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The Battle for the Minds of Boys

Friday, April 12, 2024 @ 08:23 AM The Battle for the Minds of Boys Jordan Chamblee Stand Writer MORE

In recent years, teenage and young adult males have increasingly struggled with mental health issues, causing growing concern among parents and mental health experts. According to an article published in March 2018 by the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Adolescent and young adult men do poorly on indicators of mental health evidenced by elevated rates of suicide, conduct disorder, substance use, and interpersonal violence relative to their female peers.”

A major roadblock highlighted in the article is that teenage boys often feel unable or unwilling to access health care, stemming from feelings of stigma and reluctance to show vulnerability. At the same time, parents feel at a loss about how to guide their sons through this critical phase fraught with risk. As teenage boys transition into manhood, their disconnect from care, paired with surging mental health challenges, leaves them navigating a perilous passage.

Boys and suicide

Dr. Jessica Peck is a pediatric nurse practitioner and professor who also hosts a show on American Family Radio. On The Dr. Nurse Mama Show, Peck provides biblical and holistic health perspectives to help families work through issues today’s teens face.

In an interview with The Stand, Peck noted that suicide is becoming more prevalent among young people.

“We’re seeing a mental health crisis in both boys and girls, but I think boys can sometimes be overlooked,” she explained. “Girls may be more open to talking about feelings, while boys keep things bottled up longer before seeking help.

“We’re seeing a suicide crisis,” she added. “Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people now. While girls attempt it more often, boys tend to use more lethal means, which is very worrying. About a quarter of kids who attempt suicide decide just five minutes before acting. So if suicidal boys have access to lethal means, those thoughts can turn into actions so quickly that it’s extremely hard to intervene.”

Peck believes that boys are specifically more vulnerable because, though risk-taking is common among all teens, boys tend to be naturally more aggressive. And with access to lethal means like firearms, an impulsive decision can have irreversible consequences.

The dangers of social media

Peck illustrated how the risk-taking behaviors of young men can land them in other dangerous situations.

“There was a boy raised in a Christian family,” she recounted. “He started sexting online with who he thought was a teenage girl. But it turned out to be an extortionist practicing something called ‘sextortion.’ (See related story HERE.)I’m seeing this more often. … Predators posing as girls to seek out boys online and manipulate them into tempting situations. When the boys don’t give them money or comply with demands, the predators threaten them or their families. This leaves these boys feeling desperate, anxious, depressed, even suicidal.”

Social media plays a powerful role in shaping the mental state of young men who actively use it, introducing struggles that are typically attributed to girls.

“I have a particular concern about a trend called ‘looksmaxxing’ that seems to be impacting boys,” Peck said. “Boys are looking online for ways to enhance their appearance to look stronger and more masculine. This can lead to disordered eating. Boys are often overlooked here. When you think of anorexia, you typically think of girls. But we’re seeing an increase in boys as well, because when things feel out of control, one of the easiest and most accessible things for kids to control is what they eat.”

Warning signs and prevention

The private nature of these struggles can be frightening. When asked what warning signs parents should look for, Peck emphasized that sometimes there are no clear warning signs at all.

“If you’re not proactively having open conversations about difficult issues, kids may keep secrets – not with ill intent, but because they don’t know how to broach the subjects or if it’s OK to talk about them,” she explained. “They really care what their parents think, so they may be scared to bring up certain things.

“Usually, parents can recognize when something is off,” she continued. “You know your child best. But rather than waiting until psychological distress turns into physical symptoms, ask questions, and leverage your support network – a teacher, pastor, counselor – to open communication channels. Early intervention is much better than waiting until after harm occurs.”

Can the church do better?

Churches and Christian communities have an opportunity to make a real difference in supporting the mental health of boys and young men. However, Peck notes that this kind of support is often lacking.

“I think there’s even more stigma for anxious or depressed boys than for girls in the Christian community because it contradicts the messaging for boys to be strong leaders. There’s a tendency to over-spiritualize mental health – attributing struggles to sin issues while ignoring real psychological issues,” she said. “While spiritual health is critical, it’s only part of the picture. Saying ‘pray more’ or ‘the Bible says not to worry’ can lead to a crisis of faith, making kids feel their spirituality should be enough to overcome issues that may involve real trauma.”

Sometimes these mental health struggles can be met with disregard or even shame.

“Just last week,” continued Peck, “I interviewed a girl who self-harmed, disclosed it to her youth pastor, and was basically shunned from the youth group when she needed support most. Her struggle was dismissed as a sin issue, and she was shut out. We can’t address any of this exclusively on the spiritual plane. These matters are far more complex than that. Kids need a team of coordinated support across mental, spiritual, and physical health, with parents empowered to guide care. We have to look at the whole person.”

Paying the price 

 If the mental health crisis facing boys and young men continues unabated, there will be a price to pay, and the consequences are dire, according to Peck.

“Satan is actively working to steal, kill, and destroy our young people. That’s exactly what we’re seeing happen,” she said. “As a Christian culture, we’re good at defensive strategies, like protecting kids from negative worldly influences. That’s important, but we must face the realities of living in an instantly connected 21st-century world. Even kids without smartphones are exposed to content spread digitally by their peers.”

Christian parents who want to protect the mental health of their boys must take a proactive, rather than reactive, stance.

“Beyond fighting against culture,” concluded Peck, “we desperately need an offensive strategy to fight for the hearts of our boys, which society largely ignores. Nothing can replace a parent’s love and approval that children inherently long for from God’s design. We must leverage that advantage and relationship.”

(Editor's Note: This article was published first in the April 2024 print edition of The Stand. To receive a free six month subscription to The Stand magazine click HERE.)

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