Does Believing in God Really Lead to Better Psychiatric Treatment Outcomes?

A new study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders and reported on in the New York Times suggests that belief in God can lead to better outcomes for patients with mental health treatment:

Over all, those who rated their spiritual belief as most important to them appeared to be less depressed after treatment than those with little or no belief. They also appeared less likely to engage in self-harming behaviors.

“Patients who had higher levels of belief in God demonstrated more effects of treatment,” said the study’s lead author, David H. Rosmarin, a psychologist at McLean Hospital and director of the Center for Anxiety in New York. “They seemed to get more bang for their buck, so to speak.”

Does that mean God actually helps patients in a hospital?

No, of course not.

This doesn’t help, either

The placebo effect is strong in this one, as one doctor was quick to note:

Randi McCabe, director of the Anxiety Treatment and Research Center at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Ontario, said, “People’s belief that something is going to work will make it work for a significant proportion of people,” similar to the placebo effect.

“Your belief that you’re going to get better, your attitude, does influence how you feel,” Dr. McCabe continued. “And really, in cognitive behavior therapy, that is really what we’re trying to change: people’s beliefs, how they’re seeing their world, their perspective.”

In other words, if you believe God wants you to become better, you might actually, physically get better. Same thing if you believe a certain kind of treatment will help you out. It doesn’t mean God exists or a pill works, but it suggests that you may have more control over your body than you think.

There’s also the support one gets from being part of a strong, supportive community, and religion offers that in spades.

There is power in belief, even if those beliefs are based in falsehoods. There’s nothing newsworthy about that.

But don’t let anyone tell you this study offers proof that God exists or that God helps people who believe in Him.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Sweetredtele

    Did the study control for less than adequate care, either knowingly or unknowingly, by the provider due to prejudice?

  • ZeldasCrown

    I was on a website a few weeks ago about resources for atheists (don’t remember the address, or I’d put the link here), and one of the resources they discussed was therapy. The problem was that many of the therapists are religious, assume their patients are religious, and often try to help people with that assumption in mind (for example, if recommending a patient find new activities to get a better sense of community, or to help keep their minds less focused inward, a therapist might recommend being more involved in church-which is not helpful to an atheist). The point of the article was to provide a link to another website with atheist therapists (it was done in an anonymous way so that both parties wouldn’t have to expose themselves as atheists to their community if they didn’t want to) so that non-religious people wouldn’t have to feel like they were getting therapy that had a religious component. Not that I necessarily think the therapists are doing this on purpose or that this is an issue for all theist therapists with atheist patients, but it certainly is a big enough issue that resources have sprung up to help.

    So, in other words, in addition to being a placebo effect, it could also be an effect of a better match between patient and therapist for the religious folk, and so they don’t feel as alienated by some of their therapist’s advice (and consequently get more out of it).

    • GubbaBumpkin
      • ZeldasCrown

        That’s the one! Thanks for finding it again.

    • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

      I wrote a response to the misplaced comment above about having a religious doctor and how badly it went when my atheism came out during a session. Some of them really are that malicious and unprofessional.

      • ZeldasCrown

        I’m sorry that you had to go through that-it sounds just awful. I hope that you are doing much better now (and it sounds that way from your post above).

        I think this phenomenon probably runs the entire gambit-from those who are able to separate themselves and compartmentalize their religion and actually help their patient, all the way up to those who do severe harm to their patient-either vindictively to punish them for being atheist (as it seems like your doctor did-I think doctors who do that should, at a minimum, lose their license to practice), or through the act (no matter how good their intentions were) of trying to convert their patient as a means of making them well (and I don’t know what the spread in this is-if it’s roughly evenly spread or if it’s skewed to one extreme or the other). It’s something that I think needs more awareness.

      • TCC

        My wife and I saw a marriage counselor recently (who, unbeknownst to us beforehand, had two degrees from Regent U) to help us work through our differences in belief (she a Christian, I an atheist), and instead, he tried to challenge me on evolution. I would have believed that such a thing would happen even before that experience, but now I really see how it works, and I’m so much more an advocate for the Secular Therapist Project than before. (Sadly, there’s not one even remotely close to me at the present.)

