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Aligned Expectations Help Support Mental Health

 In Mental Health

"It's hard to live your life if you're worrying too much about your next life, I guess."

—Emma, 18 

The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health – What Faith Leaders Need to Know focuses on what faith leaders and others who work directly with young people need to understand about how religion, spirituality and mental health intertwine. This year’s report offers a three-part approach for organizations to build mental-health friendly environments for young people: creating connection, aligning expectations, and helping to discover purpose.  

In interviews for this year’s report, Gen Zers were clear that if religion is presented like a set of expectations that seem difficult to meet, rather than a way to help navigate the ups and downs of life, it can feel toxic. Faith leaders should have expectations for the young people in their care – and they should offer ways and resources to make those expectations feel attainable. If young people understand what’s expected of them, yet still have a sense of agency in how that aligns with their values and identities, their mental wellness is enhanced.  

Here are three needs young people have regarding expectations: 

  1. Young people need people to talk to. Young people need mentors who can accompany them in their religious and spiritual seeking. Adults can give the gift of presence by building meaningful relationships that make room for deep, mutual exchanges around things like prayer or mental health. By listening, living with integrity, being transparent, caring, and using expertise, adults can foster the trust necessary for these types of relationships. When young people have adults that can help them understand what the expectations are, and that they can talk to about their questions and doubts, the relationship moves from transactional to transformational – and their mental health flourishes as a result.  
  1. Young people need to feel guided, not forced. Fifty-seven percent of young people we surveyed who are currently members of a religious community say that they initially joined because “family members expected it.” Family influence is a good thing, but it also means that young people’s participation in a faith community might have to be “activated” to get true commitment. If young people have ways to serve and lead, their role in a community can moved from one that is forced to one that is chosen – and that level of engagement can be a huge boost for mental health.  
  1. Young people need to feel challenged, not defeated. Several interviewees mentioned the disparity between their own lived identities, or that of their peers, and the expectations of their religious communities. If young people feel that the expectation to abide by a doctrinal or social teaching conflicts with their values or stances on social issues, they may opt out. Yet, faith leaders can still be mentors without requiring membership – or conformity to beliefs. Many religious traditions have at least some imagery or language that connects God with the experience of love. Leading with that message of unconditional love doesn’t have to be a watering down of other parts of a tradition, but it prevents closing the door to young people who overwhelmingly wish to belong and be loved. 

Having support as young people navigate how to align themselves with the expectations of their faith communities is crucial for their mental health. Offering presence and fostering participation are key ways that leaders can help guide that process and help support mental health along the way.  

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