An independent report into special religious education (SRE) in NSW schools, which hopes to end the debate on whether government schools should participate in religious education, was released on 22 November.
The research explores the benefits that SRE has, mainly, on students’ mental health. The report is authored by two world-renowned academics Zehavit Gross and Suzanne D. Rutland and is supported by both the NSW Government and Opposition.
The study explains that, “SRE brings important psychological benefits to students’ mental health and wellbeing and reduces the risk of mental illness.”
This suggests that studying religion in high school can reduce the risk of mental illness. Mental health issues can be caused by genetics, trauma, and other injuries such as infections or brain defects. Could a class studying religion really lower the risk of teenagers having a mental illnesses?
The report explains the links between generosity, expressing gratitude, and belief in a higher spiritual being and having positive health and wellbeing. All of these can obviously be learnt or taught in an SRE classroom, given that the teacher knows how to teach teenagers about such sensitive topics.
The report also draws from the work of American Psychologist, Jean Twenge, by stating that, “much of the strong criticism of SRE lies in the essentialist approach used by many teachers.”
The essentialist approach would include telling the students that certain aspects of religion are essential or necessary to society and they would teach all students the same way, not taking into account how different students need to learn in different ways.
No teenager’s wellbeing can be improved if the teacher doesn’t listen to their opinions or explain important issues in a way that teenagers can understand.
As the report notes, “…research shows that young people respond better to a more interactive and personalised learning approach.”
Some other benefits of SRE that were found included strengthening the culture of a school and helping students to strengthen their identity. Whilst going through high school, a student’s identity is one of the things that they will struggle with the most. How can a non-compulsory SRE class help to strengthen a teenager’s identity?
The report states that, “SRE aims to assist students in constructing their own identity through appreciating their religious and cultural heritage.”
This explains the positive roll that SRE has very clearly, not only can teenagers learn about their heritage to strengthen their identity they can also learn to create their own identity. A student dealing with a mental illness will have an even harder time to understand their identity. Does that mean that they need SRE more, or will the conflicting opinions in the classroom confuse them even more?
This research is especially prevalent today as Mission Australia’s 2018 Youth Survey revealed that 31% of young people highlighted mental health as one of their top three concerns. 43% of survey responders identified mental health as the top issue that Australia is currently facing, in 2017 only 33% of youths identified it as the top issue.
Learning about religion can definitely help a teenager going through a rough time. Finding Christ could be the answer that they have been searching for, but sitting in a classroom learning about religion won’t cure a mental illness. An open environment designed to allow students to ask deeper questions and find the answers they’ve been searching for is definitely beneficial for teenagers, but mental illness is a much deeper societal issue.
Learning about religion in a safe environment could definitely benefit a teenager going through mental health struggles but in the end mental health is be caused by things beyond a classroom lesson.