New study suggests religion is good for youth mental health; Expert reveals how churches can do better

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Results of a new large-scale study by the Springtide Research Institute have seemingly confirmed decades of previous research pointing to a positive relationship between religion, spirituality and mental health.

And Josh Packard, the organization's executive director, has suggested ways churches can ensure they remain relevant institutions for the younger generation as physical church attendance dwindles.

The study, The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health–What Faith Leaders Need to Know, released during "A Conference on Gen Z, Mental Health & Religion" on Wednesday, reflects a survey of nearly 10,000 young people ages 13-25 about their beliefs, practices, behaviors, relationships and mental health.

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The study found that during the pandemic years, most (53%) of the respondents reported that mental health was their biggest challenge. Only 34% of them reported being comfortable talking about their struggle with adults.

Some 57% said new spiritual practices helped them endure the pandemic and more than half (51%) said they turned to prayer. Others turned to activities like reading, yoga, the arts or being in nature.

The study found that while religion and spirituality "can be strong antidotes to much of what contributes to mental-health struggles among young people" and that "people who are religious are better off mentally and emotionally," only 35% of the respondents said they are connected to a religious community. 

Respondents connected to a religious community were found to be more likely to say they are "flourishing a lot" in their mental and emotional well-being (29%) than those not connected to a religious community (20%).

Respondents who say they are "very religious" were more likely to report that they are "flourishing a lot" (40%) compared to those who say they are not religious (17%). Respondents who are "not religious" were more than twice as likely to say they are "not flourishing" (44%) than "very religious" respondents.  

While the study indicates that religion can have a positive impact on mental health, Packard notes in the report that "solutions to mental-health struggles are more complicated than just 'give young people more religion'" as about 20% of "very religious" respondents report they are "not flourishing." 

"The reality is that without addressing mental-health issues, a young person who is mentally and emotionally unwell won’t be able to really engage with or understand the depth,
beauty, power, awe, and love that can come with religion and spirituality," Packard wrote. "As Jeff Neel, the Executive Director of Northern Colorado Youth for Christ, puts it, 'Young people
have to heal and belong before they can hear and believe.'"

When asked how churches could be more mental-health positive, Packard told The Christian Post that churches must first get more involved in the general conversation about mental health.

"There is a step zero before you start digging into that, which is that a lot of religious leaders and organizations sort of opt out of this conversation because it makes the older [generations uncomfortable]. There is more of a stigma around mental health for people my age, for example, than there are for 15 and 16-year-olds," Packard said.

"A lot of times, churches might not think that this is their thing to do. I'm not sure that rabbis are running around the country thinking my job here is to support the mental health of young Jews. … Increasingly, the more that we can see that as part of the work that we do and see really faith as instrumental in that work is really, it's going to be important for young people."

"One of the things that comes through so clearly, which is I think a lot of people are astonished by this, whether its academic research or the big report that Gallup just released or even our own data about flourishing, is that religious young people are better off," he continued. "They're simply better off in all aspects of their life than their non-religious or even less religious peers, including their mental health."

Packard said young people need to see faith as a "resource for solving the biggest challenges in their lives."

"And if they see faith as disconnected from that, they're just going to be less likely to engage," he stressed. 

"Acknowledging that there is a real role to play and this is not parallel at best alongside your real mission. This is actually a part of the sort or real mission for existing in the world especially when it comes to engaging young people."

Packard said the evidence showing a positive relationship between mental health, religion and spirituality is "pretty overwhelming."

"It's not just [religious youth are] doing a little bit better. They are doing significantly better," he said.

The Springtide leader suggested that churches can focus more on bringing the Gospel to young people instead of waiting for them to come into the walls of their church community to connect.

"If we were to draw some lines, I want to be really careful. The things that worked to lead to those data outcomes currently might not be the things that will work for this generation. In the past, what mosques, synagogues, churches have done really well is connect you to a real physical in-real-life community in this neighborhood, in this part of the city that knows you well. And that's still really, really critical work," he said.

"We might need to move that a little bit outside of that space. One of the things that has shifted in our society over the last 50 years is the level at which people trust institutions of all kinds, not just religious institutions."

Packard contends the "idea of building a community for a young person to walk into is just not going to have the same impact that it might have once had because not only young people but their parents are just less likely to trust those institutions to do that kind of work."

"And so we're going to have to do some more sort of like moving forward with this generation to have that same kind of impact and effect, we're going to have to do some sort of outside of the walls," he argued.

"I'm using walls here kind of metaphorically. … There are lots of Christian campus ministries, for example, who, I don't know if they have offices or they're just working outside of their house. Maybe they spend their entire time in coffee shops or out in public with young people, and so we start to see the engagement that places like that get, we start to see some of the pathways forward to retain the positive effect that religion has."

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