  • BrandonUB

    Were I ever in need of therapy for addiction, I’d wager that the constant drumbeat for faith would drive me away from that therapy in pretty short order. That seems like it’d have a non-zero effect on non-believers meeting with less success.

  • cryofly

    This is what I call as research with preconceived results. Involving a nonexistent factor is typically a form of placebo. Obviously placebo works a tad better on those who imagine that the treatment is working and more over they have less bedsores. So it not the god or hope that works, but the concomitant behavioral changes influences and skews the outcome. That should be the point to stress in the article and not religion or god. It is a shame that the abstract conclusion does not say so. Those who laugh out loud once in a while have healthy lungs. Cheers!

    • Bax

      Looking briefly at the study abstract, I wonder if the relationship is between religious belief and treatment outcomes or between perceived treatment credibility/expectancy and treatment outcomes. Why is it more likely that religion is driving improved outcomes as opposed to believing that the treatment is credible and expecting that it will have a positive result?

  • P Parker

    “Perceived treatment credibility/expectancy, but not emotional regulation
    or community support, mediated relationships between belief in God and
    reductions in depression.”

    It wasn’t so much the community support that was a factor in this study. Religious people base their world view on hope as does most of Western culture. In the right setting (academic psychiatric hospital utilizing cognitive behavioral treatment) you’re employing pathway and agency thinking. This study didn’t really seem to answer why a belief in ‘God’ was the variable correlated to a better response to treatment and in fact credited the reduction in depression to the belief in the treatment it-self.

    “Belief in God, but not religious affiliation, was associated with better
    treatment outcomes. With respect to depression, this relationship was
    mediated by belief in the credibility of treatment and expectations for
    treatment gains.”

  • DougI

    Therapy, proper therapy at least, is often tailored to a person’s personality. Very religious people may do better with an authoritarian approach since they are better lead by authority figures. On the other hand, Atheists, and those who favor rational though, do better with therapy like REBT. And perhaps those who talk to their pets do better with Rogerian therapy. I’m just bitter about that one since it was the focus during my time at grad school. What a waste.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    The results would be different if their religious belief was counted as evidence that they are still delusional.

  • AxeGrrl

    those who rated their spiritual belief as most important to them appeared to be less depressed after treatment ……

    One problem with the title of this story ~ “spiritual belief” doesn’t necessarily = ‘belief in God’.

  • doug105

    Any study if they have more problems to start ?

  • Blacksheep

    “Does that mean God actually helps patients in a hospital?

    No, of course not.”

    This is a classic example of certainty in one’s position – something often claimed on FA that atheists don’t engage in.

    “Of course not” is an absolute, black and white conclusion.

    • Scott_In_OH

      Absolute, black and white conclusions are appropriate when discussing things like definitions or what conclusions can and cannot be drawn from certain bits of evidence.

      I have no money in my pockets at the moment. Does this mean I am poor? No, of course not. I could have lots of money somewhere else.

      Note, of course (!), that having no money in my pockets also doesn’t mean I am NOT poor. The finding in the study doesn’t mean God DOESN’T help patients in a hospital. Hehmant is merely heading off overzealous theists who will interpret this study as evidence for a (sometimes) caring God.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      “Do people not actually heal on their own, but rather are stitched together by Irish Brownies in the timeless places between frames of reality? Of course not.”

      Yeah, damn those absolute, black and white conclusions. You’re regressing again.

    • UWIR

      Your post is a classic example of complete nonsense. Hemant did not express certainty that God does not help patients in a hospital, he expressed certainty that this does not prove that God helps patients. And when did FA claim that atheists don’t have certainty in any of their conclusions?

  • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

    It is often worse than merely assuming that their patients are religious. Many therapists, upon learning their patient is not religious, will insist that the patient must “get right with God” in order to get better. This might be merely unhelpful to an atheist with depression but is traumatic to someone going through PTSD from leaving religion behind.

    Edit: this was supposed to be a response to ZeldasCrown.

    • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

      I had a shrink (I refuse to call her a doctor) for awhile that it turned out was religious. Didn’t realize it until the day we were discussing my anxiety triggers and I mentioned how uncomfortable I find most holiday meals because my husband’s family is fairly religious. After she found out I was an atheist she flipped out at me that I should try harder to believe. I gave her a single pass for the outburst (therapy had been going well and we all have bad days), but after that day her idea of treatment was to keep upping the dose on my meds to the point they made me physically ill (skin breaking out, hair falling out, memory loss). She hussled me out of her office as quick as she could and stopped even trying to help me with coping techniques. I seriously think she wanted to make me that ill now that I’m off those meds and working with my GP until I can find a doctor in my area with an opening. It’s the only reason I can imagine for ignoring obvious side effects manifesting on your patient, in plain sight, and saying, “Fantastic. Here, take even MORE!”

      I’ve been asked why I didn’t bolt sooner. Well, try functioning on 1200mg of lithium a day (when you’re not actually bi polar, just misdiagnosed. My GP has been treating just the anxiety issues with meds that I only take when I’m pre-panic attack and am doing well) and making a good decision about much of anything. My husband went with me to my final appointment, saw that all she did was up my dose again, and took me to our GP the next day to start getting me safely off the meds. I was a total zombie and thank FSM my husband was there to back me up. Somebody without a support structure of some kind can really get stuck.

      • Pickle

        That is terrible! My husband and I quit seeing our marriage counsellor for similar reasons. Although both of us are atheist, it only came out that I was atheist. After that she completely changed towards me, obviously taking my husband’s side on things that we were both responsible for, even putting blame on me for things I didn’t do. Even my husband, who LOVES to be right, noticed. We left shortly after that.

        • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

          That’s unsurprising to me, but still sad. I’m sorry that you and your husband had to put up with that. Honestly, I wouldn’t wish “doctors” like that on my worst enemy.

      • UWIR

        You ought to file a complaint with her licensing board. That’s a rather clear violation of ethics.

        • writegurl

          I’m happy that I’m finally seeing a discussion like this one online.
          One large issue I have with therapy is that people who openly promote non-evidence based therapy are licensed. When I was young, my parents sent me to a place named “Christian Psychotherapy Services.” I had no option but to profess to be a Christian in therapy even though I was questioning my beliefs. The therapist was verbally abusive and finally ended up sexually abusing me.

          A few years later (after I healed enough to take action), I reported him to the licensing board in that state. My complaint was one of five. He received a sanction and is still practicing.

          I was pretty much run out of my church. (It was decided that I, an hysterical woman, was lying about this therapist, who was a pillar in that church.

          Since then, I have found obtaining therapy difficult. Many therapists don’t want to work with a patient who has reported a former therapist (I can’t avoid that issue of abuse in therapy because it is now part of my psychiatric problem). Some places simply didn’t call me back, in spite of my repeated calls. One place openly informed me that they didn’t want me to report one of their therapists and refused treatment. I have received thinly veiled hostility from other therapists.

  • L.Long

    Yes believing in gawd, if you tell them you do, would be a big help as they would then realize that you are the same as the guy in room one that believes in leprechauns, and the girl in room two who thinks gremlins are watching her, and the old man in room 4 who thinks a unicorn has its horn shoved up his ass.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    If this is a study only of the outcome of treating affective disorders, that’s one thing. If it were a study of treating relationship problems and social/occupational conflicts, I think you’d see a very different outcome.

    It’s only my own clinical impression, but after treating tens of thousands of patients, the ones who were the most religious tended to be the most intransigent in the rigid behaviors and judgmental attitudes that ruined their marriages, lost them their friends, and endangered their jobs. Their religious beliefs became the justification for the very behaviors that caused them trouble. They thought in little circles, and any suggestion of rethinking their rather obvious self-defeating patterns bounced off like spit wads off of a battleship.

    • SJH

      Was this not true for anyone? Don’t we all justify and judge behavior? I am not a therapist so I can’t make a clinical evaluation but anecdotally, the nones/atheists that I know are just as judgmental as anyone else. And they justify their behavior as much as anyone else.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Try this:

        “The people who had the hardest time with weight loss did so because of a combination of hormones and overeating.”
        “But don’t we all have an extra slice of cake sometimes? The people who don’t overeat but only have hormone issues are just as fat as anyone else, so they probably overeat too.”

