Corbis

Byron Johnson and Maria Pagano, The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2014, p. A 11

Young people who regularly attend religious services and describe themselves as religious are less likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs, a growing body of research shows. Why? It could be religious instruction, support from congregations, or conviction that using alcohol and drugs violates one’s religious beliefs.

Moreover, frequent involvement in spiritual activities seems to help in the treatment of those who do abuse alcohol and drugs. That’s the conclusion of many reports, including our longitudinal study of 195 juvenile offenders that will be released in May in Alcohol Treatment Quarterly.

Fewer and fewer adolescents today are connected to a religious organization. Young people are less affiliated than previous generations, with 25% of the millennial generation unattached to any particular faith, according to a 2010 Pew Research report.

The problem is more fundamental than missing church on Sunday. Young people in our study of juvenile offenders seem to lack purpose and are overwhelmed by feelings of not fitting in. Meantime, the legalization of marijuana in several states, the flood of prescription medications, and the availability of harder street drugs gives youth wide access to mind-altering substances.

How do we help them? As one troubled young woman in our study, whom we will call Katie to protect her identity, said: “I started to get better when I started to help out in Alcoholics Anonymous. When we help others, we get connected to a power greater than ourselves that can do for us what alcohol and drugs used to do.”

Katie’s idea, to connect those who are struggling to a “higher power,” may seem too simple. Clinicians remain divided about whether AA’s goal of helping alcoholics find a higher power to solve their problems is appropriate in treatment planning. But new research, including our own study, is beginning to lend support to Katie’s conclusion. Continue reading