Gen Z and Mental Health: An In-depth Interview with Josh Packard

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How can church leaders better reach Gen Z? Doug Powe, Director of the Lewis Center, speaks with Josh Packard about Springtide Research Institute’s research including what faith leaders need to know about Gen Z’s religious beliefs and mental health. 

Listen to this interviewwatch the interview video on YouTube, or continue reading.


Doug Powe: What is the research process for Spring Tide Research Institute’s annual report, The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health — What Faith Leaders Need to Know? 

Josh Packard: I am a former academic, but I will keep this as engaging as possible. We use an approach that we’ve been pioneering called Data with Heart™. We focus on the classical quantitative (statistics) and qualitative (interviews). We collected about 10,000 surveys and did over 100 interviews with young people. We involve young people’s voices throughout the research process.  

We’ve got a group of young people that meets monthly, and they help us shape the questions. Sometimes we bring them data and we think we understand what it’s telling us but we’re not sure. They’ll help us and say, “No, man. That’s not the right way to think about that. It means this other thing.” Or they’ll affirm that we’re on the right track.  

We’re still researchers, so as much as we listen to young people and try to center their voices in this process, we are also triangulating that with good existing academic theory and our own quantitative and qualitative data. It’s not like it’s straight out of their mouths and onto our pages. We involve them throughout all stages of the process in some pretty important and formal ways, which you can see in the research especially in the kinds of questions we ask. 

Doug Powe: Josh, I have a son who falls within the range of your study, so I was very interested in your report. I’ve observed many of the issues that you name like depression and anxiety. What was a little surprising is how high the numbers were that you discovered: 47 percent of young people reported being moderately or extremely depressed, and 55 percent moderately or extremely stressed. What are some of the root causes of depression and stress? 

Josh Packard: First, it’s worth noting that these are self-report numbers. These are not clinical diagnoses, so there’s a few things that I think are going into that. For Gen Z, talking about mental health no longer carries the same stigma it has for previous generations. This does not mean that all the stigma reduction work is done and that we can stop thinking about it. That’s not true. It just means that we’ve come a long way. 

When Gen Z thinks and talks to us about mental health stigma, they don’t mean among each other. They mean between them and the adults in their lives. They know that the adults in their lives do not like talking about mental health, even to the other adults, but certainly it makes them uncomfortable for adults to have conversations with young people and mental health. I do think that there’s a little bit more of what I would call rightsizing of that conversation. I’m 44 and when I was growing up these were not things that were open topics of conversation, at least in my suburban mostly white community. These were things discussed behind closed doors, if at all. And now, if you spend any amount of time on TikTok or on Instagram, you’ll see mental health is an ongoing, very public, and open conversation especially for young people. So, I think that’s a big part of it. At the same time, part of that is just about shifting the social and cultural norms about what’s acceptable to talk about.  

The actual realities of young people’s lives have changed in some important ways, too. One thing that had a big effect was the pandemic, and the pandemic didn’t change things for young people in this regard. The Surgeon General and other people were all over this before the pandemic hit, pointing out that this was a looming and potentially already started crisis before we went into lockdown. The pandemic accelerated trends that were already in place. 

When you broaden out for just a minute and think about what social media and social media technologies mean for young people, they are not inherently good or bad. We know that social media companies do not have young people’s bests interests in mind. That is not how they operate. They’ve got armies of PhDs who are trying to keep eyes glued to the screen as long as they possibly can. A 15-year-old’s prefrontal cortex is no match for that. It’s not because they’re gullible. It’s not because they’re bad or weak people. The brain has not developed in a way that allows them to turn those things off as easily as adults. By the way, a lot of adults have trouble turning off social media. 

They’re constantly bombarded by messages that are not necessarily designed to be affirming, or to help them flourish. They are really designed to keep them looking, and sometimes what keeps them looking is not always great. Those are two of the really big things that we haven’t really developed clear social norms and parenting guidelines around. They’re emerging and people are getting better at it, but certainly there are a lot of parents who are just like, “Whatever. I don’t even know where to start. I’m just going let them go.” 

Doug Powe: Right.  

