With Rising Teen Suicides, the Church Cannot Afford Mixed Messages on Mental Health
This summer, on lawns all over my small hometown, a crop of signs appeared, bearing witness to what had happened in our area over the past year. Several teen suicides had rocked our quiet community in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and people were understandably distraught.
We asked the kinds of questions communities must confront when shocked and shaken by similar tragedies: Why? Why were teenagers taking their lives? Who was to blame for their despair? What could be done to stem the tide of loss?
The white and black signs, no larger than those that flourish during election season, were one mother’s answer to these questions. On a weekend morning, Amy Wolff posted 20 signs around town, each with a singular slogan: “You Matter.” “Don’t Give Up.” “Your Mistakes Do Not Define You.” “You Are Worthy of Love.” In just a few weeks, Wolff’s campaign spread to other communities in Oregon and neighboring states.
Anecdotal evidence suggests young people, including students at Newberg’s schools, have found hope in these messages; Wolff reports hearing from those who have been encouraged to persist in living despite their despair.
Yet for our community—and for many others, where one self-inflicted death is one too many—a small though significant positivity campaign cannot be the end of any effort to combat teen suicide. While affirming that “You Matter” is an important step in helping those struggling with mental illness diagnoses, communities need to take other significant actions to reach those who grapple moment by moment with despair and suicide ideation, particularly at such a young age.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide for girls aged 15–19 doubled between 2007 and 2015, and there was a smaller though significant uptick in suicide rates for boys. A Time article in late 2016 indicated that though there has been a substantial increase in teens who are depressed, the country has not seen corresponding growth in resources for mental health options.
In a 2014 study, more than three million adolescents in the US had a major depressive episode in the past year, and yet most schools and most communities remain unprepared to address the challenges they are facing. Given these startling statistics, our country’s youth face a major mental health crisis: one that the church and its pro-life mission need to confront, urgently and compassionately.
Now more than ever, Christians are recognizing the need to reach those with mental health diagnoses. Writers like Sarah Lund and Amy Simpson name the stigma that often accompanies mental illness and challenge readers to see mental illness for what it is: a health condition caused by physiological changes in the brain, and one that can inflict tremendous suffering, especially if left untreated.
Yet, for many, the stigma of mental illness remains, and those in the church with diagnoses often suffer in silence. Having heard that the joy of the Lord is their strength or that they need only pray more to be healed or that happiness will accompany the faithful, many who suffer from mental illness keep their diagnoses a shameful secret.
One silent sufferer was Madison Holleran, an Ivy League athlete who, months into her first year of college, took her life in 2014. Her story is told in Kate Fagan’s excellent new book, What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen. In What Made Maddy Run, Fagan—a writer for ESPN—narrates the last few months of Madison Holleran’s life, using interviews with family and friends, alongside her texts, emails, and social media accounts, to piece together the potential forces that led Holleran to make her life-ending decision.
By all appearances, Holleran’s was a picture-perfect life, and the 18-year-old’s social media platforms presented an always-happy, always-positive identity. Even during her months’ long battle with a deepening mental illness, Holleran attempted to front a different persona, making her death all the more shocking to many who knew her well.
While Fagan refrains from identifying any singular reason why Holleran took her own life, What Made Maddy Run suggests the stress of being a college athlete played a role. Holleran’s experience as a Penn cross-country runner reflects the intense pressures put on young athletes.
More significantly, a majority of those with mental illnesses experience the onset of their disorder in late adolescence or early adulthood; for many, the transition to college exacerbates symptoms while also isolating the sufferer, who is often away from the support of family and close friends. The connectivity provided by the internet does little to mitigate that isolation, and for Holleran, compelled to present the best possible images of her life at Penn, social media intensified her loneliness rather than alleviating it.
Part of Fagan’s reporting included analyzing Holleran’s texts and browsing history. While there was no indication that Fagan was bullied online, this is another parental fear that accompanies internet access and its relationship to suicide, probably for good reason. In a recent court case, Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for convincing her boyfriend to take his life; the documentary Audrie and Daisy (streaming on Netflix), provides chilling evidence that online bullying can have devastating consequences, especially for teen girls who have been sexually assaulted.
Unfortunately, a simple “You Matter” campaign probably would not have been enough to reach someone battling so intensely with a mental illness, as Holleran presumably was. Still, the ideology upon which the campaign was founded should be at the heart of the church’s engagement with young people who struggle with mental illness diagnoses: the idea that every single person matters, because every person is an image bearer of our Creator.
