Meaning and hope central to mental health of young people

Fr Richard Leonard SJ (

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Christ is Alive could hold the key to restoring meaning in young people's lives and tackling the crisis in child and adolescent mental health, writes Fr Richard Leonard SJ. Source: The Tablet.

Immediately before I read Christ is Alive, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on young people, I had ploughed through the 2019 Australian government report ‘The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents’.

That document on the deteriorating mental health of young Australians makes grim reading. Something is terribly wrong when, in most developed countries, the biggest killer of young adults is now suicide.

Rightly and understandably, the tone of Christ is Alive is much more upbeat, but one word ties these two documents together: meaning – or the lack of it. The government report talks constantly about “meaninglessness” as one of the main drivers for poor mental health. Pope Francis mentions “meaning” 40 times.

The report defines meaninglessness as when a person feels they do not matter in the scheme of things. The increase in meaninglessness is connected to a rise in utilitarianism and individualism, and to personal autonomy being recognised as an absolute value.

The report argues for further study, new protocols and improved procedures. These are worthwhile and important. I think, however, that Pope Francis’s suggested approach gets closer to the roots of the problem, by talking about hope. He mentions it 41 times; the government document never mentions it once. Yet meaninglessness is born of hopelessness.

Francis links hope to encouragement, to pursuing dreams, to joy, to being forgiven and having compassion, to seeking the truth, to forming consciences, and being mentored and accompanied here on earth and by the cloud of witnesses in heaven.

A government report can never say it, but the breakdown of hope – especially in faith communities of the kind that we are experiencing in the Church in Australia – has had negative effects on the mental wellbeing not just of young Catholics but of young people in the wider community. While shouldering our share of the blame for our faith not attracting young people, those of us who know that Christ is alive have to redouble our efforts to live our Christian faith with hope and joy. The mental health of our children depends on it.


By offering hope we can help our young people create meaning in their lives (The Tablet)

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