Millennials and Deficit Syndrome

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism. Read other perspectives here.

Although it can't be found in the DSM-V psychiatric manual used by physicians to match mental illness diagnostic criteria with their patients' symptoms, a large percentage of my college student patients suffer from what I privately think of as Faith Deficit Syndrome. These young adults struggle with anxiety and depression daily; a growing number try to end their lives and many more — some screening surveys suggest up to 48 percent — feel hopeless.

As clinicians we fret more over how best to supplement and correct a student's Vitamin D deficiency than helping restore the lack of hope and purpose perpetuated by this growing epidemic of spiritual deficiency.

"Faith deficiency" manifests in different ways but the symptoms can include a lack of emotional resiliency in the face of adversity and disappointment, an inability to soothe oneself when down or stressed without the use of various self-harming behaviors or recreational substances, and adopting an inward self-focus even when others have greater needs. There is no context for understanding difficulties and suffering as part of the universal life experience. So many binge feed on Facebook selfies but have never feasted on God's Word, or, if offered it in the past, they were either force-fed or allowed to walk away without a taste. Fewer students have intact nuclear families, and even fewer have been raised in a tradition of regularly attending worship services. I see this lack of family and faith foundation contributing to the burgeoning rates of mental health issues seen on college campuses today.

The demand for evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health symptoms for college students across the country has tripled in the last several years, with as many as 25 percent of campus populations needing medication and/or counseling for a variety of psychiatric diagnoses, including generalized anxiety, panic, major depression, psychosis, mood disorders, eating disorders, sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, as well as substance abuse.

Most young adults, when asked in surveys, will claim they are spiritual but a rapidly growing number, one in four, now express no religious affiliation or belief. There is a sense among those of us helping manage the high levels of distress in today's college students that too many flounder having grown up in a society touting tolerance and acceptance of differences, yet lacking clear standards or expectations for moral behavior. In a society of acceptance, it has become unacceptable to consider the consequences of sin or the resulting notions of confession, forgiveness, grace, and redemption. They are taught in therapy the benefits of keeping a gratitude list but haven't a clear notion to whom they are grateful. They struggle with regret and remorse having been exposed to a wide range of now-normalized sexual and substance experimentation.

University clinicians are medicating more and prescribing emotional support animals despite limited evidence that these are the most effective interventions available to improve or save lives, much less preserving and salvaging tender vulnerable souls. This is where churches can help fill the gap while secular and public institutions are restricted legally in how and where faith can be mentioned.

Campus ministries and nearby faith communities can make a difference through direct outreach to students with providing meals, offering opportunities for volunteer service projects, organizing social gatherings, and holding small group discussions on various topics, especially related to current events happening locally, nationally, and globally. I've seen ministry-trained college students become mentors to younger colleagues, praying with them over coffee at the student union and offering emotional and spiritual support when needed. There are times of campus tragedy when churches are needed as places where grief and lament can be expressed and responded to in a broader and deeper context of God's love and concern.

Ideally, the church responds to college student distress by teaching and modeling the gospel of forgiveness and grace, when and where needed, allowing the pain of brokenness to bring young adults to search out a strength and understanding rarely presented in the classroom. Faith and eternal truths don't come in a pill bottle and aren't always swallowed easily, but they are life-saving and everlasting.