Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Can spirituality help assuage the youth mental health crisis?


As the health, wealth and life expectancy of individuals in Australia increase, young people are paradoxically experiencing a decline in their mental health and sense of wellbeing. In a survey conducted in 2013–2014 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare almost one in seven (14 per cent) children and adolescents aged 4–17 years were assessed as experiencing a mental health condition in the previous 12 months. The institute notes that suicide is the leading cause of death of people aged between 15 and 24.

Orygen Youth Mental Health Australia also claims that ‘one in five young people will have experienced a depressive episode by the time they turn eighteen’. The ongoing Australian HILDA survey reveals the overall mental health of the 17,000 participants has been getting worse over a 20-year period, and that this was especially the case among the young. What all this suggests is that there has been an ongoing decline in young people’s mental health in Australia, and that this is not something that can be confined to the COVID epidemic.

Social commentators, clinicians and academics have argued over the reasons for the rise in anxiety and depression in young Australians. Explanations are many and varied. Some have emphasised the detrimental effect that technology has had on children and adolescents in Australia, who spend on average 5.5 hours a day looking at screens. Others have stressed that the precarious and short-term nature of the capitalist gig economy causes anxiety and depression among many young adults. Others point to the psychological stress that arises when the media promote the threat of imminent environmental collapse.

While all these factors play a part in the rise of anxiety and depression among young people in Australia, there’s another reason for this increase.

In Richard Eckersley’s study of mental health in Australia, he stresses that cultural changes in Western nations directly affect the wellbeing of young people. He identifies some of these cultural changes: ‘a rise in personal expectations and a perception that the onus of success lies with the individual; too much freedom and choice, which is experienced as a threat or a tyranny; the confusion of autonomy with independence or separateness’.

Eckersley’s diagnosis is in concert with the fact that, since the counterculture of the 1960s, with its suspicion of institutions and its emphasis on personal freedom, people have been told that they can control their destinies and create their identities. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observed that in the West, we are experiencing the ‘age of authenticity’, in which ‘each one of us has his/her own way of realising our humanity’.

Tied to the ‘age of authenticity’ are neoliberal norms and ideals that are often not articulated but nevertheless underlie the way things are done. Neoliberalism started to become entrenched in Western societies under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, both of whom promoted the idea that a free market is best, especially when coupled with minimal government intervention, privatisation of public services and reduced welfare. This neoliberal ideology places an emphasis on self-made individuals who can thrive and achieve incredible things in a free-market capitalist economy. As a lower middle-class woman who became the British prime minister, Thatcher believed she was living proof of the benefits of an unimpeded free market economy. She was famous for saying that ‘there’s no such thing as society’, emphasising the individual’s responsibility for their own success and failure.

This narrative of individualism, self-choice and self-determination is also evident in prominent websites that address mental health in Australia. On the Australian National Youth Mental Health Foundation website, ‘Headspace,’ one of their stated priorities is to ‘provide young people with access and choice. Young people can get timely access to quality support whoever they are, wherever they are, through the medium of their choice: in person, phone, video, webchat, email and website.’

On the ‘Beyond Blue’ website, in a section exploring personal stories of mental health, Emily states:


‘Most importantly, I live a life that I want to keep living. It wasn’t the darkest times that made me stronger, kinder and more empathetic. It was how I handled them. And that credit is mine.’


Again, this reflects the narrative that young people are ultimately personally responsible for their mental health, both in a positive and negative sense. For instance, the Black Dog Institute website promotes the World Health Organisation framework which defines mental health as ‘a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’.

This is part of the prominent ‘positive psychology’ discourse, which promotes the idea that poor mental health can be overcome through individual choice, strength of will and perseverance. The treatments emphasised on these websites cultivate a perception that these attributes will help young people to overcome mental health problems and go on to thrive.

It's an approach not without risk. In a 2017 study of young adults and antidepressant use in Sweden, Sandell and Bornäs stress the damage that high expectations can have on the mental health of the young. One of the main findings of their study emphasises a problem that is not often recognised in Australia:


What comes across very strongly is the guilt between the high expectations some interviewees have of themselves, and their ability to live up to them. They assume that they are capable of doing anything and that there are no restrictions in terms of living conditions or tradition … They understand their failure as a waste, as if they are not fulfilling their potential.


