There’s a picture I keep in my dresser drawer that elicits tears every time I look at it. Cardboard columns and twisted crepe paper make up the background. The camera is focused on four middle school girls wearing wrist corsages and hot-rolled hair.
I’m the one wearing a blue flowered dress and white slingbacks. I look like I’m playing dress up, because, of course, I was. The year was 1993. It was my first junior high dance.
I had been raised in and out of the church (mostly in), but did not yet understand the gospel or know Jesus personally. That means I was navigating puberty without the Holy Spirit. It was the worst kind of combination. My parents had divorced three years earlier, and I simply couldn’t stop my heart from hemorrhaging. Add in middle school drama (the worst!) and some first-born achievement hangups, and the result was a girl who checked all the boxes: good student, good athlete, good daughter, good friend—and yet, I had no idea who I was.
But God (and others he strategically put in my life). God sought and saved me. He saw the fatherless, fearful girl and adopted me as his own. Then, he gave me the church, full of other orphans willing to tuck me under their wings. And he did it, at first, through two of my friends (more on them in a moment).
A different kind of ending
While you’re still picturing that awkward 13-year-old me, I’d like you to consider another girl. Her name is Alexandra Valoras. She ended her own life at the age of 17 last fall. Though her story is certainly jarring, my goal isn’t shock and awe. Instead, I need us to look reality in the eye when it comes to young women and refuse to blink for a moment. When she made her bed and walked to a highway overpass to end her own life, she became a poster child for a real-deal crisis happening right now among the young women you know.
I dearly love young women and consider it a calling on my life to disciple them intentionally. Through dozens of conversations in coffee shops, I’ve noticed a trend. We’re not talking about boys anymore. Somewhere along the line, the anty got upped. Young women talk to me frequently about their declining mental health. They describe debilitating anxiety. More than one has confided that she often struggles to function. One college-aged woman shared that she is in counseling for the effects of PTSD. (Her words, not mine.) I see a pervasive paralysis among them.
Young people are not the “future of the church.” They are the church. Right now. And these trends should put us on high alert:
- Teen suicide is now at a 40-year high for young women.
- It is now the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds of both sexes.
- Anxiety disorders affect 25.1 percent of children between the ages of 13 and 18. Yes, you read that number right. It’s more than one in four.
- Psychological distress in women age 16-24 is at an all-time high, with record numbers admitting to harming themselves to relieve their distress.
The reasons why a 17-year-old honor student from a happy home would choose to end her own life are complicated. I wouldn’t dare try to trace that thread back to the spool in a single blog post, but the stakes are too high not to ask: What can we know and do?
The enemy hates young women
In Genesis 3, we see the serpent slither up to young Eve, hellbent on deception. His attack on young women hasn’t stopped since.
I can tell you from personal experience and from years of discipleship, that if the enemy can deceive a woman in her teen years, he wins a great victory. It is during those years that her thoughts on marriage and home and family and ministry are formed. Even if she simply spends a few years wandering from the Truth, there are often disastrous consequences that last a lifetime.
Teen angst may be normalized, but we are wise to ask ourselves, should it be? Was it really God’s plan that the hormones that are an inevitable part of growing up result in depression, anxiety and hostility? Should we continue to downplay young women’s (and men’s) collective struggles as “just a phase”? Or, instead, can we take up arms against the enemy who is coming at the Body of Christ by picking on our youngest members?
Let’s look at the messages that are trickling down and identify where there are toxins. Specifically, I see three alternate gospels that are strangling young women.
1. The gospel of performance
After Alexandra jumped, her family found her journals filled with pages and pages of despair. One entry stands out to me, “I am stretched too thin.”