Teens and Anxiety
About the Guest
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David MurrayDavid Murray (PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is the senior pastor of First Byron Christian Reformed Church. He is also a counselor, a regular speaker at conferences, and the author of Exploring the Bible. David has also taught Old Testament, counseling, and pastoral theology at various seminaries.
David Murray experienced a couple of burnouts firsthand and talks about his faithful wife’s bout with depression that left her incapacitated. Find out how teen anxiety differs from an adults.
Teens and Anxiety
Bob: The number of adolescents and young adults being diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders is on the rise. Biblical counselor and pastor, David Murray, says we ought to be asking ourselves the question, “Why?”
David: There’s been something really significant that shifted in our culture. Something big has happened or, maybe, more than one thing that is producing this. Depression stats are in the realm of: 20 percent of teens, by the time they reach adulthood, will have had a clinical depression; that’s one in 5. You know, you look at your kids; you look at your classes; you look at your churches—and you just go through, like, “1, 2, 3, 4…” Yet, it’s strange; we never talk about it.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, October 28th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What is driving the increase in depression and anxiety among adolescents and young adults? We’ll talk more about that today with our guest, David Murray. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I don’t know if there is anything much more relevant than what we’re going to talk about today. I mean, I’ve been watching statistics of how many teenagers are struggling with issues of anxiety, and depression, loneliness, alienation—it’s growing; it’s increasing.
To know, as a parent, what to do if you are observing things with your teenager, I think a lot of parents are on high alert. And then, all of the sudden—by the way, it’s 2020—and maybe, there have been a few things going on this year that have increased anxiety, and loneliness, and alienation, and depression.
Ann: Yes; I think this is the topic that’s causing parents to feel desperate for answers and help. I think this a great topic that we’re going to discuss today.
Dave: It isn’t just parents; it’s all of us. We—this past year, before COVID—did our—I think, in 30 years, first time we’ve ever tackled mental health as a series weekend.
Bob: —at church?
Dave: —at church—did three messages in a row on it. It was attended like nothing else. People were like, “We need help in this area,”—as parents, but [also] just as adults and as kids—“How do we think about this? What do we do?”
Ann: With COVID, everything has increased; so it’s on the rise.
Bob: I’m so glad David Murray is joining us to help us with this. David, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
David: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be with you here today.
Bob: David is an author and a speaker; for years now, a seminary professor at Puritan Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids.
Dave: And he has an accent!—
Bob: He does! [Laughter]
Dave: —probably picked that up.
Ann: This is cool; you’re going to love this. [Laughter]
Bob: David is now a pastor at a local church in Grand Rapids—and someone who, as a part of your own personal spiritual journey, has dealt with the issues that you’ve written about in two books—one is Why Am I Feeling Like This?—and the other—Why Is My Teenager Feeling Like This?—books about anxiety and depression. That was a part of your spiritual past; right?
David: Yes, very much; it’s something that you can know from a book and it’s something you can know from personal experience—they are very different. We still learn about this topic.
It was really my wife’s depression, first of all, that really brought home to me the reality of mental illness and how a Christian can be depressed and can be anxious and how to deal with that. Then, for myself, just over the years, a couple of burnouts, which affected me physically—maybe, more than emotionally—but that was there too. Raising teenage girls—yes, it’s all around.
It’s wonderful to hear of you doing that series in your church. I hear more and more pastors doing this. It’s just such like a breaking of the dam for people; it’s like, “At last, we can talk about this.”
Dave: Yes; and the big tension was: “If you are a follower of Christ, you don’t struggle/you shouldn’t struggle with anxiety, worry, depression, even suicidal thoughts.”
Ann: So people don’t talk about it.
Dave: And no; the church wasn’t talking about it.
Dave: To be able to go, “This can be a part of even a Christian struggle/journey,” which you’ve obviously walked through.
David: Yes; I have to be honest—that’s what I believed when I came out of seminary: “If you are depressed, you are either not a Christian, or you’re a Christian in terrible sin,”—that was my belief.
David: I was utterly useless in counseling people with depression and anxiety as a result. God, in His providence, put me in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland to pastor where there is a huge rate of depression, largely due to we hardly seeing the sun for half the year. [Laughter] Then—yes, I said my own wife came down with it—and I knew she was far more godly than I was.
This turns my whole world upside down. I’m meeting lots of godly people, who are going down with depression; and I know they are not living in sin. I need to relook at this, and study, and listen better. I think that was the first thing I started doing and, eventually, wrote a book, Christians Get Depressed Too, which was really the opposite of what I used to believe. Yet, from what people tell me, it’s been incredibly relieving.