The authors call these unrealistic expectations ‘the unbridgeable gap’. They refer to Ian Craib’s The Importance of Disappointment (1994) as best recognising this predicament in which young people turn experiences of failure, hurt and hatred away from society and onto themselves. Sandell and Bornäs provide multiple firsthand accounts to support their claims. Eli, for example, is a young adult who feels exhausted trying to reach unrealistic goals:


‘I was reaching for an unattainable goal in a way. I just wanted to be better at everything. There was no limit; I was going to be the best at everything. It was impossible.’ Then there is Lovisa, who does not feel she has any reason to be mentally ill: ‘I have a middle-class background and we weren’t poor … Mine is just a really good background. So absolutely, I feel like I have nothing to blame.’


The authors believe that a lack of recognition of the unrealistic expectations and goals that permeate modern neoliberal culture results in an understanding of depression that is seemingly without reason or meaning. The study highlights the fact that in Sweden young adults who fall victim to ‘the unbridgeable gap’ are prescribed antidepressants, which numb their emotions and turn them into ‘perfect neoliberal subjects’. In this way they are able to function, but they are unable to meaningfully participate and engage in society or to recognise the social and cultural reasons for their poor mental health. It's worth noting that in recent years, both Sweden and Australia have appeared in the top five countries in regard to anti-depressant use.




Sociologist Émile Durkheim saw himself as society’s diagnostician. He viewed society as being one great big organism, which functioned best when all its component parts were working well together. And Durkheim’s seemingly paradoxical idea, ‘liberty is the fruit of regulation’, encapsulated his belief that for a society to function optimally, its citizens needed their passions to be regulated by an exterior force:


The passions first must be limited … But since the individual has no way of limiting them, this must be done by some force exterior to him. A regulative force must play the same role for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs.


Durkheim believed that when society did not provide a regulatory force, its citizens were likely to suffer from what he called ‘the disease of the infinite’, where there were no guiding norms and too many choices. He maintained that religious institutions had formerly done a great job of providing that strong regulatory force.

Sociologist Max Weber agreed, but also rather condescendingly suggested, in 1917, that in the modern West all were welcome to return to the churches, but that they must make an ‘intellectual sacrifice at the door’. Although this might seem patronising to churchgoers, we can recognise this belief among young people in Australia today. Traditional organised religion is often seen as being out of step with mainstream values and beliefs, and in a state of steady decline.

Nevertheless, in Australia, modern religious fundamentalist mega-churches such as Hillsong and the Paradise Community Church have a large following among the young, and provide a sense of community, meaningful rituals and regulatory moral codes of conduct. In his study of the Hillsong Church in Australia, Matthew Wade draws our attention to the all-encompassing regulatory nature of this ‘total institution’, where ‘the devotee can (and is actively encouraged to) seek guidance from the Church at any and all times’. Wade also specifies that Hillsong provides this authoritative around-the-clock guidance while ostensibly remaining immersed in neoliberal capitalist ideals, promoting individual integrity and responsibility, economic prosperity and self-determination. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman believed modern religious fundamentalism reveals the ills of Western society: ‘The allure of fundamentalism stems from its promise to emancipate the converted from the agonies of choice. Here one finds, finally … an authority to end all authorities.’

Although modern religious fundamentalism can help alleviate the anxiety and depression that stems from a culture that emphasises self-determination and infinite choice, Bauman argued, it does so only by providing a rigid, totalitarian framework. Durkheim would agree with this diagnosis and would likely recognise that Hillsong and many other modern fundamentalist churches constrict members with excessive regulation. With more traditional churches in a state of decline in the West, and with modern fundamentalist churches providing a solution that, in many ways, may be worse than the cure, it does not seem likely that modern religious institutions will help alleviate the spike in mental health issues among the young in Australia.

It should be noted, however, that this critique of excessive regulation is not just aimed at or limited to religious institutions. The same charge could be levelled at any number of secular political movements and ideologies across the political spectrum which face similar criticisms. Take Extinction Rebellion as an example. Despite providing meaning and purpose, moral codes of conduct and a sense of community, some might argue these movements similarly display elements of fundamentalism and regulation much like certain religious groups.

