His name was Jonathan; hardly the picture of depression. He looked like a mini-Justin Bieber – complete with stylish threads and a straight brim cap. As we stood at the back of the school assembly, his hands shook as he told me the story of family abuse and broken relationships that led him to cutting. With his sleeves rolled up, I could see his scars were still fresh.
Cutting is a form of self-mutilation, rampant among America's youth. With sharp objects like pencils or razor blades, "cutters" inflict self-harm, commonly on their arms and legs, to evoke an outward pain that gives expression to their inward torment. Often, cutting coincides with suicidal thoughts and is a precursor to ending one’s life.
As Jonathan shared his story, my heart broke – he was full of potential but already beaten down by the world.
This was the first time we had met; yet somehow the message I had given on stage that night made him feel "safe." With tears in his eyes, he pulled a razor blade out of his wallet and asked if I would take it. He told me he didn't want to live in the dark any longer. He handed me his razor and for him there was a release, he was no longer a prisoner to his own physical and mental anguish.
Since January, I have spoken with over 750,000 American teens and young adults. As someone who works closely with this generation, I commonly get the question, "What is happening with today's youth, and how can I help?"
Among the many trends millennials face, I am most overwhelmed by the cutting epidemic that is growing exponentially. In the U.S., it's estimated that one in every 200 girls between 13 and 19 years old, or one-half of one percent, cut themselves regularly, according to TeenHelp.com. And, according to Scott Counseling, 40 percent of all individuals who commit self-injury are males. The youth of our nation are hurting from the inside out.
Cutting is not the only issues young people face; about 33 percent have been diagnosed with clinical depression, and are searching for anything to distract them from the pain. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among ages 15 to 24, and about 60 percent of young people have experimented with illicit drugs. Today’s youth are literally crying out from the grave.
While previous generations chose to mask pain with varying vices, today's youth desire an outward way of voicing what's happening inside. These inward struggles are more complex and accelerated than any generation before. Like the "Rolling Stones" generation before them, millennials "can't get no satisfaction" and through the advancement of social media, horrific "remedies” like cutting spread underground just as quick as the latest Tebow or Bieber Fever.
Contrary to popular perception, today's youth want to interact with adults and parents. While they may not show their excitement outwardly – certainly the slouched shoulders and rolled eyes don't help – young people regularly come to me with a deep hunger for a mentor and role model.
As I look into the eyes of those with varying styles, numerous addictions and criminal records I am consistently overwhelmed with the thought, "these are good kids; they just haven’t had strong role models or consistent parent interaction.
While I do not claim to be the expert on each personal situation, I have witnessed ways adults have changed the lives of young people who were headed down a dangerous path, by getting involved. I encourage you to listen to popular radio, stay current with movie trends and iTunes charts, and learn about Facebook; these are the messages millennials constantly consume. Knowing the world your child lives in makes them feel understood.
In order for this generation to let their guard down, they need to feel safe. We must love and accept them unconditionally. If they feel a hint of judgment or a condescending tone, it's game over. Your love and acceptance will pave the way for you to be viewed as the person who can help. You may not feel it at first, but your presence and willingness to listen will speak volumes.
Don’t give up; like any battle worth fighting, the one for our youth will not be won quickly. The most significant thing we can do for our young people is to be consistent – always show up. No matter how they respond, your presence will win them over. It may be that you don’t get through to them in the way you imagine, but I guarantee the seeds you are planting will bear fruit over time.
Most importantly, pray for this generation. Pray daily for God to heal our youth. The battle they are fighting is unlike any previous generations have experienced. I think it's safe to say this is a "God-sized" need. Let's turn to God.
Nick Hall is an evangelist and the founder of PULSE, the prayer and evangelism movement behind UNITE—the nation’s largest millennial-led National Day of Prayer event, held annually in Minneapolis.