Bob: Explain to us what we are talking about when we talk about depression. Is it more than just sadness over circumstances?
David: Yes; I think, when I talk about depression, I try and talk about it in three-dimensions. I try and talk about the depths of feelings. We all have Monday-morning blues—that’s not depression—it’s much deeper [than that]. We also may have anxiety and things like that; we maybe have aches and pains in our bodies, all of which can be symptoms of anxiety/depression—but you really need the width of these—you need to tick a lot of boxes for it to eventually be classed as that.
Then there is length, which is how long it goes on for; in other words, a bad week—that’s not depression. This can go on two or three weeks; then you’re beginning to look at depression/anxiety. I often speak of them together because they often come together in a lot of cases. You’ve got to look at the width, the depth, and the length before you really move from just ordinary sadness to: “Yes; a depression problem.”
Bob: What was your wife’s experience?
David: The strange thing was she was actually a doctor. She was dealing a lot with people with depression; and yet, when it came into her own life, she didn’t recognize it. She couldn’t accept it; in fact, she went where I was going, too: “This must be a spiritual problem.” We actually spent a year or more in, I would say, torture—trying to find: “What was the sin?” “What was the problem?” “Where had she gone wrong?”—she more than me—because I kind of like knew, from looking on from the outside, “This is not my wife. She’s a godly woman; she’s loves the Lord, and she lives for the Lord.”
Ann: But what did you see?
David: Well, I saw her just becoming eventually incapacitated: unable to work, unable to care for the kids, and unable to sleep—crying a lot of the time. I would say to her, “Why are you crying? We’re in a lovely congregation. God has given us lovely kids. Above all, you’re married to me.” [Laughter] She would say, “David, all of these things are true; but I can’t stop crying.”
It was really just multiple factors that eventually exhausted her body, which exhausted her mind, which exhausted her emotions; and the spiritual things we were focused on were not the cause but the effect of that depression. That was sort of a light bulb moment for us. Once we started focusing on the physical and the social, we really began to get some traction; her spiritual life began to revive again.
Bob: Now, you know this is something that there is a lot of/kind of broad thinking on this subject. Some people would say, “Well, you said it’s not a spiritual issue; how can it not be a spiritual issue?”
David: Yes; there is a spiritual issue in every problem, to some degree or another; we can’t separate the soul from the body.
David: The question: “Is there always a primarily spiritual cause?” I believe is a mistake; but one I believe that, increasingly, Christians are seeing is a mistake. We don’t ignore that side—but we don’t focus exclusively on either—but try and take this holistic approach, looking at the physical, the emotional, the mental, the spiritual, the relational, and just trying to take that much more human approach.
Bob: Your new books are focused on how this is manifesting itself among adolescents—one book for the teenager and another book for the parents. What’s unique about anxiety and depression among adolescents?
David: In some ways, there isn’t anything unique; but we felt the books were required because, obviously, teen abilities to read and understand are different to an adult. Also, although there is a lot of overlap in many of the symptoms and causes, there are some unique aspects of being a teen, which really play into teen anxiety and depression as well.
Dave: And the stats you quote in the book are astronomical right now. Even the fact that the suicide rate is at a 30-year high—
David: I know.
Dave: —among teenagers; what’s going on?
David: It’s heartbreaking, Dave. It’s hard to talk about it without getting emotional about it—you know?—because I’ve seen so many of these kids. It’s a dark pit that something like 33 percent of teens will have an anxiety disorder. That’s not just: “I’m feeling a wee-bit edgy”; it’s an actual incapacitating, overwhelming disorder.
David: Yes; and I think it reflects that there has been something really significant that shifted in our culture/something big has happened—or maybe more than one thing—that is producing this. Depression stats—it’s in the realm of: 20 percent of teens, by the time they reach adulthood, will have had a clinical depression; so that’s one in 5. You look at your kids; you look at your classes; you look at your churches; and you just go through, like, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5.”
Ann: I was going to say, “That’s scary.”
David: Yes; that is scary.
Ann: That is scary to hear; as a parent.
David: Yet, it’s strange; we never talk about that.
Ann: Why is it higher now? Why are the stats higher? What’s happening?
David: I use this little word, “pits”: P-I-T-S; because “You end up in the pits.” I think the first one is “Pressure.” The second one is “Instability.” The third one is “Technology,” and the fourth one is “Spirit/Spiritual Problems.”
Pressure: teens are under just incredible pressure to perform today. I remember growing up—I mean, I’m 54—so what?—30/40 years ago—I had exams twice a year, and I played in soccer; there was no training.
