Put faith in mental health: Attending religious services can ward off depression

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Religion has been a source of comfort and support among believers for a long, long time. It’s often said that faith provides something to fall back on when everything else in life fails us. Now, a new study has investigated the complex relationship between religious experiences and mental health. Researchers from Westmont University find attending religious services helps attendees avoid or stave off depression.

Unfortunately, not all of the project’s findings follow this pattern. Study authors report that both “life-changing spiritual experiences” and a belief in “divine leading and angelic protection” has a connection to an increased risk of developing depression, particularly among men.

Researchers tracked over 12,000 American adolescents all the way from their teen years to middle adulthood during this study. Those individuals were originally recruited for this project while attending high school back in 1994 and 1995.

“Much of the research on religion and depression focuses on attending religious services and other commonly studied variables such as prayer or personal religiosity,” says study author and associate professor of sociology Blake Victor Kent, Ph.D. in a university release. “Questions about spiritual experiences and belief in divine leading are rare in big epidemiological studies, so this is a great opportunity to add nuance to what we know about religion and mental health.”

Does organized religion contribute to depression?

Along with asking about their overall levels of religious faith and how often they usually attend religious services or pray, researchers also asked a series of questions intended to gauge just how much each person expected to experience tangible divine intervention and guidance during their lives.

A few of the questions and statements asked include:

  • Would you say you have been “born again” or have had a “born again” experience?
  • Angels are present to help watch over me. (agree/disagree)
  • What seem to be coincidences in my life are not really coincidences; I am being “led” spiritually. (agree/disagree)
  • Did you ever have a religious or spiritual experience that changed your life?

As far as why beliefs in divine intervention and angelic protection seem to produce depressive feelings eventually, researchers have two theories. The first is that people more prone to depression to begin with are more likely to look for the divine in the events of everyday life.

“But what if the religious environment or beliefs themselves are the source of depressive symptoms?” Kent asks.

Researchers define “experience-driven religious environments” as churches and other religious communities that normalize divine interactions and even tell parishioners to expect such experiences.

“Those who struggle to establish an emotional connection to God may be constantly disappointed even though they work hard to hear from God and feel led by God. They may wonder whether God has abandoned them and why they’re not experiencing God the way everyone else seems to,” Kent explains.

Do men have a more difficult road to finding religion?

The study’s conclusion that men are more vulnerable to religion-related depression than women is also notable, especially considering that women are generally more susceptible to depression than males.

“We already know that women in the U.S. are more religious than men and that they tend to be more relational in their approach to God,” Kent notes. “That’s pretty well established. Men try to go it alone a little bit more. This study suggests that when they have a spiritual awakening or look for divine help, it may because they went a little further into the dark, or that God feels a little less responsive.”

The study is published in the Journal of Religion and Health. 

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