In 2022, nearly half of young people (47%) told Springtide Research Institute, where I am Senior Research Associate, that they were moderately or extremely depressed. Even more (55%) reported being moderately or extremely stressed, while 45% said they were moderately or extremely lonely.
For Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC hereafter), this mental-health crisis is compounded by experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination:”Mental health can affect anyone, regardless of ethnicity or race, differently, but when we are talking about social justice issues, People of Color are living through it. That’s completely different than seeing it or just observing it.”—Lauren, Asian American, 15.
Despite these experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination, Springtide data from our new study, Navigating Injustice, reveal that young BIPOC are flourishing mentally and emotionally at rates comparable to their White peers. Further, they report high levels of life satisfaction, agency, and self-esteem.
When asked about the kinds of things that support their mental health, over half of young BIPOC (58%) said that their faith matters. But why and how does faith matter for their mental health, and what can faith leaders do to help?
Can’t leave race outside of a space
Young BIPOC say they are flourishing in their mental and emotional wellbeing at slightly higher rates than their White peers (70% versus 65%). They also report higher rates of flourishing in their faith lives.
What might the connection between race, faith, and mental health be for these young people?
Our findings suggest the connection is extremely close—so much so, that for many young BIPOC, their natural inclination is to speak about these identities and experiences in nearly the same breath.
“I am the person who can’t leave [race] outside of a space. Being Black shapes the way I think about things in a lot of ways and what I tend to think about. Religious or spiritual places are no exception,” May, Black/African American and 20 years old, explained. She later added that when churches fail to acknowledge the parts of people’s identities that need to be addressed—mainly racial/ethnic identities—it’s tantamount to failing to see and acknowledge their life experiences, their pain, and even their personhood.
On the other side of the coin, Isabelle, Hispanic/Latino and 23 years old, told us about the positive connection she is experiencing with her race, faith, and mental health at her church. “My faith community brought me a lot of confidence and less anxiety [regarding] who I am and where I come from. So, they influenced me in a positive way by honoring my culture, my identity. Understanding my identity just takes all the pressure off, you know? I was more proud to be Latino. I didn’t feel inferior. So, yeah, I just love who I am, and I love where I come from. My faith community has given me the confidence that I belong in this community and with Christ.”
Churches can show that faith works
These interview findings suggest that young people feel truly seen and understood in faith communities that embrace all the meaningful and positive identities that make young people who they are. This embrace creates a sense of belonging, which Gen Z is desperately seeking.
One might ask whether faith communities have any business delving into racial or mental health issues. Aren’t young people intersecting with these issues at school, work, or otherwise?
Caleb, Black/African American and age 22, said, “I started to care about my mental health because I realized that God cares about it as well.”
Churches and other faith communities may be the only spaces where the link between spirituality and mental health can be fully explored. Your church may be the only space where young BIPOC can experiment with religious or spiritual practices as effective coping strategies.
The stakes of ignoring race
Given the political climate around racial and ethnic issues in the U.S., particularly around critical race theory, some faith communities are afraid to talk about racial/ethnic identity issues in fear that it might divide their congregations.
By comparison, many congregations—especially those that are predominantly White—rarely consider the high stakes of ignoring race. Yet, they may also have aspirations to diversify the pews. Our data suggest the former is unlikely to produce the latter.
Many pastors and church leaders that we rub shoulders with at Springtide acknowledge that the young people in their church are struggling with mental health. This is partially why we have devoted over a year of our research agenda to exploring mental health. What we consistently find is that when young people have a sense of belonging, as well as quality relationships with older adults who notice, name, and really know them, their mental health outcomes are much better.
For young people of color, acknowledgement and embrace of their racial/ethnic identity, and the ways it informs their spirituality, must be included as part of any efforts to promote a sense of belonging for them in your congregation.
At the next youth gathering, or during your next meeting with young leaders at your church, consider framing a discussion using these questions:
- What are some experiences or identities that are central to who you are?
- Can you think of a time when those experiences or identities were acknowledged?
- Can you think of a time when those experiences or identities were celebrated? How did you feel?
- What are some small steps the church could take to celebrate the important experiences or identities of the young people in the community?
During challenging times, young people and their families often turn to faith leaders for encouragement and support. Young people desire guidance from caring adults who are willing to invest in their lives. This represents an opportunity for faith leaders to be the first to respond and carve out a space to belong.