|A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength. Proverbs 17:22|
I am increasingly concerned about the trends of the next generation. Social media are causing isolation; isolation can lead to depression, or worse. Suicide rates are sky-high.
This is a topic that is near and dear to me. I use the term “burnout”. It is a generic term indicating a level of dysfunction which can often have many symptoms, including depression, increased substance abuse and isolation.
At one level, it describes an emotional state where a person ceases to function in a normal way, often to the extent of total incapacity. I had coffee with one of my close friends, Robert Boone, yesterday. In the course of talking about my blog, he asked me if I had written about my own burnout experience, and I said no. He said: “You should.” So here goes.
Although this happened over 25 years ago, I remember it well. It’s not something that you forget. I had been functioning reasonably well in my law practice. But outside of my career, I was having to daily deal with financial reverses of 27 real estate investments caused by the recession in the early 1990’s. The result: I really got no rest or time to fill my emotional tank.
I normally attend a bible study on Friday mornings. One Friday morning, however, I went into my office early instead of going to my beloved bible study. I sat down at my desk, and it took several minutes before I realized that I was almost paralyzed.
Somehow, after a couple of attempts, I was able to dial my wife and all I could say was “come get me”. I was unable to drive myself home or do anything else for that matter.
While I couldn’t pinpoint my malaise, it was obvious (to me and everyone else) that I was totally dysfunctional, and even incapacitated. It angered me at first. I couldn’t believe that a person who made a living helping clients make multi-million dollar decisions could not even have the presence of mind to drive home.
Because I appeared to be functioning normally to others, no one noticed. Let me repeat that: no one knew I was crashing before it happened. Not my wife, not my close friends, not my colleagues or even my secretary at my office. While I saw some of the symptoms, even I didn’t see my crash coming.
I felt in control. Until I wasn’t. Most things were going well, work, marriage, exercise, and I maintained good spiritual habits. At my worst, I even had suicidal thoughts, which scared me. My wife was supportive, but didn’t really know how incapacitated I was.
One conversation lingers during my recovery: She told me “You are acting depressed. Get over it!” Yeh, sure. Not that easy. It took over 6 months for me to recover with her help, and the help of my close friends who literally carried me through those dark times.
Why is this topic important? Well, the next generation is suffering high levels of loneliness, depression and suicide rates have skyrocketed in this age group. And sadly, most around them don’t notice the symptoms until it is too late. Sixteen percent of the next generation have suffered digital bullying which can be crushing at any age.
A recent British study showed an increasingly lonely and lost generation, who had lots of “friends” on social media platforms, but few if any real relationships. They noted that more people live alone than in any time of our entire social history. The average digital usage of the millennial approaches over 6 hours a day. “Many who were interviewed [in the study] view work as something that they fit in between Facebook and lunch.”
I recently consoled the leader of Young Life over the suicide of a high school student who had been involved in YL. He was distraught that he hadn’t seen it coming and intervened. What makes it particularly difficult is that social media has caused interpersonal interaction to decline, making it even harder to detect if a person is suffering depression or having suicidal thoughts.
A couple of observations. First, depression is really a chemical issue. Its causes are often due to stress (often perceived stress). Over time, the body stops or slows down its production of serotonin which is the body’s natural antidote. Once started, depression is a vicious downward spiral where the individual pulls back from normal contact with others. The isolation increases, and the spiral gets deeper.
For clarification, stress can be caused by events in life over which we have no control. You cannot control the loss of a friend or family member. An old test going back 50 years is the Holmes-Rhea test, which assigns points to events of life, and the cumulative effect of getting over 200 points on their scale in a year means that you are in the “red zone” and need to be watchful for your coping mechanisms.
Warning signs that I missed included the inability to make simple social decisions. A friend called and wanted to have dinner, and I was unable to process his request. I’ve learned since that your brain protects you from yourself, often shutting down the synapses because you are “overloaded”. It may be episodic, as it was in my case. I could function in one arena, but not another.
- Inability to concentrate
- Weight gain or loss without diet
- Excessive anxiety, worry or guilt
- Persistent fatigue (often sleep becomes difficult)
- Difficulty in making decisions
- Isolation from others
- Increased anger, frustration or hostility to others
- Lack of enjoyment
- Hunger for sweets
Most depression can be ameliorated by pharmacology – there are many different drugs that help, and basically all they do is supply a level of serotonin that the body is not producing. I won’t say that they are miracles drugs, but the can and do work, and they worked for me. To this day, I still take a small dose of a generic to supplement my serotonin. My wife jokingly calls them “happy” pills, although they don’t make me happy, per se.
In the past 25 years, I have met with several dozens of people who have burned out or are suffering depression. I even wrote an essay on it titled: A Consumer’s Guide to Burnout, or All Stressed Out but No One to Blame. It is available to all (see below).
Most causes of burnout are self-inflicted. That’s the good news. Depression can be chemically helped as noted above, and some life-style changes may be needed to return to normal. Getting exercise or taking real restful vacations, for example
I found, for example, that while I was recuperating, my wife and I had to limit our sphere of friends to those whose presence was uplifting and energizing. You know who they are in your life. The people we avoided were ones that drained our energy.
I also had to learn to take a real vacation – one where I was able to get away from it all and permit my emotional batteries to recharge. Many hard charging people skip vacations.
The challenge here is to promote a heightened awareness of burnout and depression in the next generation. The symptoms are subtle, sometimes, but they are noticeable. The one that bothers me the most is isolation which in this day and time is a product of digital media. It was not a factor 25 years ago, but it is today.
MENTOR TAKEAWAY: Mentors need to see that the next generation is highly susceptible to depression. Be educated on what to look for, and reach out to help them find solutions.
RESOURCES: I am happy to provide my Consumers Guide to Burnout to anyone that emails me at my email below. I estimate that I have given over 500 copies away over the past 25 years. It includes the Holmes-Rahe test as an appendix.
An article on the impact of smartphones titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” in the Atlantic Monthly can be found at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
WORSHIP: Listen to Tommy Walker sing “I Have a Hope”. Tommy Walker – I Have A Hope – YouTube
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