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Gen Z, COVID, & Mental Health

One year ago, NC Family released our Winter 2021 edition of Family North Carolina magazine, with a featured article on mental health, the church, and COVID-19. The mental health crisis among our nation’s youth in particular has been on a decline long before the pandemic started. In the past year, however, this decline seems to have only sharpened.

Thankfully, there are ministries and organizations working to improve mental health and equip parents to better support and care for their children in this difficult time in our history. One such faith-based organization is The Timothy Center in Austin, Texas. Dr. Jimmy Myers is founder and CEO of The Timothy Center, and he joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss his work, and how we can all help improve the mental health of our nation’s youth.

For those under 21, “we really started to see this increase in loneliness and depression and anxiety in the late 2000s, 2010-ish,” says Dr. Myers. “That increase coincides with the widespread use of highspeed internet and smartphones and social media. […] We were not built for 24/7 social interaction. We just weren’t. All the bad things that come with that now are happening 24/7.”

Add to this, continues Dr. Myers, everything that has happened during the pandemic: “You have the isolation of home learning […] Then you have the riots of BLM and Antifa and January 6. […] The anxiety is through the roof. There are numerous studies that are showing that Gen Z is experiencing much more stress and anxiety than the rest of the population.”

So how can parents help? “Parents set the emotional tone of the home. Therefore, if you are frightened, if you are very anxious, then so are your kids going to be.” Parents of teenagers can “drastically reduce their social media consumption and their gaming and other isolating activities.” And finally, if parents see their child is struggling more than normal, “get help. Talk to someone. There’s help in your community, no matter what that is.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Jimmy Myers give more advice to helping navigate our current mental health crisis.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Gen Z, COVID, & Mental Health

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Over the past few years, we’ve heard that actions intended to keep Americans safer and healthier in regard to COVID may have actually had some negative mental health effects—that coming in the midst of a suicide rate that was already concerning in the years prior to the onset of a pandemic. Well, for example, here in North Carolina, the Department of Health and Human Services released data just this past November, which shows that North Carolina’s suicide rate between 2015 and 2019 was more than double the homicide rate.

Joining us to help examine what could be going on with mental health in our country is Dr. Jimmy Myers, founder and CEO of the Timothy Center, which offers Christian counseling to 21st century families. Dr. Myers is also author of several books, including Fearless Parenting: How to Raise Faithful Kids in a Secular Culture, which he co-authored with George Barna.

Well, Dr. Jimmy Myers, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

DR. JIMMY MYERS: Thank you so much for having me.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Give us an idea of the trajectory of mental health here in America before and now through the pandemic.

DR. JIMMY MYERS: Mental health, especially for those sort of under 21, it has been on a decline as far as good mental health even before the pandemic. And now it’s just like you’ve juiced this problem with steroids and it has gotten exponentially worse. I think beforehand—again, especially those under 21—we really started to see this increase in loneliness and depression and anxiety. We saw these numbers rising in the late 2000s, 2010-ish, around in there. That increase coincides with the widespread use of highspeed internet and smartphones and social media, these types of things. And then when you add to that what happened with the lockdown and almost looking for every reason in the world not to have kids go back to school in person, especially when they’re a population that are for the most part, statistically, not at risk. So you saw that just make these matters so much worse.

There was an article in New York Times a few weeks ago, and I wrote down this quote; it’s from a principal from a school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and he was quoting his kids at his school. He said, “They’re like ‘The world’s out of control, so why should I be in control?’” I mean, when you have the pandemic lockdowns on top of what we were seeing—increased loneliness and depression anyway—and then you have the isolation of home learning—in some ways it’s home-not-learning because of the precipitous grade drops in many if not most students because of it. Then you have the riots of BLM and Antifa and January 6. And then just wearing a mask, and especially young children, the type of anxiety that that induces that “I’ve got to wear this, or I’m at serious risk. Other people are around me that normally I’d be waving to and saying hi to, I’ve got to be afraid that they are going to hurt me with some invisible illness.” The anxiety is just absolutely through the roof. There are numerous studies that are showing that Gen Z is experiencing much more stress and anxiety than the rest of the population.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: When you put it all in perspective like that, I mean, it was a lot of stress for even those of us who are adults, right? So poor kids, they don’t have anything to look…you know, no history to look back on necessarily to see that things could possibly get better. So are there long-term effects to this, or do we think that it’s going to even itself out after the pandemic dissipates at some point?

DR. JIMMY MYERS: None of this has happened before, so we don’t know. This is this massive experiment where experts said this is what we must do in order to be safe, and then we learned that about every six weeks, those absolute mandatory things changed. So we don’t know if forcing kids to wear masks, closing in-person learning…when you see kids outside on the playground and they’re all wearing masks outside in the wind, we don’t know the long-term. We know short-term it has jacked up their anxiety levels; long-term, we don’t know. I guess we’re about to all find out.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well let me ask you to speculate. So you spoke about experts; do you think it could have an effect on this generation, especially the kids that are younger now, their perception of authority going forward?

DR. JIMMY MYERS: Of course. It used to be you could get a degree in political science, but now all science is political. I don’t know about you, but when I see that there’s a study out saying something, the first thing I do is look at who did the study, because you can’t necessarily trust what would be empirical studies. You can’t trust what normally would be accepted experts in the field. There was a day you could trust the media not to just give a completely biased view of events. So absolutely, I think there’s going to be a doubt of authority and pretty much all different kinds of authority, because who is it that you trust?

