By Barbora Rodi Falanga
Rites of Passage Article Intro
This article aims to explore the importance of youth rites of passage for the positive mental health of young people (mainly in the “identity” and “sense of self” domains). It is meant to familiarise all those working with young people (youth workers and other practitioners in the youth field) with this topic.
What are Rites of Passage?
“A rite of passage is a ceremony or ritual of the passage which occurs when an individual leaves one group / stage of life to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society. Over the span of history, various cultures and societies have established specific rituals to commemorate the key moments of development.” (Wikipedia) 
Ceremonies marking and celebrating different life transitions are known as “rites of passage”. French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the term in his classic publication The Rites of Passage (Les Rites de Passage) in 1909. Some of the most important Rites of Passage are birth, stepping into adulthood, marriage, divorce, parenthood, elderhood and death. In this article we will specifically focus on the conscious transition from adolescence to adulthood (youth rites of passage). Lertzman, D. A., in his work Rediscovering Rites of Passage says: “When these times of transition are marked, ritualized, witnessed, and supported, it creates a kind of experiential map of self-development. Without proper rites of passage, people can become disoriented and lose their way on life’s journey”.
Youth Rites of Passage (RoP)
Different cultures all over the world developed ceremonies/rituals to mark the transition from youth to adulthood, undertaken consciously, and witnessed by the community. An initiation marking this passage into adulthood and confirming responsible participation in the world can be seen as an integral part of human development. These rituals are primarily spread throughout adolescence and the start of adulthood as a person also matures physically, and mark a certain progress in one’s life.
Many modern societies have lost such traditions. Psychologists suggest this loss of rituals leads to attempts at self-initiation, testing the extreme limits of feelings and behaviours, from substance use (to reach altered states of consciousness) to different forms of dangerous / harmful activities (flirting with death).
Culturally-specific rituals are now re-emerging and evolving so that adolescents may be appropriately met, challenged, inspired, and mentored into adulthood. The intentional marking of these transitions is not only significant for the young person (initiate), but equally so for the family and the entire community or school.
In this article, we will explore how Rites of Passage (RoP) can support the positive mental health of young people in relation to the theoretical framework proposed by Dr Tuuli Kuosmanen, Ms. Katie Dowling & Prof Margaret Barry, by associating RoP to the “Identity domain”, particularly in terms of increased sense of purpose and place in the world for the young person.
Stages of Rites of Passage
Most RoP ceremonies and rituals can be divided into the following 3 stages: 
- Separation is the initial step of an individual’s journey away from a point of familiarity and social structure toward something new. As one gets closer to the unknown, one gradually learns and acquires new skills and abilities.
- Liminality is essentially the breaking point, when a person crosses the edge or margins of society. In other words, when a person passes into the threshold or limbo between two stable conditions or stages of life.
- Reintegration involves implementing what has been learnt or sought in a person’s sense of being. The person returns from the edge and back into society with a new role or identity. He or she reformulates an understanding of life, development and acceptance of oneself with greater ability.
Simply put, we can conclude that each ceremony has “a beginning, a middle and an end”.The space “in between”, also called “liminality” or “threshold”, is particularly important. It is the moment of initiation: “Liminality is a marginal status of not having the old identity or a new identity available” (Iborra & Markstrom, 2003, p. 403). 
Examples of Youth Rites of Passage:
- Physical: first menstruation, i.e. menarche for girls; ritualistic tattooing, branding, or mutilation for boys; voice change “voice drop” for boys
- Religious: Baptism (Christening), Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism, Confirmation in Western Christianity, Hajj in Islam, Vision quest in some Native American cultures
- Military: Boot Camp and Officer Candidate School, Line-crossing ceremony
- Academic: Graduation at University, Matura at High school
- Others: Sweet Sixteen, Walkabout, Belt ceremonies in martial arts (e.g. obtaining black belt)
- Coming of age ceremonies 
Benefits of Youth Rites of Passage for Mental health:
- Rites of passage support young people in the process of becoming whole, productive and contributing members of the family and community.
- Young persons come out of the experience with a new and empowering story that helps them take responsibility for the decisions that set the course of their future.
- Young persons are supported while creating the story of who they are and the kind of life they want to build based on the exploration of their own personal values. We also help them find the story that connects them to their community (identity building).
- Through this self-exploration, initiates emerge with a stronger sense of personal responsibility for all aspects of their lives, taking full responsibility for their own actions as an adult.
If Rites of Passage help a young person to navigate safely from childhood into adulthood, find purpose/meaning in life, become more self-confident and become an active and responsible member of his/her community and society, they ultimately support positive mental health.
Positive mental health, according to WHO, is a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can manage the normal stresses of life, can work effectively, and is able to play a role in his or her community.
Rites of Passage are used for the initiate to develop psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, physically, socially and spiritually.
Arnold van Gennep’s major work The Rites of Passage states: “rites of passage exist in order to consolidate social ties, establish roles, and give members of a group a sense of purpose and placement” .
In our theoretical framework, this would be related to all 3 aspects – How I feel, How I think and How I relate to others. It also strongly resonates with “Social and Community” – a young person establishes a new place in the community as an “initiated adult”, ready to take on responsibilities such as taking care of others, finding his/her vocational path and starting a family.
What is the risk of NOT having Rites of Passage?
