How spirituality helps LGBTQ youth

Written by William C. Duncan

November 18, 2022

As they struggled through the physical, mental and emotional trauma of being thrown out of their homes by their families, many homeless LGBTQ youths in Ogden carried journals and Sharpies with them. When asked why these items in particular were important to them, their answer was that these journals were how they talked to God – he was all they had left. These homeless young people maintained a deep longing for spirituality – an inner home, as it were – often making spirituality workshops the most popular among the homelessness services and workshops offered to them.

This was a story related by the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen after she spoke at an event about religious freedom in a divided America, co-hosted by Sutherland Institute and the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU. Edmonds-Allen is the executive director of Parity, a New York nonprofit focused on LGBTQ concerns and spirituality. Prior to working at Parity, she worked directly with these homeless boys and girls.

Some recent research confirms what Edmonds-Allen’s story suggests: Religious practice is protective of the emotional wellbeing of young people.

A Deseret News article described research that shows benefits of religious practice on the mental health of youths. The article notes that “practices like prayer have been shown to boost participants’ mental health” and quotes an expert who says that “young people who are religiously involved or spiritually involved are better off than their peers who are not engaged in any way.”

The article notes that LGBT youths report higher levels of emotional difficulties. With that in mind, an important finding of the research was “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 article concludes:

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.

The Springtide Research Institute, which conducted the research reported in that story, also noted that “73% of religious young people agree that their religious and spiritual practices positively impact their mental health.”

Similarly, a study of the Survey Center on American Life found that disaffiliation from religion was associated with greater feelings of loneliness, a negative indicator for mental health.

On this same topic, sociologist Bradford Wilcox shared a graphic that showed activities contributing to or protecting from unhappiness among 10th graders. The top three protective activities were sleeping more than seven hours a night, participating in sports or exercise, and participating in religious services.

With the recent COVID pandemic, the rise in use of social media, and other factors, we are increasingly aware of the vulnerability of youths to mental health challenges. As the new research and the story of Ogden’s homeless youths make clear, religious practice has an important contribution to make in protecting this vulnerable group.

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