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        The less religious and nonreligious patients of mine who were similarly judgmental and had behavior patterns that were ruinous to their relationships did not use an absolute and unquestionable divine mandate to justify continuing those behaviors.

        They were more amenable to suggestions that they reconsider the thoughts that led to those behaviors. Since they were more open to seeing that their justifications came from themselves instead of from an absolute authority, they were more willing to let go of those justifications, and to try new behaviors. Completely abandoning their religious beliefs was not necessary; only a willingness to see that they, not God’s preferences were responsible for their choices and the outcomes.

        • SJH

          Interesting, Did the patients with no beliefs justify their behavior on other outside sources like perhaps other people, societal forces or perhaps nature? Example: It is my nature to be violent therefor I can act violently. Example: It was the environment in which I was raised that caused me to act violently. If God does not exist then isn’t nature/physics/chemistry/etc… the absolute power? There is always a higher power that can be blamed for something even if that higher power is one’s parents or society as a whole.

          As you said, it is those patients who learn to take responsibility for their own actions that solve their problems.

          • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

            Did the patients with no beliefs justify their behavior on other outside sources like perhaps other people, societal forces or perhaps nature?

            A very few tried, but their rationalizations did not stand up to much challenge. Some even heard the hollowness of their attempt even as they said it. They did not have the emotional attachment to their appeals to societal or natural drivers that religious indoctrination can produce in believers to be attached to their divine authority’s “will.” They were more able and willing to take personal responsibility for their behavior, and not keep childishly hiding behind any so-called “higher power,” be it a deity, society, or nature.

            You seem to be trying to build a kind of tu couque argument, saying that “Oh everybody blames their misbehavior on forces outside of themselves.” No, not everybody does, and of those who do, not all of them persist. Certainly there are those who attempt it, but some rationalizations are far more difficult to dislodge than others.

  • SJH

    I agree, this study proves nothing about God’s existence. It is one of the many things thought that does point to the possibility that God exists.

    Also, in order to claim that the placebo effect is occurring in these cases wouldn’t the scientists have to prove that before claiming that it is true? Perhaps I am wrong but that would seem to make sense.

    Also, this shows that the church has a lot of wisdom to offer even if it were wrong about the existence of God. Follow the wisdom of the world religions (I assume the study did not target a specific religion over another?) and you will be more likely to live a happy life.

    • Sweetredtele

      You mean it points to the possibility that any number and types of deities exist, since I’m not sure how one could conclude a simple specific predefined god from no data.

      How does this show wisdom? Religions keep changing their wisdom (or not change) to match secular discoveries.

      Please show evidence that living with an illogical delusion makes one happier.

      • SJH

        You are correct, it does not say anything about a particular God but I don’t think I was implying that it did. Though I did probably misspeak. It doesn’t imply one god vs. the possibility of many.

        Can you give an example of wisdom that has changed due to scientific discoveries. I’m sure there are examples but I think the study shows that following the overall wisdom leads to a happier life.

        The evidence is the study itself. It shows that people who believe in a spiritual existence tend to be happier even if that belief were an “illogical delusion”.

        • Sweetredtele

          Let’s compare this study to the most recent Prosperity Index. While prosperity does not necessarily mean happiness, I think that they are linked. So according to this study, the top three prosperous countries are also the most atheistic (with the exception of Vietnam, but perhaps that’s due to Government and not religion).

          I’d like to see the study done in a country that is not predominately religious, in which there is not a bias and prejudice against non-beleivers.

          http://www.prosperity.com/Ranking.aspx

          Edit: You keep saying wisdom. The study says nothing about wisdom. Wisdom and religion are not the same, and I see a lack of wisdom by religion. Is it wise to prevent the prevention of a deadly disease? I can show you many more unwise things done in the name of religion.

  • smrnda

    I notice I saw the words ‘mental health’ and then I saw ‘depression.’ Depression is one of the most common mental health beliefs, but it’s by far not the only one. I’d be curious about outcomes for delusional patients. If you are delusional and listen to a preacher tell you how god talks to him, is this going to make you better or worse?

  • Jiri Sulc

    Lena Pinkas has a gift from God, she treats by hand. Cancer, psoriasis, infertility and much more. She is awesome! On http://www.prodigyspirit.com


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