Religion and spirituality play helpful role in mental health

Written by William C. Duncan

May 11, 2023

Stress about money; the role of mental health in the recent shooting in Texas; Michael Phelps’ past struggles with suicidal thoughts: Concerns about mental health seem to dominate the news.

Less often in the news is the role that faith and religious participation play in helping improve mental health.

In a recent interfaith event held in Salt Lake City, Elder Kevin W. Pearson, the Utah area president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saluted religious officials from many different faiths in attendance: “You make our community and society richer spiritually and add immeasurably to the quality of life here in Utah.”

Elder Pearson’s statement is consistent with social science evidence about the benefits of religion and spirituality for quality of life.

That reality is important amid growing concerns about individual well-being, particularly of youth, that seem to have been exacerbated by pandemic measures and the resulting feelings of isolation experienced by many. A recent report, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control, found: “Nearly all indicators of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors increased from 2011 to 2021” as measured by “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” and suicidality.

Thus the need for resources that can provide protection of mental health. Utah has taken important steps to provide resources, particularly in the school context.

Religious practice has also been found to be protective of individual mental health. A prior post noted the research of Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program:

A large study of American youth found mental, physical and behavioral health benefits from being “raised in a religious or spiritual environment.” For example, those who attended religious services frequently were “12% less likely to suffer from depression” and “33% less likely to use illicit drugs.” Those who frequently prayed or meditated were “33% less likely to start having sex at a young age” and “40% less likely to have a STD.”

In addition to these protective effects, those engaged in frequent prayer or meditation were “38% more likely to volunteer in their community” and “47% more likely to have a sense of mission and purpose.” Frequent attenders of religious services were “18% more likely to report higher levels of happiness” and “87% more likely to have high levels of forgiveness.”

Research in Utah in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic found:

Religious affiliation was related to significantly lower rates of teen mental health challenges as measured by suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and depression. For religiously affiliated adolescents, the rate of considering and attempting suicide was nearly half of that of unaffiliated adolescents. In mediation analyses, affiliation was indirectly related to mental health challenges (suicide ideation, suicide attempt, and depression) through stressors from COVID-19, including affiliated adolescents experiencing the following: less anxiety, fewer family fights, fewer school difficulties, and fewer skipped meals.

A post by my Sutherland colleague Krisana Finlay explains the importance of family in providing protection for mental health and in preventing loneliness. Religion plays an important role here as well. Church attendees are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce.

An intriguing survey, recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, suggests that young people may be more open to spiritual resources than in the past: “About one-third of 18-to-25-year-olds say they believe—more than doubt—the existence of a higher power, up from about one-quarter in 2021, according to a recent survey of young adults.” The article suggests that this change does not necessarily signal a change in attitudes towards formal church affiliation, but it may signal a yearning for the benefits religion can provide: “Young adults, theologians and church leaders attribute the increase in part to the need for people to believe in something beyond themselves after three years of loss.”

Policymakers and mental health providers would be wise to consider how religious belief, which is already important, and perhaps becoming increasingly so, can be included among the protective resources brought to bear to combat loneliness and bolster mental and emotional well-being. The state need not endorse a religion, or religious belief generally, to let families and youth know that they have another source of help to turn to in times of crisis.​


Insights: analysis, research, and informed commentary from Sutherland experts. For elected officials and public policy professionals.

  • Mental health challenges, particularly among youth, require significant investment in resources to help
  • Religious practice is associated with increased emotional resilience
  • Youth may be developing greater interest in religion to cope with challenges, and policymakers should recognize this
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