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you have some recommendations for parents? Let’s say specifically about the issues surrounding COVID; how do we talk to our kids, our grandkids?

DR. JIMMY MYERS: Well, first, kind of just a general rule of parenting is that parents set the emotional tone of the home. Therefore, if you are frightened, if you are very, very anxious about normal life activities, then so are your kids going to be. So, one of our jobs is to normalize, give a bigger perspective for our children, because as you mentioned earlier, they don’t have that kind of history and perspective. But when you have a parent that every time some type of news program is on, they’re watching it and they’re making comments to each other just about how horrible this is, and they’re on Twitter and they’re on Instagram and they’re on whatever news feeds and you see that the parent is really upset about it. The children are going to reflect that level of anxiety.

Another thing you can do, especially for older, for teenagers—hopefully kids younger than teens are not going to be having this—but really drastically reduce their social media consumption and their gaming and these other isolating activities. Just stop it. If you didn’t really pay attention to how much time they were online before, you really need to pay attention now. Get them outside; force them outside into the sunlight with actual human social interaction through their church or through their sports teams. Get them outside; get them with other people. And then, again, get help; talk to somebody. There’s help in your community, no matter what that is. If a parent especially sees that a kid is struggling more than normal, and you’re seeing a real deviation from their normal behavior and thinking and feeling patterns, don’t hesitate to let them go and talk with somebody.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: A lot of things from that sentence that I’d love to unpack, but let’s talk a little more just about social media regarding COVID, because I think if you talk to young people, they would say, “Well, I’m more connected than you. I’m connected to so many different people.” What is it about social media that is not connecting—or it may be artificially connecting—our kids and causing this feeling of isolation, do you think?

DR. JIMMY MYERS: The more interaction on social media, the higher levels of loneliness and perceived depression. So they think that they have friends; they think that they’re socially connected, but to use your word—which I think is accurate—it is artificial. I think one thing we’ve learned from this whole social media thing is that we’ve always known that no man is an island, but we also now know that no man is Grand Central Station. We were not built for 24/7 social interaction. We just weren’t. All the bad things that come with that now are happening 24/7. There’s this social media enmeshment. When a kid hits their teen years, they’ve got two jobs basically: form their own identities and seek their own independence. But now when that is just beginning in these young, early adolescents, this constant social media use throws a wrench in that process. They become fixated on comparisons and those comparisons aren’t real. They’re trying to look like these influencers and these influencers don’t look like that, there’s Photoshopping.

One of the most common cognitive distortions in psychology is something called feelings are not facts; just because you feel a certain way doesn’t make it true. But today we have our feelings—and again, this is what social media so influences, how we feel about something or how we perceive it today. Feelings supersede facts. A recent study in 2021 showed that 40% of 18 to 24-year-olds were claiming to be something other than heterosexual. The LGBTQ community, since we crawled out a caves, has always been—let’s be generous and say around 3%. And today 40%. Well, that’s no longer biological; there is a very strong social component to all of this.

When it comes to social media, if your audience has not seen the Netflix film Social Dilemma, they really need to because they will learn that all devices, all gaming, all social media platforms have been designed to be addictive. All other addictions—gambling and smoking and alcohol—all those have been restricted from kids, and yet we give kids unfettered access to these dopamine-producing devices.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I quoted at the beginning a really tragic quote about suicide in North Carolina. Are you seeing this all working together? Is all of this part of what’s causing kids to ultimately take their own lives?

DR. JIMMY MYERS: You get anyone who has suicidal ideation, it’s because they’re feeling this immense pain. And with adolescents especially—a lot of time, not all the time and you got to take it extremely seriously. There’s any verbalization or whatever of a suicide threat, you have to take it seriously. But with many adolescents, they don’t want to die as much as they want someone to understand how bad they’re hurting. They want somebody to notice, which is why there’s so many more attempted suicides or threats than there are actual suicides, especially in these younger kids. So when we have the isolation from at home learning, and we’re not going to movies anymore, or “No, you can’t go to that because we’ve got to stay home. All of that is forcing upon kids that are a vulnerable population anyway into even deeper isolation. So there’s no one there to notice how bad they’re feeling; there’s no one there to see what’s going on with them. So again, it’s just made what was already a problem with kids so much worse.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You also mentioned for parents not to hesitate, to get help if they’re seeing some of these mental health issues, not only in their children, but their spouse perhaps, or a family member. Is there less of a stigma than there used to be about going to seek help for mental health issues, do you think? Are people readily doing this these days?

DR. JIMMY MYERS: I think it’s better, but oddly there is still a stigma to it. I think that’s especially true for anyone in your audience that may be in the faith community, because we don’t understand that the depression, anxiety, it’s a physiological malfunction of your body chemistry. But instead of it being a physiological malfunction in your blood sugar, which gives us diabetes, it’s a chemical imbalance of your neurotransmitters in your brain. It’s just a physiological malfunction, but because it impacts the way you think and feel, then people, especially talking about Christians here: fear is the opposite of faith. “Well, I’ve got anxiety out the wazoo, so I must not have very much faith.” And the joy of the Lord is my strength. “Well, I don’t have a lot of joy in the Lord or otherwise.” And so within the faith community, there’s something wrong with my faith. If I just believed more, if I just prayed more, then this would go away. And yes, absolutely, God can step in and miraculously intervene, but that’s called a miracle and not Tuesday afternoon, because that doesn’t happen very often. So we can’t plan on it.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well Dr. Jimmy Myers with the Timothy Center in Austin, Texas, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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