Religion and spirituality may contribute to youth mental health crisis

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(RNS) — It’s no secret that American youth are in crisis.

Born into a technology-saturated world rocked by homegrown terrorism, ecological devastation, and economic instability, Gen-Zers are more likely to report mental health issues like anxiety and depression than older generations. In many ways, the pandemic has thrust mental health discourse into the limelight, prompting the US Surgeon General to issue a advisory last December on the “devastating” impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of young people.

A new study on 13-25 year olds, from Springtide Research Institutesuggests that spirituality could be part of the remedy — although for some young people it is also contributing to the problem.

“I think religion…is a place of belonging. It’s a place to connect with a higher purpose, which is a call from God in my understanding,” said Mark, 22, an interviewee cited in the report. “I think it’s also, for a lot of people, a restriction of freedom and a kind of obligation, which creates a lot of shame in people’s lives.”

Overall, the report – which is based on qualitative interviews as well as field surveys – finds that religious/spiritual beliefs, identities, practices and communities are all correlated with better mental well-being among young people.

A majority of all young people (57%) and almost three-quarters of religious young people (73%) surveyed agree that their religious or spiritual practices have a positive impact on their mental health. Many participants cite prayer as playing a role in their spiritual practice – 51% said they started praying regularly during the pandemic – and 74% of participants who pray daily say they are thriving, compared to 57% who do not pray. never.

“How often do you engage in the following activities as religious or spiritual practices?” Graphic courtesy of Springtide Research

Spiritual beliefs and community identity are also correlated with positive mental health. Seventy-four percent of youth who identify as “very religious” agree or strongly agree that they are “physically and emotionally fit,” compared to 42% of non-religious youth. Seven in 10 (70%) young people currently connected to a spiritual or religious community say they have “discovered a satisfying life purpose”, compared to 55% of those who were connected to such a community.

Forty-two percent of those who feel strongly connected to a higher power say they “find themselves a lot” in their emotional and mental health, compared to 16% of those who say they don’t feel connected to a power at all. superior.

Yet the results are complex – 27% of young people affiliated with a religion say they “find themselves a lot”, but 28% also say they don’t “find them not”, a finding which suggests that the simple fact being affiliated with a religion is not a cure for sanity- everything.

During the interviews, participants also talked about how religion can negatively impact their mental health.

“(Young people) clearly say that religion is toxic when it is presented primarily as a pressure to meet difficult expectations, rather than a means to help them overcome their current difficulties,” the report said.

Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay/Creative Commons

Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay/Creative Commons

During a virtual press conference on Wednesday, October 19, Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide, noted that it can be difficult to predict which religious environments will harm mental health more than they help.

“Anything at the extremes isn’t very good for you,” Packard said, “but I don’t think extremism should be objectively fixed on a bottom-up continuum.” He noted how, for a non-binary person, for example, a traditional church or synagogue that doesn’t welcome their identity can seem extreme.

The report’s findings come from a survey of nearly 10,000 young Americans between the ages of 13 and 25 conducted between November 2021 and March 2022 and contain a margin of error of plus or minus 3%. The report also includes qualitative data from interviews with over 100 young people.


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The report suggests three ways for organizations to effectively address youth mental health: fostering belonging, providing practical tools to meet expectations, and developing a sense of purpose in youth. It also includes practical advice for religious leaders.

“Leading with this message of unconditional love does not have to be a dilution of other parts of a tradition,” the report states. It also encourages leaders to lean into uncertainty. “(C)seeking answers and pondering mystery can be sacred pursuits for young people as they grapple with some of life’s greatest questions.”

“Feeling connected to a higher power correlates with greater self-reported fulfillment in mental and emotional health.” Graphic courtesy of Springtide Research

At the same time, the report recognizes that young people are not flocking to religious institutions. Instead, many have a more fluid approach to spirituality – 62% of young people agree that “there are parts of many religions/spiritualities that I agree with”, according to the report, and 48% agree that they could “fit into many different religions”. religions/spiritualities.

“One of the things that has changed in our society over the past 50 years is the level at which people trust institutions of all kinds, not just religious institutions,” Packard said. Given this, faith communities may need to innovate in how they connect with young people, according to Packard.

He made reference A tablea nonprofit that encourages young people to hold in-person Shabbat dinners, as well as campus Christian ministries that meet in cafes, as examples of groups supporting young people “outside the walls” of traditional religion .

Even as the form of religion evolves, Packard says faith and spirituality will remain crucial tools for young people in the future.

“Theology matters…your purpose on earth is something that only this segment of the population has cornered.”


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