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Young people’s wellbeing
Young people’s wellbeing

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4.3 Improving wellbeing through spirituality

Alongside emotional literacy, a second area that has become the focus for policy makers concerned to promote young people's emotional wellbeing is spirituality. The catastrophic and unstoppable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic produced a series of devastating effects from an economic, social and psychological point of view at a global level. In this context, it is interesting to investigate if and how spirituality has been a form of emotional and psychological comfort useful for dealing with the loss and anguish of critical moments in life like this (Coppola, 2021). However, even before the global pandemic, governments in the USA and UK were seeking to encourage the contribution of ‘faith communities’ to social policy, with both the Trump and Johnson governments apparently keen to support ‘faith-based’ welfare initiatives. Recent education policy in the UK has sought to support the work of faith schools, and representatives of religious groups have been invited to contribute to policy forums. While involvement in formal religion has declined in most Western societies, recent years have also seen an upsurge of interest in issues of spirituality, with Eastern and ‘new age’ spiritual practices increasingly popular.

In this context, the notion that faith and spirituality might be useful resources in developing individual and community wellbeing has become popular among policy makers. A research report published in 2005 appeared to bear this out, with young people who had a religious faith apparently expressing a more hopeful and positive attitude to life than their more sceptical and secular peers (Francis and Robbins, 2005). Research from Vitorino et al. (2018) demonstrated how different levels of spirituality and religiousness are associated with quality of life, depressive symptoms, anxiety, optimism and happiness. Findings demonstrated that having higher levels of both spirituality and religiousness were more correlated to better outcomes than having just one of them or none of them. A YoungMinds study of the mental health of black and minority ethnic young people concluded that religious faith was a powerful resource for some groups:

In the face of depressive and schizophrenic symptoms, prayer was perceived as particularly effective among African Caribbean Christian and Pakistani Muslim groups … However, another study found that, relative to other kinds of help for depression, religious activity was not seen as particularly helpful, but that Muslims believed more strongly than other groups in the efficacy of religious coping methods for depression.

(Street et al., 2005, cited in Meier, 2005, p. 17)

As with the renewed emphasis on emotional literacy, it is undeniable that a positive and hopeful outlook on life, whether inspired by religious belief or anything else, is likely to protect young people against depression, and may help them to cope with the everyday anxieties of youth. On the other hand, it can also be argued that this emphasis on the value of a ‘positive’ faith, regardless of its content, has its dangers. It can be seen as denying the important part played by doubt, scepticism and intellectual exploration in the experience of adolescence. The emphasis on the value of faith is consistent with the emphasis on youth as a time of achieving, contributing and generally being positive and enterprising that was discussed earlier in the course.

Attempts to employ spirituality as a resource for promoting young people's mental health also run the risk of emptying belief of any content – viewing it simply as a neutral ‘resource’, like other forms of social capital – and glossing over awkward contradictions. Is acquiring or maintaining a strong religious faith necessarily a good thing for all young people, whatever the nature of that faith and its beliefs and practices? Does encouraging ‘faith’ as an element of social policy mean supporting religious groups that have illiberal attitudes to women and gay people? And if a strong sense of purpose is always a good thing, should we also encourage young people to join extreme political organisations?

It could be argued that, in some instances, a ‘positive’ faith might actually be detrimental to a young person's mental health, and that rigid adherence to a religious or political faith might be a symptom of mental distress rather than its solution. Writing about the lessons to be drawn from the London bombings of 2005, Richard Meier states:

It was said of one of the suicide bombers, Hasib Hussain, that he ‘went off the rails’ as a young teenager but became a reformed character when he ‘suddenly became devoutly religious’ two years ago.

(Meier, 2005, p. 17)

Reflecting on this quotation again leads to the question of what exactly is meant by wellbeing in relation to young people. Was Hasib Hussain a more whole or healthy person before or after he became ‘devoutly religious’?

This kind of critical questioning helps to undermine any universal notion of what constitutes wellbeing, and to be critical of attempts to impose a single set of healthy ‘outcomes’ on all young people, whatever their circumstances. It is also important to acknowledge that many young people experience youth as a time of difficulty and uncertainty, but that this may have no serious long-term consequences for them. If a young person has been brought up in an unquestioning religious faith or in a claustrophobic family environment, then their teenage years might be a time of necessary breaking away, with its own inevitable but perhaps short-term distress.

On the other hand, research into youth subcultures such as Adams (2018) examines how the ‘Grime’ music scene functions as a vehicle for expressions of identity. Grime is a musical form which has the potential to travel widely and to speak to, and for, marginalised fractions of society in diverse places, addressing and expressing the commonalities and specificities of the experiences of young people (Adams, 2018).

Two images (one of a mother and her child, the other of a male sitting by a music player) side by side.