Perspective: College students are struggling with mental health. More access to religion can help them
It’s no coincidence that Gen Z has the highest level of mental health issues and the lowest level of religiosity
When the first of Generation Z graduated from high school, the universities they were to attend were not prepared. Between the fall of 2009 and spring of 2015, the number of students seeking counseling on campus increased by a staggering 30%-40%. The increase was primarily due to more students experiencing suicidal thoughts, and also making suicide attempts.
The American Freshman Survey, which has surveyed college freshmen since the early 1980s, found that in 2016, for the first time, the majority of students rated their mental health as below average. Scholar Jean Twenge refers to Gen Z (born around 1995 and later) as experiencing “an epidemic of anguish.”
The rapid increase of mental health difficulties on campuses has placed enormous pressure on universities as they work to keep up with demand for mental health services. It also creates issues for students graduating and entering the “real world.” Currently, about 1 in 3 students (37%) who begin a four-year university don’t graduate within six years. Although multiple factors are involved, research has found that students with mental health problems are far more likely to withdraw than students without such problems. The mental health troubles more prevalent in Gen Z have turned up the heat on other issues at universities.
In her seminal book on Gen Z, “iGen,” Twenge’s chapter on “The New Mental Health Crisis” is followed by a chapter on these young adults’ historically low levels of religiosity and spirituality. And indeed, Gen Z’s connection with religion is particularly low. From 1986 to 2016, the percentage of college students with no religious affiliation tripled, going from 10% to 31%, with the percentage of those attending religious services dropping from 85% to 69%. Gen Z is the most mentally unhealthy and religiously disconnected of any generation on record.
Notably, though, Twenge makes no connection between the two. Few do in either academic or popular discourse.In fact, there are those who lament the rise of mental health problems while lauding the decline of religion. This is perhaps no more apparent than in higher education where antipathy and even hostility toward religion has grown over the past century. Yet such hostility may be cutting college students off from a potentially valuable resource for both mental health and success in college.
The past few decades have seen a rapid increase in scholarly work on the link between mental health and religiosity with researchers overwhelmingly finding that religiosity leads to better mental health. This extends to even sexual minorities at Christian colleges who appear to fare better than sexual minorities at secular campuses nationwide.
While it is nearly impossible to determine if religiosity causes better mental health, or simply correlates with it, after reviewing the vast literature on the topic, two Berkley researchers conclude: “The case for a causative relation between religion/spirituality and health has been enormously strengthened. On balance, we believe the case is compelling.”
In other words, from a scientific standpoint, it does seem religiosity causes better mental health.
Thus, it should be no surprise that mental health problems are increasing at the same time religiosity is decreasing. Tyler VanderWeele from Harvard’s departments of epidemiology and biostatistics estimates that “nearly 40% of the increase in the suicide rate (between 1999 and 2014) could be attributed to the decline in religious service attendance.”
VanderWeele’s work found a five-fold decease in suicide risk for individuals who attend services weekly.
The reasons behind religion’s relationship with better mental health are rather straightforward. Religion often provides individuals with a sense of belonging in a community and a social network that can be drawn upon during life difficulties. Religion also often provides a worldview that helps individuals find meaning in their lives, particularly meaning in suffering.
Of course there are exceptions to the general rule of religion being helpful. But religion’s benefits can be derived while at the same time identifying areas of difficulty and working to alleviate those
Religion may be particularly important for minority university students. As one study of Black college students found: “For most of the participants in this study, maintaining their church involvement while in college proved to be a positive decision. To varying degrees, these students attributed their successful transitions into college, academic performance, career selection, ability to cope with stress and desire to accept and improve the lives of others to their church involvement, religious practice, and spirituality.”
These scholars conclude, “Essentially, churches provide African American college students with another family and a sense of home that they need to survive and succeed both in college and in life.”
Despite the evidence that religion, mental health and student success are linked, American universities are dominated by individuals and philosophical traditions that reject religious beliefs and structures.
There are some who argue this is inevitable, that the slow march of rational thought, scientific knowledge, and modernization cannot help but displace religion. As Bryan Wilson argued: “The moral intimations of Christianity do not belong to a world order by conveyor belts, time-and-motion studies, and bureaucratic organizations. The very thought processes which these devices demand of men, leave little place for the operation of the divine.” However, to say that scientific discoveries must displace God is a non-sequitur. As Notre Dame professor Christian Smith points out: “Why should we automatically believe that God and conveyor belts are incompatible?”
Yet the process of secularizing American universities has hung on just such assumptions. In a culminating campaign against religion in science, the late Cornell President Andrew Dickson White wrote “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology” (1896), which, as science historians Lindberg and Numbers summarize, was preeminent in “instill(ing) in the public mind a sense of the adversarial relationship between science and religion.”
Unfortunately, during the late 1800s and the early 1900s (the time religion was being cast as public enemy No. 1 for universities) scientific understanding of religion’s benefits were unavailable. And despite the last several decades of research showing otherwise, the assumption of religion being the enemy has persisted and will likely be difficult to change.
As Berkley historian Henry May observed: “For many these assumptions (about religion and science) were deeply taken for granted, lodged in the unconscious, where assumptions are hardest to dislodge.” In the end, it’s not science driving religion out of universities but rather it is a quasi-religion of secular beliefs.
Of course, it’s not that religion isn’t thriving in many areas of the country and that it doesn’t have an extraordinary influence within certain communities. But its dwindling within universities has left both religion and the academy poorer. When college students reject their religion, this deprives their religious communities of members who have been university trained. Universities rejecting religion deprives the institution of intellectual diversity that comes from students and faculty with various viewpoints and deprives their students of a mechanism that can help them succeed at the university — and in life.
What, therefore, can be done? For universities to leverage the benefits of religion, they need not build chapels on campus. Rather, they can assist all interested students in gaining access to religious connections. As Donahoo and Caffey have outlined, universities can cooperate in a neutral way with churches, allowing churches to advertise their services in institutional publications and providing space for churches to recruit students to participate in activities. Religious leaders can also be invited to attend and participate in university public events, and vice versa.
Ending the epidemic of anguish on college campuses is not an impossible goal. But if universities try to go it alone without the support of religious institutions, they will likely miss the mark by a wide margin. By simply recognizing the benefits of religious involvement, universities can be creative in facilitating student access to religious services and provide them a resource that can help them succeed at the university and beyond.
W. Justin Dyer is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University who holds a doctorate in human and community development.