Sheri Dew: A link we cannot afford to ignore — faith, youth and mental health

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News
Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

You have likely seen the data flowing out of recent studies — one right after another — from universities, institutes, think tanks and health agencies who keep delivering the sobering news that the mental health of Gen Z is in shambles. Mounting evidence of increasing anxiety, depression, body-shaming, bullying and suicide among youth and adults under 30 is, to say the least, sobering.

At the same time, we’ve seen one study after another confirm that an increasing number of people say they have no religious affiliation or, for that matter, any interest in having one. Just last week, a new AP-NORC poll reported that “the rise of nonbelievers and people with no religious affiliation is diminishing (religion’s) influence.”

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This report added that “the shift away from religion is even starker among younger adults, with 43% of 18- to 29-year-old Americans responding ‘none,’ when asked which religion they follow.” That’s a dramatic increase of “nones” as compared with those over 60, of which fewer than 20% reported no religious attachment.

Hmm. I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or mental health professional. But like you, I am watching what is happening around me in society. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to wonder if there is a correlation between decreasing faith in our youth and the dramatic increase in the numbers of those experiencing mental health challenges.

I am not in any way suggesting that faith and prayer and religion solve all mental health problems. But I have experienced enough anxiety myself to know firsthand how sweet the balm of faith in God can be during times of stress.

Thankfully, this question was explored on Oct. 9 at the Wellbeing Forum in London. Hosted at the international headquarters of Gallup, the Diplomatic Courier, Gallup and the company I work for, Deseret Management Corp., partnered in producing two new sets of data. One was a first-of-its-kind study by Gallup that shows a direct corollary between spiritual practice and more positive mental health. The second analyzed Generation Z’s online spiritual practices.

Here are a few tidbits from the studies discussed at the Wellbeing Forum:

  • Gen Z embraces mental health, and though many in that generation say they have no interest in religion, they do acknowledge that “spiritual self-care” should be part of their daily routine.

  • Those who included prayer and other spiritual activities in their lives reported better sleep and lower anxiety scores.

  • More than half of Gen Z participating in these studies said they were actually looking for spiritual content, especially online.

While it was encouraging to see people at London’s Wellbeing Forum take on these issues, it is just the beginning. These issues are too important to be ignored. Anything that can help alleviate suffering of a generation should be on the table — including ways to help them reach religion and vice versa. The linkage between religion, faith and mental health for youth and young adults merits serious and thoughtful exploration. The media, educators, technology companies and religious communities alike should jump into this discussion with full force.

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For followers of Jesus Christ, as I am, this linkage seems crystal clear. The Savior’s words uttered more than two thousand years ago have never been more timely: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you,” He said. “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

Those of us who have experienced the power of the Savior’s words for ourselves need to speak up about it.

I can’t imagine attempting to negotiate the emotional rigors of life without knowing there is a God and that I can talk to Him through prayer. I can’t imagine not being able to ask Him for help, for courage, and for strength greater than my own.

But too many of our youth don’t know that these very spiritual privileges even exist. And because many of their families have moved away from organized religion, some of them don’t even know where to look for it. It seems to me that it is up to those of us who have gone before them, and who have experienced for ourselves the peace and strength that faith and religion can bring, to help turn this tide.

Earlier this spring, several of my colleagues and I had the privilege of participating with media, business and humanitarian leaders at a gathering hosted by the Pontifical Academy at the Vatican in Rome. All participants were people of faith, most of them Catholics. Though my colleagues and I are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we had no problem finding common ground — and lots of it — with our Catholic hosts. It was easy for each of us to speak openly about the crucial, undergirding role that faith plays in our lives.

If those of us who believe in God’s power and His willingness to help us don’t speak up about it, who will? How will younger generations realize that they, too, can cultivate a relationship with the Divine? How will Gen Z come to realize that the Ultimate Influencer isn’t a celebrity or a political candidate but God Himself, who cares deeply about His children and stands ready to help each of us?

It is time to energetically encourage an entire generation to explore the power of a spiritual connection with heaven. Not only could it help them feel better about themselves and their lives, but it might build a stronger foundation for the mental health of generations to come.

Sheri Dew is the executive vice president and chief content officer of Deseret Management Corp., the parent company of the Deseret News.