Faith can boost the mental health of both straight and LGBTQ young people, according to new research
Springtide Research Institute found that non-straight young people are more likely to face mental health issues and less likely to have faith-related support
Non-straight young people are more likely than their straight peers to face a mental health challenge and less likely to be connected to the potential benefits of religious practice, according to new research provided exclusively to the Deseret News.
The new data, from Springtide Research Institute’s annual survey on religion and young people, showed that 68% of non-straight young people have experienced trauma, compared to 49% of those who identify as straight. Non-straight teens and young adults (56%) are also less likely than their straight peers (74%) to say they are “flourishing” in their mental and emotional health.
Similar gaps emerged when researchers asked about young people’s religious beliefs and practices, which often look different than the routines of older generations. A recent survey from the Survey Center on American Life found that more than one-third of Generation Z is religiously unaffiliated, although many young people do believe in God and express interest in spirituality.
Springtide found that straight young people were more likely than non-straight ones to pray, attend religious services, feel connected to a faith community and describe themselves as “flourishing” in their faith.
These religion-related findings are notable since practices like prayer have been shown to boost participants’ mental health, said Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide, which specializes in researching how young people find meaning and community, including in houses of worship.
“There are nuances, but (straight and non-straight) young people who are religiously involved or spiritually involved are better off than their peers who are not engaged in any way,” he said.
That claim is borne out in Springtide’s new survey, which showed that 42% of non-straight respondents who describe themselves as flourishing in their faith are also flourishing in their mental health. Just 11% of those who aren’t flourishing in their faith described their mental health the same way.
The findings are based on responses from 9,837 young people ages 13 to 25. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.
The new research makes it clear that increasing youth participation in religious organizations would do more than create a brighter future for houses of worship, Packard said. It could also help solve the mental health crisis affecting young people, particularly those who identify as bisexual, gay or otherwise non-straight.
“Institutions need to be leaning into deep, long-lasting, transformative relationships with young people,” he said.
Obstacles to religious engagement
Is Perlman, a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City who is transgender, has experienced the mental health benefits of deeper faith. After being raised in a somewhat secular Jewish home, Perlman became more invested in Judaism at college and started regularly taking part in religious events.
“Now I attend Shabbat services almost every Friday night,” Perlman said.
As a result of this religious engagement, Perlman has had more resources to draw on as political debates over transgender health care and other LGBTQ issues heat up. The faith community has provided comfort and support when political news chips away at Perlman’s sense of self.
“Knowing that this community recognizes my inherent worth is vital in preserving my self-image,” Perlman said.
The Rev. Sarah Ginolfi, priest-in-charge at Trinity Episcopal Church in Rutland, Vermont, referenced a similar confidence boost when describing her involvement in faith-related programs as a teen. Being involved in a faith community and building relationships with strangers who became like family helped her feel grounded, loved and safe.
“I really believed that I was loved and supported in the community, not just because of blood ties,” the Rev. Ginolfi said.
But people like Perlman and the Rev. Ginolfi who are passionate about the potential benefits of religious practices are aware that finding a faith community can be a difficult journey, especially for young people who weren’t raised in a religious tradition.
Perlman benefitted from being connected to faith-based programming built specifically around the needs of LGBTQ young people; others may not have the luxury of finding services or events that seem to perfectly fit their needs.
Packard noted that churches and other houses of worship can change up their routines to draw young people in. It’s unreasonable to expect teens and young adults to find their way to a faith community on their own, he said.
“If you have little to no experience with religion, seeking out connections on your own is daunting,” Packard said.
Among non-straight young people, the search for faith-based resources can actually feel dangerous, since members of the LGBTQ community have faced discrimination in religious spaces, Perlman said.
Even if a young person has not personally had a negative experience in church, they’ve likely heard about such experiences regularly, Packard said. He described a “reinforcing cycle” in which teens and twenty-somethings feel certain there’s no place for them in religious communities and then never meet with anyone who can correct this assumption.
“The antidote is religious leaders stepping out of their buildings and finding and supporting young people where they’re at,” he said.
Meeting young people where they are
Since becoming more deeply involved in Judaism, Perlman has had the opportunity to live out what Packard described while serving as the New York City engagement intern for Keshet. Perlman works to proclaim the benefits of religious involvement to other young people, without pressuring others to embrace traditional expressions of faith.
“I’m not asking them to go to services or do certain prayers. I want them to see the holiness that exists in them already,” Perlman said.
Packard would like to see a similar approach adopted by youth leaders who are wondering why no one is showing up to their Bible studies or pizza nights at church. Young people today, whether straight or not, may be more receptive to religious figures who connect with them outside houses of worship, he said.
The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, executive director of Parity, a nonprofit that works at the intersection of faith and LGBT concerns, agreed, sharing a conversation she recently had with a youth leader who shook up his typical routine.
“He was having a terrible time getting young people to come to his youth group, so he said to the six he did have, ‘OK so what do you enjoy doing?’” the Rev. Edmonds-Allen said.
The kids answered that they enjoyed music and performing, so the youth leader went to a nearby coffee shop and asked if his youth group could start leading an open mic night once a week. Over time, more and more young people started coming as attendees invited their friends.
“It wasn’t focused on God and scripture; it was about finding something that was meaningful to everyone and a way to all be together,” the Rev. Edmonds-Allen said, adding that connections made at the coffee shop opened the doors to spiritual conversations.
“Over time, they built up this impact that was way beyond what they ever thought would happen,” the Rev. Edmonds-Allen said.
More traditional youth programming can also be successful if faith leaders prioritize listening to young people’s questions and concerns, the Rev. Ginolfi said. In her work with programs like youth retreats and camping ministries, she’s focused on lifting up the unique voices and experiences of participants.
“It’s important to really be curious about where their minds are,” the Rev. Ginolfi said.
Often when serving as a chaplain for youth events, the Rev. Ginolfi invites participants to help her plan worship services. She may also do a conversational sermon, during which listeners can speak up to share their perspectives.
“The church has to be careful not to silence the gift or uniqueness and curiosity of young people,” the Rev. Ginolfi said.
When faith leaders are willing to get outside their comfort zones, it can pay off in big ways for both young people and religious institutions, Packard said.
“I’m not suggesting there’s a silver bullet, that you can get on TikTok or something and it will solve all your problems. But if you’re interested in TikTok, that can work. It’s mostly about showing up and being authentically engaged,” Packard said.