So where does that leave young people in Australia? According to the latest ABS census, an increasing number of Australians are ticking ‘no religion’. Dr Ruth Powell, Director of NCLS Research, argues that we need to look behind ABS figures around religious identity when determining how ‘spiritual’ young Australians are. According to the 2021 Australian Community Survey results, 60 per cent of Australians pray or meditate, and 55 per cent believe in God. ‘People who identified as having no religious affiliation still had spiritual or religious lives,’ says Powell.


"In a 2019 study on spirituality and wellbeing, Claudia Psaila maintains that ‘it is now being recognised that we are spiritual beings and that this dimension has not been given enough attention in understanding and promoting wellbeing’."


In Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (2001), Robert C. Fuller maintains that the rise of the SBNR (spiritual but not religious) movement in the West is a result of the belief that spirituality is concerned with inward growth and self-development (private sphere), whereas religion is concerned with adhering to official institutions and denominational doctrines (public sphere). Fuller’s distinction points to the fact that modern spirituality is much more in tune with a post-Romantic, post-1960s culture that prioritises individual freedom and choice. Boaz Huss identifies this phenomenon:


In present-day usage, spirituality usually focuses not on God, but rather on the self … spirituality today is not only connected to the physical, material, and secular aspects of life … but it is often described as the binary opposition of religion.


In contrast to Fuller and Huss, Eckersley argues that:


There is also evidence that, between the ‘old Church’ and the New Age, new expressions of spirituality are emerging that transcend, rather than confront, the powerful individualising and fragmenting forces of modern Western culture.


Eckersley stresses that young people’s new expressions of a transcendent spirituality should not be ignored, as they might well provide a solution to the mental health problems that are impacting upon the young in Australia.

In her study of spirituality and wellbeing, Nicole Holt identifies positive transcendent attributes of modern spirituality that she argues help alleviate depression and anxiety — namely, a sense of connectedness, expressing unconditional love, acceptance, faith and inner peace. Holt also argues that ‘spirituality helps the alleviation of anxiety and depression’ and ‘is frequently regarded as the missing dimension of healthcare, yet it is under-researched, frequently misinterpreted and often neglected’. Due to its perceived transcendent and subjective nature, spirituality is notoriously difficult to quantify and qualify, and this has led to mental health professionals being wary of engaging with spiritual practices and treatments.

In a 2019 study on spirituality and wellbeing, Claudia Psaila maintains that ‘it is now being recognised that we are spiritual beings and that this dimension has not been given enough attention in understanding and promoting wellbeing’. According to Psaila, multiple recent studies around spirituality and wellbeing point out that those who have a sense of a spiritual life have lower suicide rates, less anxiety and depression, and more sense of purpose, meaning, satisfaction and stability.

Similarly, in a recent 2022 Springtide Research Institute study of 13 to 25-year-olds in the United States — based on a survey of nearly 10,000 young people — more than half (57 per cent) claimed that their religious or spiritual practices positively impact upon their mental health. One of the main findings of this study is that young people are not flocking to religious institutions but are ‘flourishing’ in a spiritual sense by feeling that they are connected to a higher power. This sense of spiritual connectedness among the young points to the efficacy of spirituality in helping to combat the negative mental health effects brought about by the heightened neoliberal self-responsibility and individualism that permeates modern Western culture.

In the Australian context, author and spirituality expert David Tacey professes that young people are rejecting institutional religion and are instead taking part in what he calls a ‘spiritual revolution’. Tacey gives firsthand accounts of young students who feel positive about their spiritual life and says that ‘Spirituality is a desire for connectedness, which often expresses itself as an emotional relationship with an invisible sacred presence’. He also claims that there is a desire present among young Australians, but that it is not recognised by mainstream institutions:


Noticing the existence of youth spirituality is one of the most precious and unexpected gifts of my academic career as a university teacher in the humanities. It is like discovering an underground stream beneath the often dry and sometimes barren academic landscape.


Tacey’s observation is in concert with other scholars and critics who maintain that the sense of connectedness that flows from spirituality is not taken seriously in the secular universities in Australia, nor in the wider culture in the West.

