The Times is reporting that Childline, the child counselling service, says there has been an almost 90 per cent increase in calls from young people compared with three years ago, many of whom are depressed and suicidal.
A staggering five children a day calling Childline in Scotland are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Most of those asking for help are teenagers but Childline also saw an 87 per cent rise since 2015-16 in under-11s seeking help over suicidal thoughts.
Callers expressed concerns about mental health, a desire to self-harm, problems in family relationships and issues at their schools and colleges. Some of those feelings are exacerbated by children’s online experiences, especially exchanges on social media.
Many of these suicidal children and young people do not have the support structures of family, friends and people in authority to navigate the challenges of growing up in a complex world. Many of them just want someone to talk to.
The issue is no doubt made worse by a lack of capacity in child mental healthcare services. NHS data suggests that almost 600 children have been on a waiting list for an appointment with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for a year or longer.
These statistics are supported by anecdotal evidence that many children today are unhappy. We might blame our culture, or social media, or the NHS, but as Christians our first response should be one of compassion. Each of these calls to Childline represents someone who, though still very young, is deeply unhappy and unsure whether life is worth living. We should pray that they find help and hope.
As churches we want to be a safe place where children can feel valued and able to speak freely. Christian parents should want to understand and talk to our children about the challenges they face. With God’s help we want to build strong and secure families, where loving communication is at the heart of how we interact.
For many children their main experience of community is online, and it is not safe place. We cannot entirely shield our children from the dangers, but we must do more to control and monitor these digital influences – the ideologies that seek to draw our children in and the potential for harmful friendships to develop. We cannot sub-contract this role to the internet or social media providers, the government or our youth leaders. This is our job as parents.
How have we come to this? What lies behind these shocking statistics of childhood unhappiness? In part, it is down to the decline of the family and community. This, in turn, has been affected by:
Sexual freedom – in which commitment is always partial and never permanent – essentially makes for vast numbers of broken families. This reinforces childhood insecurity and guilt.
Hands-off parenting – children are encouraged to ‘discover themselves’ without any natural boundaries. This creates a kind of slavery to feelings that is anything but real freedom.
Secular ideology – it teaches that we are just insignificant blobs in a massive, meaningless universe. Children thus grow up with no sense of purpose or dignity.
How do we challenge this trend in childhood misery? We must support our children with strong family and community networks. But ultimately, we want to tell them that real meaning and hope come through being who we are in Christ.
It is in him that we discover unconditional love and unfailing commitment, countering the brokenness of so much family life.
It is in him that we are taught boundaries that are for our flourishing and security, saving us from the tyranny of our feelings and obsessions.
And it is in him that we are brought into a relationship with the Maker of heaven and earth, our Creator, our Father – the one who gives meaning and dignity to our lives, both young and old.