We live in an age of unprecedented mental anguish. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse have reached epidemic proportions globally. In 2017, 66.6 million Americans – more than half of the respondents on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health – reported binge drinking within the past month, and 20 million met the criteria for a substance use disorder. Thirty-one percent of American adults will develop a full-blown anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and 19 percent in any given year. The World Health Organization reports that 264 million people on the planet are depressed; depression is the third most costly disability worldwide. Each year, 17 million American adults are depressed. Over 16 percent of youth in late adolescence currently face depression, and the impact of depression on suicide accounts for the second leading cause of death in adolescents, rivaled only by death by auto accident.
At Columbia University, where I teach, eight students died by suicide in 2016-1017. A study of more than 67,000 college students across 108 institutions in the United States published in 2019 found that 20 percent reported that they had engaged in self-harm such as cutting, 24 percent reported suicidal ideation, and 9 percent had attempted suicide.
While the stakes of our mental health crisis are truly life and death, many of us also suffer from less debilitating, though still painful conditions; burnout and chronic stress; trouble concentrating and connecting; loneliness and isolation; lives that are rich in many ways yet feel somehow narrow, hollow, and cut off. Even when we experience success and satisfaction, we may sense that there’s more to happiness – that life could be more joyful, rewarding, and meaningful.
From “The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life” by Lisa Miller, PhD