The Tragic Illiteracy of the Mental Illness of Adolescents

New York Times OP-ED columnist, Nicholas Kristof, in the January 4 edition ask readers to “suggest issues that deserve more attention in 2014.”  Kristof adds, “My own suggestion for a systematically neglected issue: mental health.”  And, I could not agree more.  But, my focus is on adolescent mental health … almost an unmentionable.  Pastors, youth pastors, parents, and faculty are often illiterate to the signs of a teen suffering from mental illness.  How can we effectively minister to these needy young people?  The average pastor, youth pastor, and faculty member is interfacing on an almost daily basis with mentally ill youth who are hoping someone will understand their pain and help them.

A few months ago I visited the Columbine Memorial where each of the deceased children’s names and epitaphs are written in a sacred spot behind the school.  Craig Scott, a decade plus later, told me how the pain has lingered.  His sister, Rachel was shot at close range in the school yard.  Craig suffered by playing dead in the library next to a dead student.  Thirty plus years of ministry has taught me there are both spiritual and mental health issues at work in the lives of youth and we would be wise, attentive, and informed, on both, as we interact with these dear people God has entrusted to our care.

Adam Lanza, who shot his mother, and inflicted such carnage in a classroom full of elementary school children at the now demolished Sandy Hook Elementary School was mentally ill.  He idolized two other mentally ill students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers.  But, mental illness does not restrict itself to violent homicide.  I am convinced five informative documentaries need to be produced on the following mental illnesses and how they inflict young people:  1). depression,  2). Hyper Active Attention Deficit Disorder,  3).  Bi-polar,  4). Schizophrenia, and 5). Eating disorders.  Incalculable training from these documentaries could prevent the suffering so many young people and their parents and families endure.  When you have a relative who is mentally ill, as I do, you truly understand the profound empathy needed in this area of acute need.

Kristof writes, “One-quarter of American adult suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, including depression, anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder and more, according to the National Institutes of Health. Such disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada, the N.I.H. says.”  And, the real tragedy is that most mentally ill young people are mostly a danger to themselves more than others.  That helps explain the 38,000 suicides annually in the United States.

Kristof gives hope, “The truth is that mental illness is not hopeless, and people recover all the time. Consider John Nash, the Princeton University mathematics genius who after a brilliant early career then tumbled into delusions and involuntary hospitalization — captured by the book and movie ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ Nash spent decades as an obscure, mumbling presence on the Princeton campus before regaining his mental health and winning the Nobel Prize for economics.”

If we could become literate to warning and interventions signs of adolescent mental illness and carefully and tenderly respond, just as we would if a student broke an arm or leg, think of the dramatic, exponential positive good that could be done.  Is there a spiritual component to mentally ill youth? Yes.  But, we cannot continue to be ignorant as we watch tragedy after tragedy occur and families and parents live in continued agony and remorse.  Education is needed.

Let me leave you with a final thought Kristof expressed, “Children in particular don’t get treated nearly often enough. The American Journal of Psychiatry reports that of children ages 6 to 17 who need mental health services, 80 percent don’t get help. Racial and ethnic minorities are even more underserved.”*

[*Source: (accessed January 5, 2104).]

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