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Almost immediately after COVID-19 began to spread, and particularly during the 2020 lockdowns, red flags were raised about mental health. Household incomes and day-to-day routines were disrupted, sometimes severely. Connections between friends, family and coworkers were constrained. Questions were raised about how these and other changes could impact mental health problems, particularly during the formative teenage years.

As researchers interested in answering this question, we recently released a report using representative data from 71,001 Utah teens that was collected by the Utah Department of Health.

We wanted to examine what kinds of COVID-19 stresses teens experienced and how those stresses may have impacted their mental health, particularly their depression and suicide thoughts and attempts. We also wanted to know what role religion may have played in all of this. The majority of past research has found religiosity and spirituality correlated to better mental health. Religions often provide support systems and a worldview that can give meaning in difficulties. Would these benefit individuals during a time of serious stress such as the pandemic?

The Utah Department of Health asked teens questions about stresses they may have experienced because of the pandemic, such as getting sick with COVID-19, someone in the family losing a job, having to move, skipping a meal because there wasn’t money to buy food, feeling anxious, sad or hopeless, family members fighting, or the teen having difficulties keeping up with schoolwork.

While details can be found in the full report, almost uniformly if teens experienced any of these stressors, their mental health was worse. For example, among teens who had to skip a meal because of not enough money for food, suicide attempts were more than double that for those who did not skip a meal. Those who became sick with COVID-19 were 8% more likely to have considered suicide than those who did not become sick.

What role did religion play in these stresses? Across the board, those who were affiliated with a religion were less likely to experience these stresses. For instance, 2.5% of the unaffiliated skipped a meal due to a decrease in income, whereas only 1% of affiliated teens skipped a meal. For unaffiliated teens, 18.4% said their family fought more because of the pandemic, whereas 11.9% of religiously affiliated teens said members of their family fought.

There was one exception to this: Affiliated teens were more likely to get sick than unaffiliated teens (28.3% versus 23.1%).

With all this, what was the overall effect of religion? The answer is that while religiously affiliated teens did experience additional mental health risks from getting sick, overall they were far less likely to have experienced mental health problems, partially because they were much less likely to experience the other COVID-19 related stresses. In the end, teens affiliated with a religion were uniformly lower in mental health problems than those not affiliated, having significantly lower depression and significantly fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts (this appeared particularly true for Latter-day Saints and Catholics).

In the end, teens affiliated with a religion were uniformly lower in mental health problems than those not affiliated, having significantly lower depression and significantly fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts (this appeared particularly true for Latter-day Saints and Catholics).

Pope Francis receives confession from a young faithful during the Youth Jubilee at Saint Peter Square in the Vatican on April 23, 2016.

L’Osservatore Romano, Associated Press

What’s the takeaway? COVID-19 stresses are significantly related to mental health problems in youth. Initiatives that help reduce the economic burden on families (keeping meals on the table, keeping individuals employed and in their homes) will likely have important mental health benefits for teens. These initiatives can include religions and governments providing vital resources for struggling families. Religions appear to be an important aspect of helping reduce the impact of a pandemic, thereby supporting teen mental health. The social supports and belief systems are likely crucial for many teens as they navigate uniquely stressful situations.

At the same time, religious individuals should have additional awareness about contracting COVID-19. Religious people, on average, have larger families which may lead to more opportunities to spread disease. And, although continued gathering with one’s congregation likely provides a crucial barrier against mental health problems, these gatherings should avoid potential spread which can increase mental health problems.

All in all, congregating and worshiping safely may be one of the best antidotes during a pandemic.

W. Justin Dyer is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University who 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.

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