A person who has their arms extended outwards looking up at the sky with a happy appearance. The sun is gleaming behind them.

Spirituality may be an untapped resource for GenZennial mental health. Spirituality is not new, but spiritual self-care is.

When was the last time you sat down, quietly, both feet planted, eyes closed, to get in touch with who you are, your soul, your inner-being or a higher power? Most of you would probably say, “I wish I had made the time to do it,” and some of you probably have planned on it but life got in the way. This is likely because of the way we operate in today’s world. There are so many external demands that are constantly vying for our attention. 

Now imagine being born into the internet “explosion”; a world in which you don’t understand what “logging off” means - if you were born between 1988-2012, this is likely you.  We call you a GenZennial- you are Gen Z or a young Millennial – between the ages of 18-35. GenZennials live their lives on the internet and mobile apps; they use the internet and apps for everything from financial banking, to ordering groceries, connecting with family, getting a degree, and socializing. In fact, 98% of GenZennials own a smartphone and use the internet, 79% report that they can’t live without their phones, and GenZennials spend approximately 4 hours per day on social media; that is half of a work day. 

Think about how you feel about the hustle and bustle of your own life, then add the pressures of being overwhelmed with external, digital influences, how these generations have learned to determine their self-worth by how many friends they have based on likes and follows. There is overwhelm with our external way of being and the need to be connected to a device to live our lives. All of this has contributed to a mental health epidemic. 

We need to be doing a better job related to the mental health crisis in GenZennials. Almost half of GenZennials report being so stressed that they can’t function, one third have been diagnosed with a behavioral or mental health problem, and 42% have left a job due to stress and anxiety. In the past we have treated mental health like a faux pas; don’t ask, don’t tell, it's weird, it's uncomfortable, no one wants to talk about it, it's the elephant in the room. However, GenZennials are comfortable talking about their mental health. In fact, 63% of GenZennials report being comfortable talking about their mental health to others, 30% have seen a therapist at least once in the last three years, and 25% of GenZennials claim that mental health is the most important aspect of their health. So the question now becomes, “What are we going to do to change the mental health epidemic in GenZennials?” 

Spirituality may be an untapped resource for GenZennial mental health. When you hear the word spirituality, it could mean many things. Some people associate it with religion, or think it is religion. Others would say it’s a component of. At the end of the day, spirituality encompasses many layers. It’s cross-cultural and inclusive of faiths. Spirituality is a broader concept in which individuals seek connection to self, to others, to nature, and to the sacred or higher being. 

But this is not the spirituality we knew as kids - what we once knew when our grandparents were practicing religion and spirituality. For many of this generation, this isn’t driving to Temple on Saturday or church on Sunday with your family. This isn’t attending Bible study on Tuesday nights. This is gumbo. This is faith unbundled. This is autonomous. This is owning thoughts and ideals of the world and using it to build a relationship with ourselves and a higher being. Spirituality is not new, but spiritual self-care is. 

Spiritual self-care includes practices or actions that nourishes our inner being, taking care of matters of the heart. For many years, individuals have used spirituality or religion when faced with a major life event such as death, loss of a job, or divorce. For GenZennials, it's more about spiritual self-care; they are obsessed with self-care. GenZennials are actively tuning into their emotional, mental and physical health. Self-care is the way they have chosen to feel more grounded and alleviate the pressures of overstimulating technology and societal expectations. They are using spirituality to connect with the world around them. This is their “chicken soup for the soul” and this is where the future needs to go. This is the comeback of spirituality, but with a different lens. 

As a fractional Chief Science Officer in the digital mental health industry, I am often asked by companies to lead science strategy and use science to help inform product and content and generally business growth. I have been doing this for the Skylight app. Skylight is a FREE spiritual self-care app that offers practices to help users tune into themselves and/or a higher power and is tailored for GenZennials. Because it's free it's accessible to many individuals across age, education, economic status, race and religion. 

What is unique about Skylight is that they are one of the only apps that is using spirituality and spiritual self-care to improve mental health, specifically in GenZennials. This is different from what I have seen in the mental health industry. We typically see meditation apps or sleep apps or apps that offer therapy or coaching. None of these have really worked and the market is completely saturated with digital mental health companies going out of business. We as a society need to do better, meeting GenZennials where they are and offering/providing digital ways to connect with themselves or a higher power so they can care for their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. 

We recently looked into the literature to see what had been done using digital spiritual self-care for mental health in GenZennials. We searched 8 databases and 243 articles, and only 3 papers have mentioned spirituality, mental health and GenZennials but none were intervention studies.  We also conducted a cross-sectional survey to learn more about GenZennial Skylight users, help inform product and content, and determine which mental health problems Skylight is impacting most. We learned that over half of those who completed the survey (N=255) come to the app for spiritual well-being and overall health. We also learned that those who use the app more frequently (at least 3x/week) report lower anxiety than those who use it less frequently. We also sat down and interviewed our users. Although we are still analyzing this data we have learned that GenZennials desire spirituality. To GenZennials, spirituality is “hip” and “on trend” and “inclusive”. GenZennials are trying to connect to something deeper and/or greater than themselves to tend to their emotional, mental, and physical health. Even in GenZennials that don’t identify with spirituality or religion, spirituality is a gentle, non-invasive way for them to explore things like their meaning and purpose in life. In these interviews we also learned that spirituality and spiritual self-care are moldable; that it doesn’t matter the background of the person or their beliefs, or their stage of life, anyone can participate. GenZennials are taking the information they learn from the internet, social media, and their friends and family to evaluate how spirituality can be applied to their life. Finally, our preliminary qualitative analysis suggests that spirituality is versatile. Spiritual self-care practices that our users most engaged with were affirmations, meditations, and prayer. Interestingly, all of these practices have shown to help individuals have increased happiness, gratitude, and self-worth. And all of these practices can be additive to other rituals or practices that are already being used to connect to the soul or a higher power. 

Skylight’s mission is to promote spiritual and mental health by making spirituality accessible for people of all backgrounds, helping individuals center themselves and connect to their community, environment, and a transcendent being. In the future Skylight will inform their AI with insights from the literature, data analytics and science so that GenZennials are provided an opportunity to practice spiritual self-care that is personalized and evidence-based. GenZennials want to “drive their own ship” as it relates to their spirituality. There is a need for industry, research, and media to allow GenZennials to lead the way in solving the mental health epidemic. This is a call to action to provide GenZennials with digital tools for spiritual self-care; practices that nourish their inner-being allowing them to connect to themselves and a higher power. Let’s see what this does for the mental health epidemic in our future.