I look at my teens: and there are tests, and exams, and projects, and assignments every day/every week for months, and months, and months. It’s not just enough to play sport once a week; it’s three times a week and four times a week. Then you’ve got—they’ve got to get scholarships, and they’ve got to be working. They’ve got to be doing volunteer work, and they’ve got to be involved in our church. I just think a lot of teens are being crushed. Some of it is parent-driven. Some of it is culture-driven/school-driven. Some of it is themselves as well.
Then the instability they are seeing all around them; but I think, especially post-9/11, it’s a very different world.
Ann: Shootings in schools.
David: Shootings in schools; yes—that’s massive—family and stability—
Bob: That’s the thing that came to mind for me.
Bob: How many families are healthy, nurturing, intact families?
David: Yes; even if you’re in one, you’re surrounded by breakups everywhere. Kids are worry: “Is it going to be me next? Is it going to be our family next?”
Technology was the third one—the “T”—the digital overwhelm, which I think is hyper stimulation of a very tender teenage brain. They’re not just up to this amount of stimulation and intensity. Brains need downtime—they need quiet time; they need still time—we are exhausting them. We never put our devices down; we can’t stop at a red light without checking—that’s bad enough for adults—but for a teen brain, that’s just making connections and is being formed, the thing is very damaging; information overload on that front too.
Our teens know like the worst things are going on the world as soon as they happen, 24/7, with live video coverage. Things that—I might have picked up the newspaper once a week when I was a teen, and I might have seen a little paragraph somewhere about the latest war disaster; now, it’s just 24/7 coverage.
Dave: That tech world brings the first two into play as well.
David: It does; it’s all mixed up.
Dave: Pressure and instability because I’m comparing to my other friends and seeing what’s happening in their homes—and how perfect—it never ends.
David: Social media.
Bob: That’s the depression part I thought of—is that the comparison that is going on as you are looking on Instagram® or Facebook® and seeing: “Oh, my friends are this,” and “That shot looks better,” and “They’ve got a boyfriend,” and “Life looks good for them; it doesn’t feel good for me.” That comparison is driving a lot of kids to—
Ann: I’m depressed listening to this. [Laughter]
David: This is not the most uplifting of a broadcast; is it?
Ann: But it’s enlightening.
David: Well, I think when people hear that, they begin to see, “Aha! That explains it.” I think that’s one of the worst things about anxiety and depression—it feels like, “This came out of the blue,”—like—“I’m a total victim.” It’s just inexplicable; none of us like that. We like to feel like there is cause and there is effect.
It’s, actually, a major element in healing when you understand the causes; because then you’ve got something to get your hands on, and you can grab hold of, and say, “Okay; this is not just like accidental or bad luck. There are some factors here that, if I understand the causes, then I can begin to look at some cures.”
Bob: The “S” is the spiritual dimension?
David: The spiritual dimension; yes. Again, it goes back to technology—Dave, as you said, it’s all mixed up—the pornography issue is causing huge guilt and shame, which is devastating to kids—and growth and development in every way—but especially spiritually: it distances them from God; makes them not want to read their Bibles, don’t want to pray, don’t want to go to church.
I think if you also look at just the general spiritual and moral culture—the relativism/the multi-faith-ism—it’s very shaking to kids to have just, “Well, if there’s like a hundred people of a hundred different religions, how do I know mine is right?” Maybe, as churches, we’ve shut down questioning at times instead of helping teens with their questions.
We’ve got answers; but unless we create a culture of: “You can ask the worst questions you can possibly imagine, and I’m not going to drop dead in front of you,” that’s where we’ve got to get to [in order] to help them process some of these spiritual questions/spiritual doubts, which left unresolved, can cause a really deep-seated fear and anxiety.
Dave: Is there also the aspect—again, I’m thinking of the teenager—maybe that is a part of a church or maybe going to youth group—there’s this stigma at that church, or in that youth group, or in that small group, “You can’t talk about darkness or anxiety.” You sort of put the mask on: “Because I’m a church kid, I’m good.”
Dave: “Hey, how you doin’, Bob?” “Oh, I’m good.”
Dave: And you may really be struggling with suicidal thoughts or, maybe, you’ve got a porn problem that’s caused you to doubt. You just hid all that, put on the mask, and that’s not allowed to be talked about. Is that a part of the spiritual part too?—because it’s covered?
Dave: They are living in darkness, but nobody knows; because they are not supposed to share weakness.
