Young Americans today are in a battle for their mental health, and schools are on the front lines working to provide them with critical resources. At religious schools, a new national study revealed a surprising area where mental health resources could be improved: How school counselors navigate religious differences with students.

Springtide Research Institute’s 2022 study, “Mental Health & Gen Z: What Educators Need to Know,” asked thousands of students about their mental health experiences at school, including why they might be hesitant to see a mental health professional at school. On this front, one finding really stood out to us: 47% of students at religious schools agreed, “The school mental health counselors/therapists do not share my religious beliefs, so they might not understand me or the challenges I am having,” compared to just 33% of students at non-religious schools.

This 14-point gap between students at religious and non-religious schools was the widest among 13 possible survey options given for why they are hesitant to see a school counselor.

On the one hand, one can imagine more opportunities at faith-based schools for students and counselors to disagree on faith, and for these disagreements to matter. Furthermore, only 64% of survey participants attending faith-based schools identified themselves as Christian (incl. Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “just Christian”), leaving 36% who are likely attending a Christian school while not identifying as a Christian. These students may be apprehensive to visit the school counselor if an explicitly Christian approach to mental health is used.

However, we found that numerous Christian students at faith-based schools, whether Protestant (38%), Catholic (40%), Orthodox (53%), or Just Christian (32%), also shared a hesitancy to see the school counselor for help because they “do not share my religious beliefs.” Theoretically, wouldn’t Christian students at a Christian school enjoy the benefit of a school counselor who appreciates a distinct Christian angle on mental health issues?

How Faith-Based Schools May Be Deterring Students

To clarify what may be happening, I brought these findings to Dr. Scott Secor, Assistant Professor of Counseling and Psychology at Southern Nazarene University as well as Director of Clinical Training and Co-Director of SNU’s Renew Counseling Center. A licensed professional counselor, Secor has been an instructor in SNU’s Graduate Programs in Counseling since 2012. SNU’s motto is “Refining Character. Creating Culture. Serving Christ.”

Interestingly, Dr. Secor theorized that counselors at faith-based schools may be deterring students by how much—or how little—they are personally disclosing their beliefs.

On the one hand, Dr. Secor suggested that counselors at faith-based schools may share too much about their beliefs.

“The fact that students seem to have knowledge of their therapists’ religious beliefs is curious to me as it could indicate some self-disclosure by therapists that is often antithetical to good therapy,” Secor said. He added, “My clients often know very little about the details of my life, by design. That does not mean they do not get an experience of what I am like as a person, in fact, the opposite. But my belief systems are not the relevant factor in therapy, the client's belief systems are the important element.”

On the other hand, Dr. Secor suggested that a lack of self-disclosure from Christian school counselors about their beliefs could create uncertainty for students—but that navigating uncertainty is not only a sign of good faith-based counseling, but the key to growth.

“It seems to me that we often feel others are in solidarity with us when they share—and by share, I mean vocalize—similarity to us and our belief systems. If the therapists are non-disclosing or ambiguous in presentation in the space of therapy, it is possible that this ambiguity is leading to uncertainty, which then leads to a feeling of insecurity and thus to a projection of what the therapist may actually believe,” Dr. Secor explained.

He continues, “Good therapists promote a space in which uncertainty is not something to be feared but is something that leads to broader self-understanding and richer experiences of life. This often looks like therapy being very non-prescriptive and unstructured. Psychologists and therapists, good ones, have hopefully learned to embrace differences and be okay with not knowing, and in fact, be okay with others actively believing in things different from us. This is often where I see the interaction of psychology, counseling, and faith.”

Gen Z and Uncertainty

Dr. Secor’s comments struck a familiar chord for my colleagues and I here at Springtide. Last year, our annual “State of Religion & Young People 2021: Navigating Uncertainty” was devoted to learning how Gen Z is navigating these uncertain pandemic and post-pandemic years.

Uncertainty, we found, can either sink a young person’s mental health or provide the raw materials to strengthen it.

Uncertainty, we found, can either sink a young person’s mental health or provide the raw materials to strengthen it. The difference, we discovered, often comes down to the kind of guidance and mentorship young people are receiving from adults they trust, including faith leaders, teachers, employers, and school counselors.

When it comes to their faith, many young people are distancing themselves from religious institutions and traditional religious markers in favor of an “unbundled” spirituality marked by flexibility and authenticity, often drawing inspiration from a variety of sources. To the degree a Christian school counselor is perceived by students as representing the religious institution or enforcing that institution’s traditional religious markers, this could also be a reason for the hesitancy some students feel about entrusting their mental health issues to the counselor.

In that vein, counselors at religious schools face a unique challenge: How do they counsel Gen Z from the confines of a faith-based institution in a way that is invitational? Even more, how do they attract institution-weary Gen Zers into counseling while being careful not to offer the kind of transparency about their personal beliefs that builds trust?

There may not be great answers to these questions right now, but since a third of students at religious schools (33%) tell Springtide they struggle with depression most/all of the time, the stakes have never been higher to find solutions.

Kevin Singer is Head of Media and Public Relations at Springtide Research Institute and has taught religious studies at community colleges for the last 10 years.