A Brock-led international team’s recent research suggests that spirituality be added to factors that determine children’s mental health.
The research team, led by Brock Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Valerie Michaelson, explored spirituality as a potential “non-tangible determinant of health” in adolescents aged 11 to 15 years.
“The term ‘spirituality’ is a bit of a loaded word,” says Michaelson. “How we understand spirituality and what we measured is the connections that young people have in their lives in four relational domains.”
These are described as being connections with others, with nature and the land, with the transcendent “however one understands that” and within themselves, through the importance of having a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, she says.
Michaelson explains that, in childhood, health experiences are shaped by the broader resources available to children in their lives. Such resources are typically referred to as the “determinants of health,” and include things like adequate housing, food security and a living family income.
When these resources are not equally distributed in society, it leads to situations that are referred to as “health inequities,” says Michaelson.
“Frameworks used to understand health inequities in child populations need to be re-imagined and enlarged to include ‘non-tangible resources,’” she says.
To explore this theme, researchers in eight countries — Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova and Poland — surveyed 42,843 children ages 11 to 15 years about their health, health behaviours and the factors that influence them.
The children were recruited through the World Health Organization’s Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, an ongoing, cross-national research study of youth aged 11 to 15 years old that collects data every four years on young people’s well-being, health behaviours and social contexts.
The research team found that:
- Higher socio-economic status appears to be correlated with higher spiritual health in most populations of children.
- There seems to be a consistent protective effect of spirituality on the mental health of young people.
- These effects seem to be driven by having a sense of “meaning and purpose” in life.
- Western and Eastern cultural contexts shape results in interesting and nuanced ways.
The research team’s findings were “striking,” says Michaelson.
The last domain of “connections to themselves,” which included consideration of experiences of meaning and purpose in life, was strongly and consistently protective of adolescent mental health. These experiences were also unequally experienced by young people in relation to their socio-economic circumstances, she says.
If young people were socio-economically advantaged, they reported a high sense of meaning and purpose in life, while much lower levels of meaning and purpose were reported among disadvantaged children, she says.
“This is a matter of social justice,” says Michaelson. “When it comes to mental health, having a sense of meaning and purpose in life is really important, but the resources that foster this seem to be inequitably distributed.”
The team’s findings are published in their study, “Establishing spirituality as an intermediary determinant of health among 42,843 children from eight countries,” to be published in the February issue of Preventive Medicine.
Brock Professor of Health Sciences William Pickett, who is a member of the research team, co-leads the Canadian Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study. He worked with the international HBSC network to recruit the child participants.
He points to the value of the HBSC study to identify new and innovative findings on the health of young people.
“HBSC represents one of the largest and most diverse population health surveys of its kind in North America and Europe and provides opportunities for researchers to explore complex ideas about the determinants of health in child populations,” he says.
Michaelson says the study team findings “draw attention to the urgent need to equitably distribute health-promoting resources — including intangible resources — that help children to thrive.”
In addition to Michaelson and Pickett, other Brock members of the team include Associate Professors of Health Sciences Karen Patte and Pauli Gardner.