David: Yes; you are absolutely right. I think this is especially where youth pastors have a tremendous responsibility, as well as opportunity—instead of every event being: “Let’s cheer everyone up,”—no: “Let’s be real; let’s just be honest with one another. We’re not all good; we’re not all happy; we’re not all at peace. Let’s talk about that.”
Bob: I’ve heard you talk about environmental and emotional contributors, spiritual contributors. You haven’t brought up the biological or the medical sides of this. Again, there is debate on some of this.
Dave: And you’re married to a doctor; right? [Laughter]
Bob: If a teenager is experiencing depression, does that mean there is something going on in their brain?
David: Yes; when I’m talking about P.I.T.S, we were talking about the cultural factors playing into depression there; but yes; there is definitely a physical element in many depressions. Here is the best way I’ve found to illustrate this. If you’re out in the woods one day, and you meet a bear, our flight or fight system switches on. Our adrenaline and cortisol pumps into our bodies. We—our blood thickens; our muscles get stronger; our senses get more acute and sensitive—why does this happen?
Well, it’s a God-given survival system God has given us so that, when we do face danger, we can either fight it and win or run away and win; or if the bear does get us, well, the blood’s thickened up, and hopefully, we wouldn’t bleed out; you know? [Laughter]This is a good thing—the fight or flight system is a good thing/our stress response system—but it should switch off after about 20 minutes. Ether you’ve beaten the bear, you’ve run away from the bear, or you’re in the bear’s stomach.
The problem is sometimes that system stays switched on; or it switches on for no good reason whatsoever; or maybe, after many traumas, difficulties, challenges, stresses for a long period of time, it’s heightened. It’s not exactly bear level, but it’s not at chill level. This is very unhealthy for our bodies, because these are bad chemicals in big doses. They eventually start affecting our brain, our nervous system, our blood, our oxygen levels. It’s like, almost, you sitting in your car, with your foot on the accelerator, revs at the highest level. What is eventually going to happen? That car is going to eventually fall apart.
David: When we’re putting our teenagers under all this pressure; they are feeling this instability; they are being overwhelmed with technology—hyper stimulated and keyed up all the time by that—and the spiritual challenges—you put all that together, and you’ve got kids, who are in constant fight-or-flight mode. The stress response system is up there all the time, and it’s never down. Eventually, that wears and tears on the body; and the brain, initially, with anxiety; and then, when everything crashes, you plummet into depression.
Dave: That’s involuntary; right? I mean, the fight and flight—
Dave: —so if I am a teenager or an adult, and I’m in fight and flight, and I can’t stop it—I feel like somebody is pushing the accelerator, and it’s not me—what do I do?
David: Well, I think that’s where sympathy has to come in; isn’t it? We don’t come to our teens and condemn them or critique them. We want to have compassion. We want to say, “This is an awful experience. This is not necessarily your fault. There are many factors that have played into this.”
I know one young woman—she had four bereavements in her family in one year. You know, that’s four great losses/four great stresses. If you weren’t depressed and anxious at the end of that, that would a miracle. That’s normal, not abnormal—I like to call it normal abnormality.
Of course, if a kid is deliberately exposing themselves to hyper stimulation—like horror movies, gory video games, the worst media pornography—then yes, you’ve got to hold your hands up and say, “Okay; I’ve got a degree of guilt here.” We can deal with that: we can bring that to the cross; we can get that removed and give you a fresh start, by the grace of God and the atonement of Christ.
So whatever—whether you are to blame or not to blame—there are ways forward out of this. I think that’s the overall message I hope that we’ll get across today in our discussion—that: “Bad though the problems are, God has provided multiple solutions.”
Bob: We want to spend some time dealing with those solutions. I think we’ve illuminated the problem today, and we’re going to continue the conversation and talk about the solutions. That’s where you go in the book you’ve written for teenagers and the one you’ve written for parents. The teenagers’ book is called Why Am I Feeling Like This?: A Teen's Guide to Freedom from Anxiety and Depression; and then there is a book for parents, Why Is My Teenager Feeling Like This?, to help you understand what’s going on with your teen and to help prepare you to walk the path with them that leads them to a better place.
We’ve got copies of both of David’s books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order them from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get your copy of either or both of these books. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order Why Am I Feeling Like This?, the book on anxiety and depression for teens, or Why Is My Teenager Feeling Like This?; or you can call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800 “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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And we hope you can join us back tomorrow. We’re going to continue our conversation with David Murray about anxiety and depression among teens and young adults. We’re going to talk about the various means of grace God has made available to help us deal with these emotional and spiritual issues in our lives. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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