Josh Packard: Many adults were struggling with our own things through the pandemic, trying to keep jobs, to keep food on the table, to meet basic needs. And as much as adults might have tried to do and have done some real things with mental health, they couldn’t do everything all at once. I think those are two of the biggest factors that have sort of pushed mental health to the forefront for Gen Z. 

Doug Powe: That’s helpful, and we’ll come back to the pandemic a little bit later. I should have mentioned upfront that this is sort of self-diagnosis per the statistics. Do you believe that young people have a different understanding of mental health? I think that older people work with almost clinical definitions when we do talk about it. Do you think Gen Z understands mental health in different ways than many of us who are older understand it? 

Josh Packard: Yes, I think that’s right. Even when we look at the clinical diagnoses, those are certainly on the uptick with young people. But they are talking about mental health in a much more holistic way. Let’s just take one seemingly small thing that has important implications — the very term mental health. For people maybe my age and certainly older, mental health was often synonymous with mental illness. When we talked about mental health, what we meant was “you’re having a problem.” What we found in our interviews is that Gen Z doesn’t think about it that way. If they mean a problem, they will talk about mental illness. What they mean when they talk about mental health is mental health. It’s talking about mental healthiness, mental health issues or problems and what they can to help support their mental health and be healthy in the same way that I think previous generations addressed physical health. It’s not that you will only talk about your physical health when you go to the doctor because you have a problem or because something is broken. You’re also exercising at the gym, etc., and calling all that physical health. Well, Gen Z very much is in that same vein except with mental health, too.  

Doug Powe: That’s important to note because, while many of us know that we don’t often make that distinction, the distinction between mental illness and mental health is an important one. The report certainly helps to lift that up and to clarify that distinction.  

Your report shares interesting and good news that young people with a religious connection tend to do better. With that, however, is a challenge that those in faith communities also can do as much harm as good when it comes to helping young people. What role should pastors and others in faith communities play in helping young people who are stressed or anxious? Secondly, when the issues are deep, how do we make sure that we help them get the professional care they need and not try to solve those issues for them? 

Josh Packard: Those are great questions, and you’re right to point out that, at the extreme, there are ways that religion can be bad for you. It’s also worth noting, while it’s true in the Gallup research for the last 30 years and true across all the academic studies that religion is generally good for you, it is also true that, increasingly, this is a self-selected group of people. We also need to pay attention to whom religion was keeping away in many cases and any resulting mental health ramifications.  

Living a life that’s connected to something bigger than yourself or that’s driven by purpose — those are good things. There are a lot of young people who just don’t feel like they have access to those things because of their identity, or they don’t have access to a person who is welcomed by a lot of the religious institutions, or they don’t perceive being welcomed by those institutions. What religious leaders have to offer is that you are not alone in this world and you are intrinsically connected to a part of something that’s bigger than yourself — and that can be ancestral, that can be where you and your people come from. It can be something that’s bound up by an ideology, belief system, or theology that communicates that you’re a part of something that’s bigger.  

When that happens, lots of other things sort of click into place, especially for a young person who’s spending most of adolescence trying to figure out if this thing happening to me is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to anyone in the whole world ever, or is this just a normal thing that happens. And how should I respond appropriately to that? I mean, that’s what socialization is. When you get that sense of purpose and that sense of connection, navigation becomes a lot easier. Setbacks are just setbacks; they’re not the end of the world. Faith can contribute to much more resilience for young people experiencing a lot of the stress and strife that often comes with growing up.  

There is a big caveat: in many cases, especially historically, for some reason and not across the board but with some faith and religious expressions, there’s been a tendency to think that mental health issues are an impediment to faith, that they are an indicator that you’re not praying in the right way (if you’re Christian) or believing in the right way or meditating in the right way, etc. So, there’s a reluctance in some communities to seek out professional mental health advisors.  

I mentioned at the beginning that we meet with a group of young people every month, and they’re phenomenal. They take time every month to meet with us on Zoom for a couple of hours, and we talk about everything. This project started because we knew this was an issue, and we were trying to figure out if Springtide had a role to play or if there was something useful for us to contribute to this conversation. If there was nothing useful, unique, and special, for us to say, we would let others who are better at this talk about it. What convinced me that we had something we should pursue was when one of our ambassadors said, “There was a time that I was really struggling with some mental health issues. I went to my youth minister, and I was told to pray about it. When that didn’t work, I walked away thinking ‘Great. Now, not only does my mental health suck, but my faith life sucks, too.’”  

