Religion is supposed to be good for your mental health. People who have a good dose of religion tend to be happier, for example. And earlier this year researchers including Joanna Maselko (at Temple University in Philadelphia) reported that women who stop going to religious services are three times as likely to suffer generalised anxiety disorder or drug/alcohol abuse as are women who keep up their attendance (men, on the other hand, are actually less likely to suffer depression if they stop going to church). But is it actually religion that helps you to keep happy, or is it having an extended network of friends who are there for you in time of need?
Now Maselko is back with another study where she and her colleagues dig a little deeper into this issue. They assessed nearly a thousand New Englanders as part of a study, begun in the 1960s, that is following these people from cradle to grave (the New England Family Study). What they’ve found is that, as expected, those people who attended church regularly had a lower lifetime history of depression (by 30% in this case). However, when they asked the subjects to rate their relationship to god (using the religious well being scale), those who rated themselves closer to god had suffered 50% more depression in the past.
Now, they controlled for other factors when they did this analysis, so it seems likely that this relationship is real. But what it doesn’t tell you is which comes first – do high levels of religiosity lead to depression, or do depressed people convince themselves that they feel close to god? What’s interesting is that people with high levels of existential well being (a self-assessment of one’s sense of life purpose and life satisfaction) had much less depression (by 70%). Maselko explains it like this:
“People with high levels of existential well-being tend to have a good base, which makes them very centered emotionally,” said Maselko. “People who don’t have those things are at greater risk for depression, and those same people might also turn to religion to cope.” (Science Daily)
Clues in this direction were reported in another study earlier this year by Maria Norton and colleagues at the University of Utah. What they showed was that Mormons are at twice the risk of depression as non-Mormons, but that those Mormons who attend church regularly have their risk for depression returned to normal levels.
Maybe we should take these results with a pinch of salt. A review of 11 studies, published in 2003, found that on average high religious well-being was associated with a lower risk for depression (Smith et al). But it’s not clear whether the studies adequately controlled for religious attendance (since the two are obviously related). And another recent study (this time in cancer patients) found that existential well being, but not religious well being, was linked to lower anxiety and depression (McCoubrie and Davies, 2006).
So what to make of all this? Well, my interpretation is this. People who go to church are less depressed, but people who are very religious are more depressed. So it seems that the best defence against depression is to get involved in a community activity, but take all this religion stuff with a pinch of salt.
J. Maselko, S. E. Gilman, S. Buka (2008). Religious service attendance and spiritual well-being are differentially associated with risk of major depression Psychological Medicine DOI: 10.1017/S0033291708004418
Norton et al. Church Attendance and New Episodes of Major Depression in a Community Study of Older Adults: The Cache County Study. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 63:P129-P137 (2008)
Timothy B. Smith, Michael E. McCullough, Justin Poll (2003). Religiousness and depression: Evidence for a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 129 (4), 614-636 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.4.614
Rachel C. McCoubrie, Andrew N. Davies (2006). Is there a correlation between spirituality and anxiety and depression in patients with advanced cancer? Supportive Care in Cancer, 14 (4), 379-385 DOI: 10.1007/s00520-005-0892-6