Tuesday 16 July 2019

Patricia Casey: 'Religious practice offers a happy alternative to young'

Keep the faith: Kosovar children dressed as angels at the Mother Teresa cathedral in Pristina on Christmas Eve. Photo: Getty Images
Keep the faith: Kosovar children dressed as angels at the Mother Teresa cathedral in Pristina on Christmas Eve. Photo: Getty Images

Patricia Casey

Two surveys in two weeks caught my attention. The first was a YouGov survey of 16-25-year-olds in the UK. More than 2,000 young people were interviewed for the survey commissioned for the Prince's Trust, a charity which helps steer young people towards education, training and work.

In 2009 it found that 9pc of this age group disagreed with the statement that "life is really worth living", while that figure had doubled to 18pc in last week's study. It also found that happiness levels regarding relationships with friends and emotional health had also plunged, although satisfaction with accommodation and finances remained unchanged.

The report also confirmed that social media had a toxic effect on young people's anxiety about their future when they compare themselves to others on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Almost 60pc reported that social media made them feel inadequate. Almost half reported portraying a more confident image on social media than was real.

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Against a background of rising teen suicide rates in Britain, while the rate overall is falling, these findings are deeply worrying. This study points to a make-believe social media environment in which the false confidence emanating from some engenders low confidence and hopeless in others.

On a positive note, earning enough money to live how they want and spending time with family were the most prominent propellers to happiness. Nonetheless, mental health workers are worried about the damage being caused to young people and the British education secretary has announced measures to assist young people in dealing with the pressures of social media. This study did not examine other factors such as relationships with parents, the role of friends outside of social media, substance use and values like religion.

A report from the US-based Pew Research Centre and its research team was published on January 31 - 'Religion's Relationship to Happiness, Civic Engagement and Health Around the World'. It was more broadly focused than the YouGov report. The international dimension examined data from 26 countries and focused on adults. It criss-crossed the globe from New Zealand to Estonia, Japan to Spain, Belarus to Singapore. Neither Ireland nor Britain was included.

It also explored different faith traditions. It will win many plaudits, since the findings can be generalised to almost any country or continent.

The researchers set out to establish if religious practices, such as attending church at least once per month, influenced various dimensions of a person's life, compared to less frequent religious activity or religious non-affiliation. The areas evaluated were happiness, individual health and civic engagement.

The study found that, overall, regular participation in a religious community was clearly linked to higher levels of feeling very happy and to greater civic engagement like voting and joining in community and voluntary organisations.

The impact on smoking and drinking less alcohol, particularly the former, was also very noticeable. However, religious engagement did not influence obesity or exercise levels compared to the other two groups. For all measures, the differences between those who were inactively religious and the unaffiliated were slim.

So what happens as the percentage of the population that is religiously affiliated (ie. practising) shrinks? Based on the lack of difference between the inactive group and the non-affiliated, there is a likelihood that overall wellbeing figures, levels of civic engagement and some health measures, will fall. This will place increasing pressure on the State to provide more resources and plug the deficits.

Critics of the benefits of religious practice will claim that if being in a community is what assists religiously affiliated people, then that support could be provided by all manner of clubs such as a book or football club. Yet this does not explain why the non-engaged or practising in this study scored less well on the measures, since they too will undoubtedly have friends in their circle who might provide support at times of difficulty.

The crucial element, not explored by Pew, but included in other studies, is that the support of like-minded religious people differs materially from that provided by a secular group. A further possibility, not necessarily separate from the latter, is that the community which publicly engages in religious practice generates positivity in the face of the travails of life.

Another explanation may be that religious practice will be diminished if the person is already unwell emotionally, a view supported by some studies, giving the impression that lower levels of happiness are due to less religious involvement, whereas it might be that less religious involvement is due to unhappiness/depression. Some studies support this but it has been shown to not be a universal explanation.

A final possibility, demonstrated in several studies, it that when terrible things happen to people, the impact of this is buffered by the tenets of religious faith and practice. These beliefs promote an amalgam of hope even in the face of tragedy, meaning to life and to death beyond our full comprehension and acceptance of the inevitable. This emotional complexity may be difficult for many critics to comprehend but it should not be discounted among the religiously committed.

Two very different surveys have emerged in the past weeks. One provides a grim result, another to a potential way forward out of the nihilism. Will anybody listen or will the social media oppressors resort to the repeated PC monikers of paternalism, repression, fanaticism and right-wing views?

Patricia Casey is Consultant Psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UCD

Irish Independent

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