“Gen Z and Mental Health: Insights for Faith Leaders” featuring Josh Packard

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
“Gen Z and Mental Health: Insights for Faith Leaders” featuring Josh Packard

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Podcast Episode 115

How can church leaders better reach Gen Z? In this episode, Josh Packard shares findings from the Springtide Research Institute on what faith leaders need to know about Gen Z’s religious beliefs and mental health.

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Leading Ideas Talks is also brought you by Leading the Church in a Post-Pandemic Culture, a new Doctor of Ministry in Church Leadership focus from Wesley Theological Seminary and the Lewis Center for Church leadership. With this track, clergy will receive the enhanced knowledge skills and motivation to increase congregational and denominational service, vitality, and growth in the post-pandemic world. Learn more and apply by February 15th for May 2023 at churchleadership.com/dmin.

How can church leaders better reach Gen Z? In this episode, Josh Packard shares findings from the Springtide Research Institute on what faith leaders need to know about Gen Z’s religious beliefs and mental health.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, Director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Josh Packard, Executive Director of the Spring Tide Research Institute, which maintains the largest data set of young people and their spirituality. He’s the author of several books including Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church, but not their faith. He’s also the author of the study framing our conversation, The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health — What Faith Leaders Need to Know. Our focus for this podcast is young people and mental health. Josh, I just want to welcome you, and I’m so glad that you’re joining us today.

Josh Packard: Well, thank you so much for having me. This is an important topic and I’m glad to be in conversation here.

Doug Powe: I want to jump right in. You all do an annual report with different themes — this year, of course, The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health — What Faith Leaders Need to Know. But can you share how you collect the data so that the listeners get an idea of the breadth of your process when you’re putting together the reports.

Josh Packard: Yeah, thanks actually for the opportunity to talk about this. I’m a former academic, but I promise I will keep this as engaging as possible. We don’t want to get bogged down in methodology.

We use this approach that we’ve been pioneering called Data with Heart™. What that means for us is that, as much as we focus on the sort of classical quantitative (meaning statistics) and qualitative (like interviews) that academics would use and we certainly do a lot of that (we collect about 10,000 surveys, and for this project this year we did over 100 interviews with young people), but we do more than that. We very much involve young people’s voices throughout the research process.

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

What we do though … 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 as well. It’s not like it’s just straight out of their mouths and onto our pages. But we are very much involving them throughout all stages of the process in some pretty important and formal ways, which you can see in the research frankly. I mean you can see in the kinds of questions we ask.

Doug Powe: Absolutely. Again, I just want to name it so others can go to Amazon or other places to pick up the annual report: The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health — What Faith Leaders Need to Know. Josh, I was very interested in your report, having a son who falls within the range of your study. And I’ve observed many of the issues that you name early on and report, like depression and anxiety. What was a little surprising, though, 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 do you think are some of the root causes, in your opinion, of the depression and the stress?

Josh Packard: Well, first of all, I think it’s worth noting that these are self-report numbers. These are not clinical diagnoses, so there’s a number of things that I think are going into that. I mean, let’s start with the fact that, for Gen Z, talking about mental health no longer carries the same stigma. It is not a taboo subject in the way that it has been 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 really long way.

In fact, when Gen Z thinks and talks to us in the interview 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 actually call rightsizing of that conversation. You know, 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. I mean, 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 and 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.

But the actual realities of young people’s lives have changed in some important ways, too. And we can pick just a couple that I think have had a pretty big effect here, one being 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 lockdowns and things like that. The pandemic just accelerated those trends that were already in place.

We’ve also got this weird thing that’s been happening. 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. But we do know that those 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 your eyes glued to the screen as long as they possibly can. That’s what they’re concerned with. A 15-year-old’s prefrontal cortex is just no match for that, you know. It’s not because they’re gullible. It’s not because they’re bad or weak people. It’s just the brain has not developed in a way that allows them to turn those things off as easily as adults. And, by the way, a lot of adults have trouble turning off social media.

Doug Powe: That’s right.

Josh Packard: And they’re bombarded by messages constantly that are not necessarily designed to be affirming, that are not necessarily designed to help them flourish. It’s really designed to keep them looking, and sometimes what keeps them looking is not always what’s great. Those are two of the really big things that, especially with the social media part, 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: And then, as adults, a lot of us were struggling with our own things through the pandemic, just trying to keep jobs, trying to keep food on the table, meet basic needs. And as much as adults might have tried to do and actually have done some real things with mental health, they just couldn’t do everything all at once. And I think those are two of the biggest factors that have sort of pushed this to the forefront for Gen Z.

