannot cope with the loss.
I remember as a high school student, that there was a good deal of pressure to attend college, but it was also clear that there were other options. When my own children attended high school the landscape had changed dramatically. The high school they attended lay within the shadow of an elite college and the pressure to produce college worthy graduates was enormous. The entire curriculum was focussed on getting high schoolers ready for college. The attitude of the administration, despite the fact that this was a public high school, was that students not interested in going to college should enroll in the regional technical school. Students who weren't ready for the rigors of the program were treated with a remarkable lack of caring. Yet, even for students who may be able succeed academically and get into college, as Bryan so aptly pointed out, many will be faced with the prospect of a mountain of college induced debt that will shackle their dreams for decades, and will limit their ability to lead the "beautiful lives" their parents expect.
Yet, academic pressure is not the only thing our young adults must grapple with. Because our society has so narrowly defined success, too often, when young adults think about what it is to lead a beautiful life, the role models of pop culture are front and center. The altogether superficial lives of the Kardashians are paraded hourly before them on website after website, sending the message that wealth, the right clothing, the perfect friends, daily shopping sprees, unbounded conspicuous consumption, and a perfect body, makeup and hair, are what constitute a beautiful and meaningful life. The Kardashians are just one family in a cavalcade of celebrities whose lives are the yardstick by which our young people are asked to measure themselves; and often they are found wanting. Alongside the celebrity culture is Madison Avenue, which foists on the whole public a standard of living which is beyond the reach of most people. Despite the unrealistic expectations set by modern advertisers, young people with little life experience, see these expectations as the norm for daily life, and again they are found wanting. Without a bottomless pit of money, they cannot hope to achieve this lifestyle. Yet the message remains: the beautiful life is one of constant consumption and self indulgence. The meaningful life is one in which self-centeredness is a virtue. What does one do, when thousand dollar handbags and five hundred dollar lunches are not even a remote possibility? What does one do when the perfect body is unattainable naturally or financially? It may sound absurd to the emotionally and spiritually mature individual, but this is the kind of stuff that is being thrust on our young people every day and it is crushing their spirits.
When I look at the bigger picture, I see a society that has so narrowly defined what it is to lead a beautiful and meaningful life, that few can possibly attain it. The question needs to be raised as to whether such a narrow vision is healthy for our society as a whole, and our young people in particular. As a pastor, I believe that churches could have a critical role in helping young people move beyond the narrow definitions imposed by pop culture and Madison Avenue. However, we suffer from a credibility gap and a history of being concerned with the wrong things. First, is our credibility gap with millennials who have watched churches fight the culture wars; banishing one group after another from what should be the expanding circle of Christ's love. Church cultural warriors won many battles, but they lost a generation who refused to participate in the constant condemnation and refused to be condemned. Then, historically, as Bryan noted, "churches of yesteryear were about teaching the 'thou shalt nots' and my hope for the future of the church is that it could be a place,one source, of helping (especially its youth) figure out the lifelong puzzle of what 'thou shall' do with one's gifts and one's life."
Yes, in many instances historically, churches have forgotten the Gospel and used the Bible as a cudgel to enforce selective morality. However, what if we could be a resource for helping youth "figure out the life long puzzle" of what "thou shall" do with one's gifts and life, as well as being the community that communicates that life is beautiful because we are each created in God's image, and that life can derive its meaning from our spiritual relationship with the Triune God?
From my perspective, helping with that puzzle means first, offering the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ which has so often been obscured by our own agendas. Imagine what might happen if churches gave up the cultural wars and simply took on the role of Jesus to the world by living his words, "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Mathew 11:28-34) Envision the freedom that young people might experience if they knew that their lives aren't justified by material success, achievement, or being part of the latest trend, but are justified because God created them out of great love, and they are beautiful and holy in God's sight. Think how lives might be changed, and both anxiety and depression mitigated, if you and I, who believe that grace has been poured out upon us, and that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words" begin to share the grace we have received, and begin helping young people to receive the gift of the Spirit in their lives. What if we help young people see that their lives are much more than vessels to be filled with the illusions of Madison Avenue or merely jealous observers of pop culture icons by helping them discover the deep satisfaction that comes with sacrifice, caring, loving, building real friendships, being actually involved in life instead of observing virtually? What if we help them fill the spiritual emptiness left in the wake of conspicuous consumption and self indulgence, by sharing the joy of living for others? Can we help them reaffirm the essential value of their lives by being Jesus to them; welcoming them and sharing without judgment?
We are facing a huge challenge, and there are no easy answers; no panaceas, but by bitter experience, I am aware that too many of our young people, unable to see themselves as living a beautiful and meaningful life, are giving up and contemplating taking their own lives. Suicide is a crisis of epidemic proportions, and while the mental health community can treat the symptoms, the more fundamental cause lies at the heart of our culture's messaging. How we change that messaging is a conversation that must take place. Many beautiful lives are depending on it.
If you are having difficulty coping
the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available