It hit me because I felt, in that moment, that I could see that whole scene unfolding. We hear from a lot of people who are well-meaning, well-intentioned adults working in some sort of faith-based setting with young folks. We talk to a lot of young people like this young man who was sharing the story with me. In that moment, I was able to see there was no harm intended by that youth minister. They were using the best tools at their disposal to try and help that young person sitting across the table from them, and it wasn’t good enough.  

That cannot be all we have to offer a young person who’s dealing with depression, anxiety, or some other really serious issue. It’s an important part of a response. Faith, religion, and spirituality can be critical components to getting through those kinds of issues, working on them, and incorporating them and their treatment into your life, but they’re not the whole response. Here’s a story we have to tell that privileges, understands, and positions purpose, faith, and belief in spirituality in an important way but also recognizes its limits and points to this mental health thing young people are experiencing as a real thing that needs real professionals to come alongside in that domain as well as in their religious and spiritual lives. 

Doug Powe: You’ve already mentioned some key words, but what was also helpful in the report is that you share a framework for faith communities that can be helpful in their being a place that is prepared to welcome young people and help them deal with different mental health issues. In that framework, you talk about connection, expectation, and purpose. I’m going to let you explain the framework. I appreciate that you’re not saying, if you do these things, they will lead to the perfect community, but you’re sharing things that you need to consider as you’re thinking about the working with young people. That distinction is important for what it is you’re hoping to accomplish. 

Josh Packard: We also affirm the need for mental health first aid training and being prepared to connect young people with practitioners and resources. I was a professor for 15 years, and I often felt wholly unequipped to deal with some of the issues that students were facing and trying to navigate. I always felt very grateful that we had professional resources on campus that I could refer them to, but it struck me that we should be able to do more. Our organizations themselves should be structured in a way that supports young people’s mental health from beginning to end, that are what we call “mental-health friendly” organizations.  

Are young people going to have mental health issues? Are they going to have breakdowns and things like this? Of course. For some people, there’s a complex mixture of social and biological factors at play, and you’re not going to eliminate all those. We can do better, and we can prevent more of these issues from becoming crises. Part of the pathway forward is by implementing connection, expectation, and purpose.  

The first is about connection. It’s about giving young people a place where they feel like they belong, so they don’t feel alienated in this world especially when it’s going to happen. It’s part of growing up. Your entire social life at some point is going to come crashing down upon you. I mean that’s part of what it means to be a teenager. I remember those moments distinctly. Having a place where you feel like you belong and that you can turn to in a community who knows you and cares about you unreservedly is critical. We’ve written about the complex process of belonging before, and there are some clear steps that people can take to foster belonging among young people in their organizations. 

The second is about expectation. Expectation is a little bit more complex. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance that young people experience in many of the organizations where they must involve themselves, especially schools, where they know what the expectations are — they’re very clear. And yet they’re not necessarily given the tools to meet those expectations. 

And in many cases, they are given a set of tools and told that the set of tools will lead to the expectations that they’re supposed to get. They’re given a tutor, and they’re told, if you go to this tutor, it will help you get the grades that you’re expected to get. But those tools don’t always line up with those expectations. When those tools are used and they don’t lead to the kinds of outcomes that are expected, young people start to internalize that. Why can’t I do this thing that I’m supposed to be able to do, even with these resources? Now, sometimes it’s because young people aren’t doing all the work that they need to do, which needs to be noted. But a lot of times it’s because the tools are not really aligned with the outcome we’re trying to get young people to achieve.  

In churches a lot of times this looks like theologies. In the theology in some places, you’re expected to be caretakers of creation, but the congregation isn’t concerned about the climate crisis that young people feel so acutely. So, they’re trying to wrap their heads around this theology that seems to not care about consumption or is not pointing a finger at consumption or having anything to say about it along with this expectation that they’re supposed to care about creation. That doesn’t make any sense to them. The more we can align those or reduce cognitive dissonance, the more we support young people in their mental health.  