In the prevailing neoliberal individualistic culture, in which self-choice and self-determination are held up as the highest values, it is perhaps not surprising that spirituality is absent from Australian mental health websites. For instance, on the Headspace and Black Dog Institute websites, none of the personal stories of people who have suffered from mental illness emphasise the spiritual aspect of their recovery. It is also noticeable that on the website for the upcoming Global Forum for Adolescents five domains of adolescent wellbeing are presented: agency and resilience; community and connectedness; education and employment; safety and support; and good health and nutrition; but none of these engage with the spirituality of young people.

Despite the negative associations attached to some forms of modern spirituality, I would suggest that by not engaging with the sense of connectedness and inner wellbeing that comes from an active spiritual life, mental health organisations do not provide young people with a meaningful counterpoint to neoliberal individualism and unrealistic expectations. 

Young people’s mental health will not improve while self-determination, self-choice and neoliberal individualism are the lodestar of contemporary Australian culture. Mental health professions in Australia could improve this situation by better recognising the spiritual dimension of young people, as a transcendent sense of connectedness to something larger than themselves will help them to reject the myth that we are all individually responsible for our mental wellbeing.




Dr Adrian Rosenfeldt is a Lecturer and Head Tutor in Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. He is the author of The God Debaters: New Atheist Identity-Making and the Religious Self in the New Millennium (2022).  

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Adrian Rosenfeldt, Spirituality, Mental Health, Sociology, Wellbeing



submit a comment

Existing comments

Joseph Cambell, the late mythologist, felt everyone received what he termed 'the Call' sometime in their lives. Campbell was not conventionally religious. 'The Call' was to something deeper in life: a transformative experience. I believe David Tacey is very much in the same vein as Campbell. Our young people need clues about how to navigate life. I don't believe we currently provide these.

Edward Fido | 30 September 2023  

This is a fascinating and measured overview of this modern problem. Lots to think about. I have also noticed that mental health websites don't mention the spiritual side of what it is to be human. And as you point out, this impacts on young people's mental health. When you completely ignore something it has a way of becoming a disease. I think Jung said that in the modern world, by neglecting our spiritual or religious nature, the Gods have become diseases. The reason for the rise in mental illness among our young.

John Taylor | 12 October 2023  

It is interesting that, in a traditional Western Christian society, there was always a creative tension between Church and State, but also one between a somewhat overformal and rigidified Church and genuine, inspired spiritual innovators, like St Francis of Assisi. With time, even the Franciscan movement became formalized and rigidified. My ideal is a situation where we have a genuine cohesive society within which individuals feel valued and endorsed and so able to find their own way spiritually and otherwise.

Edward Fido | 13 October 2023  

Awesome essay of great relevance. As a retired medico ..now somewhat academic; associated with medical students..ordained interfaith minister with an Anglican background,…volunteer hospital chaplain in mental health and fellow military vets(consummate jack of all trades and master of none!) this all resonates with me.
Religion as we know comes from the Latin ligare as in ligature….tie. I now relate to the analogy of religion being the open bowl containing a fish whilst that bowl is submerged in an ocean of spirituality.
Water can flow freely throughout all of the mileu of water but the free water relates to more fish contemporaneously, than the water in the bowl.

Simplistic maybe.
Abrahamic faiths have increasingly-unwittingly exerted external control but we need to engage more with all other forms of spirituality; sincerely not in a dismissive….”.yeah OK but if you really thought about it you would see it my way!”

My background Anglicanism …..(I am in the church choir and sing badly but with great passion) constantly reminds me of the discordance between the great material assets of the churches and the amount of resources actually shared with the needy.
Prayers are great but the needy need basic requirements met. Most needy would rather not be dependent.
This discordance has been part of the institutional disengagement issue from the time of Woodstock on and is not lost on our present youth.
Thank you for a very thought provoking essay.

Denis Bartrum | 13 October 2023  

I heartily agree with this idea and share the feeling that a lack of observation of the spiritual side of our being is really missing in society today. However, the "being spiritual without being religious' proposition is not the same as the 'being a Christian without attending church" proposition that some people like to see it as. Accepting that we are spiritual beings is of little value unless we submit to that spirituality in some way. In its own way this is religious and is what many people who do attend church have been doing for years

geoff Duke | 13 October 2023  

I may have misunderstood Geoff Duke, but I think there is a difference between churchianity and Christianity. The world has changed dramatically since Jesus lived in Palestine. In the main Jesus preached to fellow Jews, who had the same religious framework. How would he cope with the modern unchurched? Very well, I would imagine. Presenting Christianity simplistically does it no favours. Look at what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. It happens. Many people who go regularly to church have never had a genuine transformative experience.