Too often, though, our churches have provided mixed messages, at best. Some congregations convey that our mistakes really do define us and that those on our margins don’t really matter enough for us to institute any real, long-lasting change to the way churches operate. The seemingly rigid legalism of some Christians conveys a sense that we need to be perfect—almost without sin—to be part of a Christian community; it’s not surprising that a simple Google search of “being perfect as a Christian” yields over five million sources. Though we acknowledge our imperfection as followers of Jesus, we also hear that those with faith will not struggle—or, assuredly, they will not mention their struggles in their churches.
Reading What Made Maddy Run, I wondered how Holleran’s life and Wolff’s “You Matter” campaign might inspire churches to think differently about the young people in their communities who suffer from mental illnesses. What would it mean to let young people know—really know—that they matter? What would it mean to let them know their mistakes do not define them, and that they should persist in living, even when the challenges of mental illness diagnoses leave them reeling?
One mythology about suicide is that the more it is discussed, the more likely young people are to consider self-harm. Research has shown that this is not the case, and that talking about suicidal ideation does not increase the risk of suicide. Churches need to be discussing suicide more openly with their young people, and those who have struggled with thoughts of self-harm (and believe me, such people exist in every congregation) are perfectly positioned to help drive these discussions.
In my home community, Nate McIntyre, an admissions counselor at George Fox University, has been speaking in middle- and high-school groups about his experiences with depression, anxiety, and thoughts about suicide. McIntyre’s talks have been one way to address teen suicide directly, allowing teens to see that real people have lived and survived (and even thrived) despite mental illness.
Discussions that destigmatize suicide also require that we change the language we use to talk about suicide. We may be inclined to say that suicide is a “selfish act” or that young people “gave up on life,” but it’s important to reframe our language to acknowledge that most often, suicide emerges out of a person’s illness and an attempt to end deep, persistent suffering. Knowing this, even saying that someone “committed suicide” is problematic, as the connotation is that suicide is a crime to be committed, rather than a tragic act of desperation.
Naming the despair that can accompany mental illness can be difficult work, as can walking alongside those facing the challenges of parenting a teen with a mental illness. The human tendency toward avoiding discomfort sometimes means that those who are struggling face increased isolation when what they need most is connection to others. Being comfortable is the province of the privileged, though. Followers of Jesus are called to step toward, not away from, those who need support, love, and the acknowledgment that they exist and are worthy no matter the challenges they face.
Finally, those who work with young people in churches need to make suicide prevention a priority through both discussions and forums but also by informing teens about the resources available to them within their home communities. This effort needs to be comprehensive and should not necessarily target only those we assume are depressed. What Made Maddy Run provides an important reminder that sometimes we cannot easily identify those who are struggling most, and equipping all teens to recognize the warning signs that might lead to suicide is crucial.
When resources do not exist, it is imperative that churches themselves fill the gap, providing a safety net for people in their community who are struggling. And churches need to stay connected to the young adults in their congregations once they graduate high school and move on. As Fagan notes in What Made Maddy Run, this is a crucial time for young adults, and authentic connections to others, at home and elsewhere, are vital.
My sons and I have talked about the teen deaths that occurred in our hometown, and they are beginning to understand the gravity of mental illness, as well as how to reach out to peers who are struggling. I am grateful for Wolff’s “You Matter” campaign because it has generated awareness in my hometown, and I have more confidence that if my boys need help, they will find ample resources and a loving church community to support them. I am also grateful that other local churches are changing the conversation about suicide. Newberg’s Red Hills Church has even made a central component of its mission statement that “it’s okay to not be okay” and is doing the intentional work needed to reach those who are suffering.
When teens who feel despair are bombarded with a million images telling them that everyone else is okay, this is the kind of message they need to hear. Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run makes this point clear. And so, because Fagan’s book has also informed my understanding of mental illness, I plan to make What Made Maddy Run a regular part of the first-year seminar I teach each year. Just like other teens, I want students starting at George Fox to recognize that they matter. This is the message they need to hear, not once or twice, but over and over again.
Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University and the author or editor of five books, including Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else (forthcoming from Herald Press, April 2018). Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Adoptive Families, and Mennonite World Review, among others. She and her husband and sons live in Dundee, Oregon.