Doug Powe: That’s helpful, and we’ll come back to the pandemic a little bit later. But I’m curious. As a follow-up, do you believe — and I apologize, I should have mentioned upfront that this is sort of self-diagnosis per the statistics — but do you believe that young people have a different understanding, or I should say different categories, of mental health because even with older people I think that we work with almost clinical definitions that have been given to us when we do talk about it. I think you’re right. We don’t like to talk about it. But do you think they have expanded or understand mental health in different ways than many of us who are older understand it?

Josh Packard:  Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean even when we look at the clinical diagnoses, I mean those are certainly on the uptick for sure with young people. But they are talking about it in a much more holistic way. Let’s just take one seemingly small thing that has pretty important implications when you think about it — just the very term itself of mental health. For people maybe my age and certainly older, a lot of times mental health was 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 actually mental health. It’s talking about mental healthiness, talking about mental health issues or problems but also what can I do that will help support my mental health, and be, you know, healthy there in the same way that I think previous generations have already made that switch for physical health.

Just the way that older generations will think about 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 of that physical health. Well, Gen Z very much is in that same vein except with mental health, too.

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Doug Powe: I think that’s really important to note because I think, at one level, many of us know that, but we don’t often make that distinction. So that distinction between mental illness and mental health is an important one. And the report certainly helps to lift that up and to clarify it, so I appreciate you making that distinction for us.

What I want to move towards is that the interesting and good news is that young people with a connection of religion tend to do better. With that, however, is a challenge that those in the faith communities also can do as much harm as good when it comes to helping young people. So, I’m curious, what role should pastors and others in faith communities play in helping young people who are stressed or anxious? And then, secondly, how do we make sure that, when the issues are deep, we help them to get the professional care they need and not try to solve those issues for them?

Josh Packard: Yeah. 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 our research, true in all the overview that Gallup put out for all the research they’ve done on this issue for the last 30 years, and true across all the academic studies during that time that religion is generally good for you, it is also true that, increasingly, this is a self-selected group of people and that we need to pay attention to who religion was keeping away in many cases and what the mental health ramifications of that are.

Living a life that’s connected to something bigger than yourself, that’s driven by purpose — those are good things. And there are a lot of young people who just don’t feel like they have access to those things because they have an identity, 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. But the reality is that what religious leaders have to offer is that you are not alone in this world, that 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 or belief system that tells you that there’s some theology there 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 is this thing happening to me 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, for example. Faith in that way can contribute to much more resilience for young people who are experiencing a lot of the stress and strife that often comes with just growing up.

But there’s a big caveat, and you mentioned it, which is that 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 been a reluctance in some communities to actually 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 out of their month every month to meet with us on Zoom for a couple of hours, and we talk about everything. This whole project started because we knew this was an issue, and we were trying to figure out if Springtide had a role to play, like if there is something useful for us to contribute to this conversation, essentially. So, we brought this to the group to say we don’t want to just be part of the noise. If there’s nothing useful, unique, and special, for us to say, we just will let others who are better at this talk about it. And what convinced me that we had something we should pursue is that one of our ambassadors — that’s what we call them — said, “There was a time that I was really struggling with some mental health issues. And 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.’”

And it hit me. It hit me because I felt like, in that moment, I could see that whole scene unfolding because we talked. I mean I give a lot of talks. 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. And we talk to a lot of young people like this young man who was explaining the story to me. And in that moment, I was able to see there was no harm intended by that youth minister. They were actually 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.

It’s not a good enough response. That cannot be the whole of what we have to offer a young person who’s dealing with depression or dealing with anxiety or some other really serious issue. It’s an important part of a response. Faith and religion and spirituality can be really critical components to getting through those kinds of issues and working on them and sort of incorporating them and their treatment into your life, but they’re not the whole response. So, I just felt like, gosh, here’s a story that we have to tell that privileges and understands and positions purpose and faith and belief in spirituality in an important way, but also recognizes its limits and points to like, yes, this mental health thing that young people are experiencing is a real thing and 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 of these key words. But what was also, I think, really helpful in the report is that you share a framework for faith communities that can be helpful in them being a place that is prepared to welcome young people and help them as they deal with different mental health issues. And in that framework, you talk about connection, expectation, and purpose. And I’m going to let you explain the framework. I think what I appreciated about it is that you’re not saying, if you do these things, this is going to make you the perfect community, but you’re sharing it as: these are things that you need to consider as you’re thinking about the work you do with young people. And I think that a nice nuance, or that distinction is important for what it is you’re hoping to accomplish.

Josh Packard: Yeah, I agree. I’ll say we also very much affirm the need for things like mental health first aid training and being able to connect to practitioners and resources. I was a professor for 15 years, and I would see students coming to my classroom and often just felt wholly unequipped to deal with some of the issues that I knew that they 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 able to be structured in a way that supports young people’s mental health from beginning to end, and that’s what we call, when we write about them, “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 they are. That’s a part of society. For some people, there’s a complex mixture of social and biological factors at play, and you’re not going to eliminate all those. But we can do better, and we can prevent more of these issues from becoming crises. We think part of the pathway forward is by implementing those things you just talked about. So, very quickly in turn, I’ll talk about those three that emerged from our research.

