Referentialism and Teen Depression and Suicide

This is Part 4 of a series on the subject of Teen Depression and Suicide. The impetus was an opportunity to speak at a recent workshop on the subject in the context of the “religious.” I spoke at a similar event last year and was graciously invited back. The audience was not necessarily Christian or religious. But the planners determined the need to include a “religious” perspective. You may read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

Slavo Zizek considers an over-identification with an ideology, or particular position, to create an episodic irruption of the real. The event exposes the antagonisms that lie beneath the ideological explanation. (My friend Guy may have to help clarify my assertion about Zizek as I am importing a discussion of Zizek’s ideas from a recent book by David Fitch as well as my reading of Zizek’s little book, Dessert of the Real.)

You could say that in the post-Freudian feminist psychologists you sense a reaction to the Freudian over-identification of the female with the male in terms of alleged stages of development – moral and social. (I am a hack at this, but it makes sense after reading Carol Gilligan‘s In A Different Voice at the encouragement of my friend Sally Morgenthaler.)

Freud’s control group, comprised only of males, formed the nexus for his speculative theories turned developmental guidelines for pre-adolescents and adolescents. The conclusions drawn from observing young boys was then universalized for all children, encompassing the female into the male experience. Over time there were irruptions of the real, to borrow Zizek’s terminology, where the over-identification of females with males revealed a latent antagonism. Boys and girls develop along moral/ethical/social lines in different ways and at differing points along the way.

Gilligan and others determined to “see for themselves'” if Freud or Kohlberg could be supported or undermined by observing a different control group. The results are described in In a Different Voice. (I have not looked close enough, but the sociological study turned Guyland may well illustrate the ways the attempts to hold on to the former ideologies affected female adolescents continuing to rob them of their voice.)

I dubbed this part of my talk on the subject of teen depression and suicide “referentialism.” Conversations or arguments stemming from the wranglings over moral/ethical/social development models/stages tend to offer an adolescent an identity only in so far as they are connected to a “referent.”

The point here is beyond a persons’s particular context. The social structures surrounding young people are surely formative. But, here the point is that a referential framework makes it harder for a young person not to be a widget in the image of the referent. In this case, and for the example, the dominant referent for a young girl is a young boy.

This thought occurred to me after reading Godin’s Linchpin wherein he remarks that the industrialization experienced in the United States and other Western Countries runs the great risk of people being trained to be widgets rather than encouraged to express and experience their own longings to see the world function for the better. Thus, he calls on the “linchpins” to lead into new ways and places across our cultural spectrum.

The matter tends to our understanding of personhood. And, for the Christian this rests with the assertion human beings are made in the image of God. But, tying development to a referent tends to create the young girl into the image of the young boy (referent) to which they are tied.

The development of personhood then becomes mired in the need to extricate oneself from the framework provided by the given “referent.” When an adolescent girl is not given space to become her own person depression may not be far behind. That is not to say parents or communities practice a hands-off laissez faire approach to their children. But, instead as something of a atmospheric architect may provide space for social interactions within the designed edifice, communities may help alleviate the depression move among teens by creating space to develop her personhood beyond the referent. In this case, simply, girls need to be given space to develop as girls rather than as something less than boys. Or, put a different way, girls need atmospheric conditions for the peculiarities of their own moral/social/ethical development that take in their very different social ways – different than boys. Thus, Gilligan’s “different voice.”

For we who are Christian, we want to point to the “imago dei” and what real humanity looks like in Jesus. Our tendency is to create structures that contain our images in a self-perpetuating game of making of our children widgets for the system.

I realize this creates quite the range of questions. Ask away. I also understand the limitations of this description. Critique away. But, should someone happen on to this series and suspect I could have been more hard charging with Christian themes, that was not the nature of the conference or in keeping with the spirit of the invitation.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.