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New research from MIC academic explores relationship between religious beliefs and mental wellbeing in teenagers

Dr Lydia Mannion

New research into the relationship between Irish adolescent students and religion suggests that religion has the potential to positively or negatively influence students’ mental wellbeing, depending on how it is used by the adolescent. The new findings come from Mary Immaculate College (MIC) Lecturer and Educational and Child Psychologist, Dr Lydia Mannion, who has conducted research with over a hundred students in Transition Year, Fifth Year and Leaving Certificate classes across ten post-primary schools in Ireland.

The research conducted by Dr Mannion investigated the correlation between mental wellbeing and religion and indicates that those with more positive mental wellbeing lean on more positive religious coping methods, whereas those with lower levels of mental wellbeing may interpret difficulties as being divinely attributed or may hold negative feelings towards God.

These surveys measured students’ psychological wellbeing, religiousness, and how they use religion to cope in their day-to-day lives. Individual, online interviews on the topic were subsequently completed with a number of these students.

According to Dr Lydia Mannion: “One of the key findings was that a student’s religion can either positively or negatively impact on their mental wellbeing, depending on the way they actually use their religion to cope with life. For example, the use of positive religious coping methods by a young person might look like reading scripture for strength, partaking in a religious youth group, or practising personal prayer. These methods are generally associated with more positive psychological wellbeing, and in particular, a greater sense of purpose in life. Also, when religiously-affiliated adolescents really internalise and buy into their religious beliefs on a personal level, this is linked to better overall mental wellbeing.

“On the other hand, the use of negative religious coping by a young person would appear quite differently. For example, a young person might believe that negative events in their life are caused by divine punishment, may feel abandoned by God or their faith community, or hold feelings of anger or frustration towards God. These coping strategies are considered unhealthy and our research shows that they contribute to lower overall psychological wellbeing for young people”, Lydia continued.

Dr Mannion continued: “Interestingly, students who identified as non-religious were just as likely as religious students to use these negative religious coping methods to deal with their daily lives.”

The researchers suggest that young people should consider whether they tend to use positive or negative religious coping methods, or a combination of both, and to be aware of the potential implications for their mental wellbeing. For parents and other adults who work with religious students, the researchers state that it is important to promote the use of positive religious coping methods, as well as to challenge the use of negative religious coping, if it is apparent.

Dr Mannion says it’s important to emphasise that a young person’s religion can be a useful tool to harness in helping them to deal with challenges: “We’re not suggesting that students take up a religion for the specific purpose of boosting their wellbeing, but it is important to acknowledge that if a student is religious, this can be used as a tool to promote positive mental health outcomes for them. For those of us who parent or work with religious adolescents, we should help them to really internalise their beliefs through active participation in their faith community, as well as help them to practise positive religious coping methods, like personal prayer and spiritual reading. This can have a really positive influence on their psychological wellbeing.

“However, if we notice a young person using negative religious coping methods, we should be prepared to challenge this with them, as this type of coping mechanism can lead to poorer mental health outcomes for the young person. Teaching young people about positive and negative religious coping, and the possible positive or negative implications for their mental wellbeing associated with each type of religious coping, is crucial, too”, Lydia continued.

Students who took part in the research were also surveyed on their religious beliefs, and were asked to indicate whether or not they were affiliated with particular religious denominations. “One of the most fascinating findings of the study was that while 80 out of the students who completed the surveys self-identified as Catholic, only 55 of these students then said that they believed in God,” Lydia remarked. “Many of these students would have attended Catholic primary schools, and are currently attending Catholic post-primary schools. These findings show us that there needs to be a wider conversation about what it actually means for young people to identify as Catholic in Ireland today”.

The research project was supervised by Dr Maurice Harmon, Head of the Department of Learning, Society, & Religious Education, and Dr Trevor O’Brien, Lecturer in Inclusive and Special Education at MIC.