It may seem counter intuitive, but millennials — the age group least interested in organized religion — often want to discuss their spirituality when they come to counseling. That’s been my experience as a psychotherapist. And at least one study supports the trend.
Recent Pew surveys do indicate that adults under 30 find that organized religion is less important in their lives than older adults. They are also less likely to attend weekly religious services, and they are less likely to have a belief in God. But these same polls show little generational differences with respect to personal spirituality. About half of millennials say they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least once a week. About 75 percent say they feel a strong sense of gratitude or thankfulness just as frequently. And religiously unaffiliated millennials are just as likely to engage in a spiritual practice, like yoga or meditation, as older cohorts.
Young adulthood is a time when people are challenged to discover their place in the world, as well as the meaning and purpose of their lives. It is also a time of significant personal change. So it is not surprising that young adults often seek answers in the spiritual arena. Therapy is a setting where millennials can explore matters of identity, meaning and purpose. And with the right therapist, they can comfortably discuss their spiritual beliefs and practices.
A recent study published in Spirituality in Clinical Practice examined the needs and beliefs of a group of young people seeking treatment for serious psychological issues. With little to no prompting, almost two-thirds of those interviewed mentioned the role religion / spirituality (RS) in their lives. Four themes emerged: positive effects of RS as a coping mechanism, its negative effects, relationship with God, and implications for RS on mental health. The issue is complex for these young adults. Some were eager to discuss spirituality in therapy, but were uncertain how to start the conversation. Others feared they would be judged for their religious beliefs (or non-beliefs).
It is certainly true that many millennials prefer to wrestle with the big questions of life in therapy, rather than in church or synagogue. One reason is that religious institutions tend to emphasize communal worship, not individual self discovery and healing as in psychotherapy. Therapy may also provide a safer space for a young person to express doubts and concerns about the religion in which he or she grew up.