Given RoP play such an important role in the healthy development of youngsters into mature and responsible adults, it is surprising to find that most industrial cultures have abolished them. Several scholars describe modern industrial society as an adolescent culture, characterized by rapid growth, gross individualism and instability (ecological, financial, political and social) (Judith, 2006; Mahdi,1996; Meade,1996; Plotkin; 2008).
There is also evidence-based research (including writings by David Blumenkrantz) on the efficacy of a variety of rite of passage programs. In the comments section of the aforementioned article there is an abstract of Paul Abodeely’s article Coming of Age: An Evaluation of a Nature-Based Rite of Passage program on Adolescent Development.
Examples of Rites of Passage projects/ practices for youth:
School of Lost Borders in California, USA
Vision Quest / Vision Fast Program overview: The RoP program is divided into three sections; severance, threshold time and incorporation. The first days are a time of ‘severance’ or separation from daily life, leaving behind what no longer serves, where a young person is setting an intention for the solo time. The threshold time is the solo time – four days and nights out in a vast and beautiful Colorado wilderness area. Finally, after the solo time, there are days for the incorporation experience, where young people share their story and begin to celebrate the fullness of who they are and what gifts they bring to this world.
Example of projects in the Erasmus+/ Youth in Action field – Santiago Crew 2012
Youth exchange within “Youth in Action” programme of the European Commission.
26 young people from Spain and Czechia.
145 kilometers: Navia to Ribadeo (Camino del Norte), Lugo to Melide (Camino Primitivo), Melide to Santiago de Compostela (Camino Frances)
Organisers: Čia Čekija (Czechia) and AC Amics de la Biblioteca de la Fonteta (Spain).
Traditional pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, with the purpose of serving as a rite of passage, as a stepping from childhood into adulthood, for young people from challenging social backgrounds (part of the Czech group were young people aged 18/19 leaving foster care to start their independent life).
Accompanied by 3 mentors from each country, young people practiced being free and
responsible, caring for themselves, the community and the nature/environment around them. The pilgrimage served as the “initiation” – middle part of the ritual. Before the pilgrimage the organisers set experiential learning and non-formal activities to establish relationships and build trust within the group. The “incorporation” part that followed the pilgrimage was the done through “witnessing by the community” – sharing the experience through storytelling, photo exhibition and guided reflection with the group leaders.
How to create your own rite of passage: (adapted from a resource developed by the Centre for Youth and Community Development through Rites of Passage)
- Preparing for the experience (what transition do I want to celebrate? What could be an appropriate way/manner of doing so? Who can support me in this experience?)
- Spending time alone in reflection (mostly seclusion in nature)
- Receiving knowledge from elders, as a way of being initiated into what it means to be a woman, a man, an adult (in their family, community and/or religion).
- Spending time being of service to their community.
- Welcoming the initiate into the family/community, as somebody ready to take on becoming a responsible adult. This is often done in the form of a community-wide celebration.
The aspect of community is very important. Sometimes a young person can perceive an experience as transformative and life-changing – e.g. spending a year abroad alone for studying or volunteering – but if this change/transition is not recognised by the family and community, it doesn’t serve as a rite of passage.
Example – parent preparing modern rite of passage for the child:
13 challenges for a 13 year old boy (Modern Rite of Passage)
Claire Potter prepared a set of challenges for her son Fred, to prove he had the maturity to be granted the freedom and independence he wanted.
The 13 challenges covered 13 different areas of life, and each challenge would arbitrarily contain the number 13 in some way if possible.
E.g. Challenge one: “Get on a train on your own. Get off at the 13th stop. Go to a cafe or restaurant. Order the 13th item on the menu. Then buy yourself a whole outfit with £13.13”. The full description of the story was published by the Guardian in 2012. 
As youth workers/youth leaders we need to be aware of the major changes and transitions that happen in a young person’s life. Traditionally, this transition was done consciously and with the support of the whole community in the form of a ritual, helping to form a new identity and supporting the mental health and well-being of adolescents and young adults.
Since most of the traditional rites of passage in our societies have been abolished, we can take examples and inspiration from the many programmes available all over the world that are reviving RoP and supporting young people to successfully transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Further reading about Youth Rites of Passage:
- Bret Stephenson: From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age
- Bill Plotkin: Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche
- Bill Plotkin: Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World
- Victor Turner: The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure
- Steven Foster and Meredith Little – The Roaring of the Sacred River (1989/1997) (they are also the founders of The School of Lost Borders, California, mentioned above)
2: Lertzman, D. A. 2002. Rediscovering rites of passage: education, transformation, and the transition to sustainability. Conservation Ecology 5(2): 30. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/art30/
4: Markstrom, C. A., & Iborra, A. (2003). Adolescent identity formation and rites of passage: The Navajo Kinaalda ceremony for girls. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 13(4), 399–425. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1532-7795.2003.01304001.x
5: Examples of RoP: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/culturalanthropology/chapter/rite-of-passage/
6: Arnold van Gennep: The Rites of Passage, Psychology Press, 2004
7: Rites of Passage and the Story of Our Times by Will Scott: www.schooloflostborders.org/content/rites-passage-and-story-our-times-will-scott
8: Rites of Passage as a Framework for Community Interventions with Youth: www.gjcpp.org/en/article.php?issue=3&article=10
9: Youth and Community Development through Rites of Passage: http://rope.org/learn-more/external-resources/creating-a-personal-rite-of-passage/
Description of different youth RoP programs from all over the world:
Further reading and resources:
The Rites of Passage Framework as a Matrix of Transgression Processes in the Life Course: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6105198/
Investing in the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK284782/