Teens, Depression, and Divorce … and Hope

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By Rob Schwarzwalder, a Senior Contributor, The Stream, May 14, 2018

Rob SchwarzwalderAs I walked out of class a couple of months ago, I observed one of my students curled up against a wall.

She looked up at me with desperation in her eyes and said, “I’m having an anxiety attack and left class to call someone to help me calm down.”

Anxiety, Depression and Loneliness

These kinds of things are not uncommon. In my two years-plus of teaching at a Christian university, I’ve had many students confide in me about their struggles with anxiety, depression and loneliness. In one of my classes, out of 25 students, five of them have had serious depressive and stress-related problems.

This is not uncommon. A new study by Blue Cross/Blue Shield shows that from 2013 and 2016, “among adolescents there was a 65 percent increase for girls” and “a 47 percent rise for boys” in diagnosed major depression.

Why? Why do so many young people struggle with feelings of hopelessness, of anxiety and fear?

This is a critical question, given the growing suicide rate among teens. “The suicide rate for white children and teens between 10 and 17 was up 70 percent between 2006 and 2016,” according to a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Although black children and teens kill themselves less often than white youth do, the rate of increase was higher — 77 percent.”

The Mayo Clinic lists five possible causes of teen depression. Included are biological chemistry, hormonal imbalances, inherited traits, early childhood trauma, and learned patterns of negative thinking.

What They Have in Common

All of these things intersect. Sexual abuse, for example, alters neural pathways. In the same way, constantly telling ourselves negative things cuts a groove in the brain. When we place the needle of our minds into this kind of groove, it only cuts deeper and deeper.

There are many kinds of trauma. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, whether from within one’s family or from other adults or older children, can wreak havoc on a young one’s spiritual, psychological and intellectual well-being.

There’s also no question that kids today face enormous pressures. Social media is addictive and can be destructive, either through the cruelty of others or the social isolation it causes. The demand for excellence — academic, athletic, joining various clubs, etc. — has, for many, become less of an exhortation and more of a hammer. And various kinds of peer pressure push hard into the souls of millions of teens.

Dramatic Damage of Divorce

And then there’s divorce.

My friend Dr. Pat Fagan, a respected sociologist and the founder of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, describes divorce as a form of rejection: Parents reject one another and, by doing so, reject their children.

The rejection of their kids might not be intentional and, in most cases, is not. However, when parents choose not to live in union with one another, their children are devastated. The wounds they bear can fester well into adulthood.

Yes, some separations and even divorces might be needed. But whatever the cause, divorce does dramatic damage to its most vulnerable victims: Children.

In research conducted with Aaron Churchill of the Fordham Institute and published in 2012, Dr. Fagan found that divorce “weakens children’s health and longevity. It also increases behavioral, emotional, and psychiatric risks, including even suicide.”

Fagan and Churchill also found that divorce also weakens children’s ability to handle conflict and fosters “coercive” (bullying) or “aversive” (fearful) social interaction.

Similarly, a 2005 study by Dr. Lisa Strohschein of the University of Alberta describes a “divorce-specific increase in anxiety/depression” among children.

Here’s the gut-punch: Only 47 of American youth reach the age of 17 in a home with both biological or adoptive parents. Putting it simply, children deserve better than divorce.

The Grace of Jesus Christ

For the present, there’s no doubt my teaching colleagues and I will have more students who come to class exhausted from not having slept due to anxiety. Who will be unable to complete assignments. Who will be hospitalized.

The good news is that the grace of Jesus Christ can bring hope to even the downcast and broken spirit. The Word of God, the right medicine and sound counsel, and the consistent love and support of family and friends can enable young souls to find rest. As we minister to a society where depression and anxiety only become more frequent, let us gird ourselves with compassionate hearts, listening ears, and speech “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6).

And Jesus: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

To learn more about how to minister to the children of divorce, see Sandi Greene, “When Your Parents Divorce” (Focus on the Family) and “Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce” (Lifeway).

Rob Schwarzwalder is a Senior Contributor at The Stream and a Senior Lecturer at Regent University. Raised in Washington State, he lived with his family in the suburban D.C. area for nearly 25 years until coming to Regent in the summer of 2016. Rob was Senior Vice-President at the Family Research Council for more than seven years, and previously served as chief-of-staff to two Members of Congress. He was also a communications and media aide to a U.S. Senator and senior speechwriter for the Hon. Tommy Thompson, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For several years, he was Director of Communications at the National Association of Manufacturers. While on Capitol Hill, he served on the staffs of members of both Senate and House Armed Services Committees and the Senate Committee with oversight of federal healthcare policy.

Rob is focused on the intersection of theology, culture and politics. His background in public policy has been informed by his service on Capitol Hill, the private sector and various Christian ministries. His op-eds have been published in numerous national publications, ranging from TIME and U.S. News and World Report to Christianity Today, The Federalist and The Public Discourse, as well as scores of newspapers and opinion journals. He has been interviewed on National Public Radio, Fox News, and other leading television and radio programs. Rob’s scholarly publications include studies of such issues as fatherlessness, pornography, federal economic policy and national security.

Rob has done graduate work at George Washington University and holds an M.A. in theology from Western Seminary (Portland, Ore.) and an undergraduate degree from Biola University. He and his wife of 35 years, Valerie, make their home in Virginia Beach and have three children.