The last one is a sense of purpose. Do you feel like you are a part of something bigger than who you are alone? Do you see your story as being wrapped up in a story that transcends time and space and at least you and your neighborhood and your local community? Living with a sense of purpose is foundational to overall flourishing, to discerning the right decision in each situation, and ultimately to mental health.  

Doug Powe: In The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health — What Faith Leaders Need to Know, there’s a section on what faith communities should know. In that section, you talk about notice, named, and known. Let’s focus on known for a minute. How is it that particularly faith communities can really get to know people when it’s only a virtual space they may have access to? 

Josh Packard:  Notice, named, and known are the three steps toward creating belonging. Virtual is brand-new territory for cultivating a sense of belonging. One thing we’ve learned from young people is they love for you to show up in virtual spaces if you can show up authentically. All young people seem to have a keen sense of when adults are trying to put one over on them, and their default assumption may be that adults are always trying to put one over on them. So, when you show up there in those spaces jumping on the latest trends but it’s not really who you are, they see right through that.   

We should take their online lives seriously. About a year ago a young person told me after a presentation, “when the adults in my life dismiss my online life, they disqualify themselves from the conversation of my life.” I thought that was such a poignant statement. I asked her to explain more about what she meant. “Look, not everything that we do there is important. Most of it, in fact, is not important, but a lot of it is really important. We are turning to places like TikTok and Instagram and social media to explore what Diwali is.” They’re not going to Wikipedia, and a lot of them don’t live in very diverse communities. They’re going online to find out what Diwali is or what Rosh Hashanah means or the difference between Hanukkah and Christmas, for example.  

They are doing a lot of religious exploration, and their online lanes are wildly diverse. I think it’s not so much if you should be there and be one of those diverse sources. I suppose if you had the institutional capacity to do it and you’ve got somebody who understands that well and you want to do it, fine. More than anything, there’s an opportunity to engage them in real life conversations about what’s going on in their social media. And those can start small, but they often are a gateway to talking about bigger and further explorations.  

One of the things we asked my 12-year-old son every week is: what’s the most interesting thing you saw on YouTube this week? It’s the only “social-ish” media that he’s allowed to use. We wouldn’t dare let him on Instagram or Facebook or anything else. We started having those conversations as the beginning of the steps into what’s catching his attention, and it tells us if you’re paying attention to that Why. What kinds of questions are you asking? It becomes the gateway to these kinds of questions. We can use social media as a way to have a presence that helps to shape the narrative or almost like a foil against which to help shape our interactions with young people. We shouldn’t dismiss them. 

Doug Powe: As we get ready to bring this to a close, I want you to share with our listeners with what really struck you in putting the annual report together?  

Josh Packard: I was a faculty member for a while, and we always used to see mental health issues, mental illness, as a barrier to doing the thing that we were supposed to do. I asked: can we get our students some more support so we can get back to the real task of them learning? 

I’m not sure that’s necessarily the wrong approach to take in that setting. But what we learned from putting together The State of Religion and Young People was that it might be the wrong approach to take in a faith-based setting where it is: can we deal with these mental health things so we can get back to the issue of faith formation that we’re really supposed to be here for? What we saw in the data was that engaging young people authentically and relationally and putting real resources into their mental health communicates a care and concern on behalf of religious leaders and adults for young people that young people often assume isn’t there. So, doing one is in service of the other. This is not simply can we deal with this and move on to the real work? In many cases, if you do it right, this can be the real work of showing what faith looks like in action. For example, a term that Christians a lot of times use is being the hands and feet of God, and young people are shockingly lacking in those examples in their lives. I think that this can be a pathway towards that if we take it really seriously. 


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About Author

Josh Packard

Dr. Josh Packard, Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, is an accomplished researcher with an expertise in the sociology of religion and new forms of religious expression. Springtide’s The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health — What Faith Leaders Need to Know offers insights into Gen Z’s religious beliefs and practices and recommendations for how church leaders can better reach Gen Z. Available at Springtide Research Institute and Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. He is also co-author with Jasmine Smothers of Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations (Abingdon Press, 2015), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. His previous books include New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.