Almost immediately after COVID-19 began to spread, and especially during the 2020 shutdowns, red flags were raised regarding mental health. Household incomes and daily routines have been disrupted, sometimes severely. Relationships between friends, family and colleagues were limited. Questions have been raised about how these and other changes might impact mental health issues, particularly during the early teen years.
As researchers interested in answering this question, we recently published a report using representative data from 71,001 Utah adolescents that was collected by the Utah Department of Health.
We wanted to examine what kinds of COVID-19-related stresses adolescents have experienced and how these stresses may have impacted their mental health, particularly their depression and thoughts and attempts of suicide. We also wanted to know what role religion may have played in all of this. The majority of previous research has shown that religiosity and spirituality are correlated with better mental health. Religions often offer support systems and a worldview that can make sense of difficulties. Would it benefit individuals during a time of severe stress like the pandemic?
The Utah Department of Health asked teens about stresses they may have been under due to the pandemic, such as getting sick with COVID-19, someone in the family losing their job, having to move house , skipping a meal because there was no money to buy food, feeling anxious, sad or hopeless, family members arguing or the teenager having difficulty keeping up with schoolwork.
While the details can be found in the full report, almost uniformly if adolescents experienced any of these stressors, their mental health was worse. For example, among teens who had to skip meals because they didn’t have enough money for food, suicide attempts were more than double those of those who didn’t skip meals. Those who got sick with COVID-19 were 8% more likely to have considered suicide than those who did not get sick.
What role did religion play in these tensions? Overall, those who were affiliated with a religion were less likely to experience these stresses. For example, 2.5% of unaffiliated teens skipped a meal due to a drop in income, while only 1% of affiliated teens skipped a meal. For unaffiliated teens, 18.4% said their family was fighting more because of the pandemic, while 11.9% of religious-affiliated teens said family members were fighting.
There was one exception to this: affiliated teens were more likely to get sick than unaffiliated teens (28.3% vs. 23.1%).
With all of this, what has been the overall effect of religion? The answer is that while religious adolescents experienced additional mental health risks from becoming ill, overall they were much less likely to have had mental health problems, in part because they were much less susceptible to other stresses related to COVID-19. Ultimately, adolescents affiliated with a religion consistently had fewer mental health problems than those unaffiliated, having significantly lower depression and significantly fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts (this seemed especially true for Latter-day Saints and Catholics).
Ultimately, adolescents affiliated with a religion consistently had fewer mental health problems than those unaffiliated, having significantly lower depression and significantly fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts (this seemed especially true for Latter-day Saints and Catholics).
What’s the takeaway? Stresses related to COVID-19 are significantly linked to mental health problems in young people. Initiatives that help reduce the economic burden on families (keeping meals on the table, keeping people employed and at home) are likely to have significant benefits for adolescent mental health. These initiatives can include religions and governments providing vital resources to struggling families. Religions appear to be an important aspect in helping to reduce the impact of a pandemic, thereby supporting adolescent mental health. Social supports and belief systems are likely crucial for many teens as they navigate particularly stressful situations.
At the same time, religious people should be made more aware of the possibility of contracting COVID-19. Religious people, on average, have larger families, which can increase the chances of the disease spreading. And, while continued gatherings with his congregation will likely provide a crucial barrier against mental health issues, those gatherings should prevent potential spread that can increase mental health issues.
All in all, coming together and worshiping safely can be one of the best antidotes during a pandemic.
W. Justin Dyer is Professor of Religion at Brigham Young University and holds a Ph.D. in human and community development. Ali Crandall, Ph.D, is an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Brigham Young University. Carl L. Hanson, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Public Health at Brigham Young University.