Is religious practice good for adolescents’ wellbeing or not? Most previous research indicates a protective effect, but a newly published US study suggests a negative relationship between religious practice and mental health for some teenagers — namely, Asian American and Latino youth who attend a culturally distinct church. The research is based on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health — like the study in the next item on this page which showed that religious practice protected teens from alcohol abuse.
The study in question here analysed responses from 12,155 adolescents in high school grades 7 through 12, and information from their parents. The students were interviewed twice, one year apart. Questions concerned experience (or signs) of depression, loneliness, isolation, happiness and other feelings, plus behaviour. The responses were compared with the young people’s race, religious preference, and how often they attended services.
These are the results for young people attending church often (at least once a week):
* White and African-American teens generally had fewer symptoms of depression.
* Asian-American teens reported 20 to 27 per cent more symptoms of depression than their white and African-American peers.
* Latino adolescents reported 6 to 14 per cent higher rates of depression than did African-American and white teens.
In “stark contrast” with the findings for white and African-American adolescents, says a press release, Asian-American teens who never attended religious services, and Latinos who attended at intermediate levels were the least likely to be depressed within their groups.
Co-author of the study, Richard Petts — who did the research with another doctoral student while at Ohio State University and now teaches sociology at Ball State University — speculates on these results as follows: “Asian and Latino youth who are highly involved in a culturally distinct church may have a more difficult time balancing the beliefs of their family and their traditional culture with mainstream society. Their religious institution is telling them what should be important in their lives and how to behave, and mainstream society is saying something else.” Petts’ analysis so far seems reasonable.
The next step in his reasoning, however, leads into murky waters. While lower levels of church involvement correlated with lower depression rates among Asian-American teens, Latinos who never went to church reported quite high levels of depression — 26 to 28 per cent higher than white and African-American youth (who never attended). This leads Petts to conclude that attending church less often would be a good compromise for Latino young people; they would still have the social support of their community but not feel so constrained by its counter-cultural mores — especially, it seems, its sexual ethics.
And here we come to the value-laden crunch of the study. Petts says females who were sexually active reported higher levels of depression than sexually active males. In addition, Latina females who participated heavily in their religion were more likely to become depressed than their male counterparts — more, even, than Latina’s who went to church intermittently.
The problem? Not a bad conscience and disappointing your parents, but a “patriarchal” church in which women “don’t have an equal say” and which tells them to act differently from how they choose to behave. Solution? Put a little distance between yourself and the church, girl. ~ Newswise/Ohio State University Press release, Sep 3