New research about Gen Z

Illustrations by Andrea Ucini

There’s no secret that mental health, particularly in younger generations, emerged in sharp relief during the pandemic. But for many of people, particularly the emerging generations of young people, the issues existed even before the pandemic. Josh Packard, Ph.D., is executive director of the Springtide Research Institute, a Minnesota-based organization that conducts research on people between the ages of 13 and 25. He has focused this work on “the intersections of their human and religious experience,” and in Fall 2022, Springtide released The State of Religion & Young People 2022, a report that examines mental health and religious belief among young people; its findings are helpful to understanding the attitudes and beliefs of the generations coming to religion and theological education. (The full report is available at Springtide Research Institute.) See a graphic of key takeaways from the report here.

In Trust’s Matt Hufman recently interviewed Packard; here are three takeaways.


There’s no stigma for them

We conducted over 100 interviews with young people for this project. And out of that unfolded this notion that the stigma about mental health exists but not in the way you think it does. People in this age group are fine talking to each other about mental health. The stigma that exists is among the adults. Young people recognize that the adults in their lives don’t like talking to each other about it, and they really don’t like talking to kids about it. And so the stigma that was present among adults was such that the young people were essentially expressing that “we would love to be able to rely on the adults in our lives for guidance through these moments. And we even know that a lot of them have dealt with the same issues, but we also know that they’re deeply uncomfortable talking about it.”

There’s not really a pathway available to them, in many cases, to even broach the conversation because they feel that every time they try, adults are not willing partners in that conversation. And they’re certainly not feeling that they can talk about how this might intersect with issues of faith, belief, doubt, religion, and spirituality. That’s another level that they’re not even beginning to access yet.


New research about Gen Z

There’s a shift in understanding

I was a professor, and sometimes students would show up with mental health issues. I was like, “OK, can we get some better support on campus for them? Or can we solve this in some way so that we can get back to the real issue of learning?” To me, it was an impediment or a stumbling block, so let’s deal with this so we can get to the real issue at hand. And when I would give talks on this, religious leaders would say those same things to me about mental health, asking: Can you help me to deal with their mental health issues so that we can get to the real issue of faith formation?

And what was really interesting and paradigm-shifting for me about the way that the research came back was an understanding that this is not simply “deal with their mental health so that you can get to the real issue.” If you do it right – deal with their mental health – you can then engage in conversations and in culture building around mental healthiness that simultaneously builds their faith and deepens their spirituality. That was kind of news to me. Maybe other people figured it out. But it was so novel to us that we wrote a whole book about it.


Trust and relationships matter

Young people don’t particularly trust institutions. They think that when adults act from their institutional capacity – as a youth minister or a teacher – to express interest in them that they’re only doing their jobs. They often say that they would like adult guidance in their faith lives, but because they don’t trust those institutions, they’re not turning to those pastors. And, tellingly, they don’t think religious people, by and large, share their same values.

They’re also simultaneously walking around the world dealing with mental health issues at an unprecedented level. And so when we can engage them around those issues in a way that speaks to their felt needs of what’s really going on right now, it sort of disrupts that entire narrative. All of that mistrust goes away as they begin to see that you truly do care about their flourishing. That kind of trusted adult relationship is affirmed by all the research.

Nobody’s arguing about what the pathway to faith formation is. The only question is about how we get to those relationships. For a long time, it was through programs and through book-based learning and those kinds of things that worked really well. And now there’s sort of a shift, in that maybe it’s relationship forward or relationship first to get to those deeper relationships. There has never been an issue about where that real commitment comes from – from the mentors that you’ve had in your life.

In that way, mental health becomes a field of opportunity to engage young people around these issues that they really care about. And to see that the connections among mental health and faith, spirituality, doubt, belief are really important. The data is really clear here that religious people are better off, and young people will begin to feel that, and they’ll see it from you.

For the full conversation, view the interview by clicking here.

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