The first one is about connection. Really, it’s about giving young people a place where they feel like they can belong, so they don’t feel alienated in this world especially when, as we know, 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 in some ways. 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 really critical. And we’ve written about belonging before — it’s a complex process — and there’s some really clear steps that people can take to foster belonging among young people in their organizations.

The second one, though, is about expectation. Expectation is a little bit more complex. We went back and forth about how best to frame this, but essentially there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance that young people experience in many of the organizations where they have to involve themselves, especially schools, where they know what the expectations are — they’re very clear. And yet they’re not necessarily being given the tools to meet those expectations.

And in many cases, to add further to this sort of stress here, is that 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’ll help you get the grades that you’re expected to get. But actually, those tools don’t always line up with those expectations. Even when those tools are used, if they don’t lead to the kinds of outcomes that are expected of them, 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 just because young people aren’t doing all the work that they need to do. I mean that needs to be noted. But a lot of times it’s because the tools are not really all that aligned with the outcomes that 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 you’ve got a church, for example, that 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 really about a sense of purpose. Do you feel like you are a part of something bigger than who you are alone, or do you see your story as being wrapped up in a story that transcends time and space and, certainly, at least you and your neighborhood and your local community? Living with a sense of purpose like that is foundational to overall flourishing and being able to discern what’s the right decision to make in a given situation and ultimately to your mental health as well.

Doug Powe: Great. I want to remind our listeners that we’re talking about The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health — What Faith Leaders Need to Know. I think that our listeners will really appreciate that there’s a section on what faith communities should know. In that section, you talk about notice, named, and known. I’m going to focus on known just for a minute. And I’m wondering what you think about this in virtual space or in a hybrid space, I should say — in person but also in this virtual space. 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:  That’s wild, right?

Doug Powe: Yes, yes.

Josh Packard:  That notice, named, known framework — those are the three steps towards creating belonging. And the virtual I think is brand-new territory, obviously. And one thing we’ve been able to learn from young people is they would love it if you showed up in those virtual spaces as long as you can show up there authentically. You know, like all young people over time, they’ve got this really keen sense of when adults are trying to put one over on them, and maybe even their default assumption is that adults are always trying to put one over on them. So, you know when you show up there in those spaces sort of jumping on the latest trends but it’s not really who you are, they’ll see right through that.

But we should take their online lives seriously. A young person told me after a presentation about a year ago, “when the adults in my life, when they dismiss my online life, they disqualify themselves from the conversation of my life,” and I thought that was such a poignant statement. We started talking about that; I was asking her to explain more about what she meant. She’s like, “Look, not everything that we do there is really important. Most of it, in fact, is not really important, but a lot of it is really important, you know. Like 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 us don’t live in very diverse communities. They’re going online to find out what that is or what Rosh Hashanah means or what’s the difference or overlap between Hannukah 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. But I think that, more than anything, there’s an opportunity to engage them in IRL conversation — in real life conversations — about what’s going on in their social media. And those can start really small, but they often are a sort of gateway into talking about bigger and further explorations.

I have a 12-year -old. One of the things we’ve asked him every week was what’s the most interesting thing you saw on YouTube this week? It’s the only “social-ish” media that he’s allowed on. We wouldn’t dare let him on Instagram or Facebook or anything else, frankly. But we started having those conversations as just 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 into these kinds of questions. We can use social as a way either 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 just dismiss them.

Doug Powe: Right. Well, as we get ready to bring this to a close, and this has been just a wonderful conversation. I want to give you a chance to, if there is sort of a thought or something you would want to leave our listeners with that really struck you from putting the annual report together, what would you want them to know?

Josh Packard: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for that. As I mentioned, I was a professor. I was a faculty member for a long time or 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 right. It was: can we get our students some more support so we can get back to the real task of them learning?

Doug Powe: Right.

Josh Packard: And I’m not sure that’s necessarily the wrong approach to take in a setting like that. But what we learned from putting together The State of Religion and Young People was that I think that might be the wrong approach to take in a faith-based setting, where I know that, for a long time, it has been the approach. It’s: 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, though, 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. And so actually doing one is in service of the other. This is not simply like 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, you know, 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 actually be a pathway towards that, if we take it really seriously.

Doug Powe:  Josh, I really appreciate you being with us today and sharing, and I hope others will take the opportunity to read the annual report. I just want to share one more time. The report is called The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health — What Faith Leaders Need to Know, and I think that you will find the report just as insightful as I did. Thank you again for joining us.

Josh Packard: Thank you so much for having me.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.

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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 also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; 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.