Looking for Meaning in All the Wrong Places
Mental health numbers are still on the rise by diagnosis or social identity, but believers buck the trend.
John StonestreetMaria Baer
Much has been documented about the growing mental health crisis among American teenagers. Young people, however, are not the only ones struggling. Middle-aged women, particularly white women over the age of 45, account for nearly 60% of all Americans who have been taking antidepressants for more than five years.
To be sure, with this kind of statistic, it is not clear the role that medical and pharmaceutical industries, which are incentivized to medicalize mental health struggles, play. There are also cultural factors at work. Affluent people, white people, and women are on average more likely to seek help for mental health issues than African American or Hispanic women, men, or people in poverty.
It is good that more attention is now given to the mentally and emotionally hurting and that these struggles are no longer as stigmatized. But we also have reached a point where it’s almost fashionable to be diagnosed with a mental health condition. This is especially true for women, and progressive women in particular.
It is not unusual for people to include a mental health diagnosis in their social media profiles. Regardless of how well-founded these diagnoses are, the fact that so many (especially women and young people) embrace them as part of their identity is a troubling sign of dysfunction.
Clearly, people are suffering. In a culture shaped by a “critical theory mood,” claims of suffering can be thought of as a desirable way of elevating a person’s moral status. It is also not a coincidence that this suffering has accompanied a culturewide loss of a sense of meaning. A 2021 Lifeway Research study found that nearly 60% of American adults wonder about how they can find more meaning and purpose in their lives on at least a monthly basis. Rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide are up across all demographics.
Even as the wider world is struggling, there is a notable exception. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 36% of Americans who attend church or are “actively religious” regularly report being “very happy.” In other words, faith in God, marriage, family, and a sense of duty to something larger than ourselves are often what provide people with the richest sense of meaning.
Ironically, these are the very things that, we are constantly being told, will constrain us. Women are told that being a wife or a mother “gets in the way” of true happiness. Men and women are told that sacrificing for others leads to unhappiness. The numbers, however, don’t lie. Living unattached lives committed to individual autonomy is making us miserable.
Of course, mental health struggles often inflict the righteous, too. Elijah, Martin Luther, and many others also battled inner demons. Still, whether the increased rates of mental health struggles are primarily physiological or due to self-inflicted circumstances, how we think about them matters. As author O. Alan Noble puts it, in moments of profound mental suffering, “getting out of bed is an act of worship”:
But when you choose to rise out of bed each day, you also set a table for your neighbor. You declare with your being and actions that life itself is good. Whether you like it or not, your life is a witness that testifies to the goodness of God.
Worship, in fact, takes many forms: singing, teaching, reflecting, relating. This is because worship is a way of recognizing the meaning that God placed in His world and for His image bearers. In fact, worship is the meaning for which human beings were made. There is nothing more than to know and to glorify God. In His grace, He makes Himself known throughout His world. It is one of God’s great mercies that, by fulfilling His purpose for us, we are able to know happiness, satisfaction, and meaning.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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