Edward Fido | 16 October 2023  
Show Responses

Good point Edward Fido. I think John Taylor in the comment below said it better than I did. It is the rigour or commitment that allows our spirituality to grow.

geoff Duke | 26 October 2023  

I think it was Nick Cave who recently said that religion is spirituality with rigour. That spirituality needs to be grounded in some way. I don't think this means you have to go to church but that you have to commit to something outside yourself. Otherwise, you will be blown away when the strong winds blow.
I think a transformative spiritual or religious experience only occurs when someone is struck down by an immense leviathanic force and feels totally discombobulated, whether it be physical or existential, or both – death. It is out of this morass of meaninglessness that the healing can begin.
There is often a sense of dread that is attributed to an outside force that helps an individual to change direction. Homespun spirituality is too safe and recognisable to bring about this transformative experience.

John Taylor | 17 October 2023  

Great article. So often what cannot be measured will not be counted. If the life of the spirit is suppressed or ignored it breeds monsters. Religion used to be a binding agent against these spectres, but now seems as likely to produce them. Where do people turn? They can't go back to the church and the way forward seems to lead into arid, trackless wastes. Tacey writes in Edge of the Sacred that he perceives a huge and globally significant spiritual potential waiting to be released in Australia. I wish I could see it.
Still, reflections like this one offer at least a correct diagnosis of the illness.

Andrew | 19 October 2023  

Thanks for a thoughtful and informative piece, Adrian. I agree, the tenets of secular, modern cultures — ‘you can be whatever you want’, there are ‘infinite possibilities’, ‘you are the captain of your fate’ and so on — predispose people, young and old, towards Durkheim’s ‘disease of the infinite’.
Using literature to foster wellbeing is another approach that has been well-researched in the UK and elsewhere and is now being tried and tested here in Australia. Shared Reading brings a small group of people together to listen to a story and a poem. A trained facilitator guides conversation to tease out the emotional undercurrents of the text, to reflect on characters and their predicaments. The literature becomes a springboard for broader reflections on life and personal experience. Various studies have demonstrated Shared Reading’s capacity to reduce anxiety, alleviate symptoms of depression, increase confidence and, importantly, create a sense of connectedness and social inclusion in a non-medicalised setting https://www.thereader.org.uk/about-us/our-research/. A large part of how it does this is by contextualizing individual experience within a bigger picture. The literature and the group help participants to realize that that they are not alone and to cultivate a fuller understanding of the amplitude of human life.

Melinda Turner | 23 October 2023  

I think David Tacey is correct in seeing the possibility for a tremendous spiritual potential to be unleashed in Australia. What we need is for young men and women to be taught to realize 'the kingdom of God is within you.' Most conventional and unconventional religious leaders want surface conformists. Jesus and Buddha weren't. We need to change our outlook on what is important and this needs to filter through to families and the educational system. In Australia we glorify sport, wealth and superficial success. These are not enough on which to build a civilization.

Edward Fido | 27 October 2023  

The essay fails to address why religious adherence is fading away so quickly. The 2011 census showed that 30% of Australians were non-religious, a figure that rose to 39% in 2021. If religion offered a panacea to mental health in young people, why is it becoming steadily more unpopular?

Richard Plunkett | 25 March 2024  

Similar Articles

Will they gain a Voice? I sincerely hope so

  • Barry Gittins
  • 28 September 2023

The voices of Australia's First Nations communities are asking to be heard. With the upcoming referendum, the nation faces a decision both about equity and identity. How might genuine hope and understanding impact Australia's path forward and address longstanding disparities?


A Voice divided

  • David Halliday
  • 25 September 2023

In the lead up to the Voice referendum, there's a subtle yet seismic undercurrent at play: How do we sustain a meaningful democratic conversation when the foundational truths seem so fragmented? Our ability to connect, converse, and find consensus could be the real referendum of our times.