New Study Says Religion Can Help Young Adults Dealing With Mental Health Concerns

A young man prays during a 16th Street Baptist Church service on Dec. 10, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Lieryn Barnett sometimes is so depressed, all she wants to do is sleep, she said.

Other times, she’s so full of energy, she’ll be up in the middle of the night, singing or playing guitar. Or her mind will race at the same time her body won’t have the energy to do anything.

All are symptoms of the bipolar disorder Barnett was diagnosed with when she was an adolescent.

Medication and therapy have helped her deal with the condition, the 29-year-old said.

So has her faith.

“Christ gives your life value, purpose, hope and eternal security. Without that hope I probably would not be here today,” said Barnett, a member of Two Cities Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., who has written about her experiences with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.

Lieryn Barnett. Courtesy photo

A new study by the Christian research firm Barna Group suggests that Barnett may not be alone in her anxiety — or in finding that faith can be an asset when dealing with mental health concerns.

“The church and institutions of faith need to be emotionally connected and places that are able to handle the kinds of emotional, mental health, anxiety-oriented questions that this generation is bringing to them,” Barna President David Kinnaman said.

The study, released Tuesday (Sept. 10), is the research firm’s largest and its first global look at what it calls “the connected generation” — those from 18 to 35.

In partnership with Christian relief agency World Vision, Barna surveyed 15,369 people from 25 countries, including people from a range of faiths and people with no faith affiliation. The survey was conducted in nine languages.

It found that 4 in 10 young adults in the countries surveyed report they often feel anxious about important decisions, uncertain about the future or afraid to fail.

RNS graphic by Emily McFarlan Miller

Additionally, 28% of young adults report that they often feel sad or depressed. Of the countries that were surveyed, the United States had the highest number of respondents who felt this way: 39%.

And 22% of young adults in the study report they often feel insecure in their identity.

One in 5 young adults surveyed met Barna’s definition of “anxious,” according to the research firm.  That means those respondents selected three of these four statements: “anxious about important decisions,” “sad or depressed,” “afraid to fail” and “insecure in who I am.”

The study did not address questions of clinical depression or anxiety, which require the assistance of mental health professions.

RNS graphic by Emily McFarlan Miller

“You can see that there is this low-grade anxiety that this generation is trying to work through,” Kinnaman said.

Religion can help with that, the Barna president said.

People of faith are less likely to select any of those statements, according to Barna data. Meanwhile, those who claim no faith are more likely to select them.

RNS graphic by Emily McFarlan Miller

For instance, 37% of respondents who identify as atheist, agnostic or none report they often feel sad or depressed, compared with 23% of Christians and 26% of people of other faiths.

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, who spoke with Barna as it was compiling its report, sees that “low-grade anxiety” in the young adults she mentors.

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson.
Courtesy photo

Sistrunk Robinson — a speaker, coach and consultant — said some of the anxiety comes from the pressure that young adults put on themselves. Young adults are also dealing with questions of gender and race, she said.

Then there is the ever-present nature of technology, which has left young adults constantly bombarded by news and comparing their lives to others’ carefully curated social media presences.

Previous generations may have navigated one or two of those challenges, she said.

“But now you’re trying to navigate all of that at once,” she said.

Sistrunk Robinson also knows that genetic factors play a role in anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses — and that dealing with mental illness often requires professional help.

She didn’t always see things that way. In the past, she’s encouraged young people dealing with mental illness to “pray and go to church and have faith.”

Now she realizes that’s not enough.

“I think, as people of faith, we have to be very clear that some people need medical attention,” she said.

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Source: Religion News Service