Field of Science

Religion and mental health

If you're interested in the link between religion and mental health, there's a new open access review in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. It's by Harold Koenig, who's one of the world's leading experts on religion and mental health.

His conclusion: religious people are less likely to be depressed, anxious, or attempt suicide. The evidence is mostly cross-sectional – showing that depressed people are less likely to be religious, for whatever reason. But there are also a number of longitudinal studies, showing that people who are religious are less likely to become depressed in the future.

For people with psychotic delusions, the picture is more complicated. They are frequently highly religious, but the longitudinal studies suggest that psychosis comes first.

Koenig's conclusion, that religion can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, isn't terribly surprising. But what jumps out from the review is how many questions are left unanswered. For example,
  • What's the magnitude of the effect? Is it big enough to make any meaningful difference? How does it compare with other factors that influence depression?
  • Is it effective in severe depression, or just in mild depression (where placebos are also highly effective)?
  • Is it religious beliefs, or attendance, or simply the much more vague concept of 'spirituality' that is important? Koenig's review doesn't really distinguish between them, probably because, historically, studies into the effects of religion didn't tend to.
What does it all mean for the treatment of mental illness? In an accompanying paper, Marilyn Baetz and John Toews try to unpack this conundrum - and they fully admit that they don't have much to go on.

They do give some practical advice, but even that demonstrates just how confusing this field can be for the unwary. They reckon that you can treat depression by encouraging a spirit of altruism, gratitude and forgiveness.

It's sound advice, no doubt. But I think that most atheists would rankle at the idea that these fall under the heading of 'religious and spiritual' interventions!

So we really are still a very long way away from answering the key question. To boil it down, I want to know whether it's possible to treat depression by prescribing a dose of religion. And if it is, then is it more effective than other treatment options?

If it turns out that a good way to treat depression is to pack people off to their local imam, then that really will raise some interesting ethical issues!

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. Karl Marx would say, "See, I told ya so!"

  2. atheist:neurotic = theist:psychotic

  3. I've heard of study that found that those who are depressed or those that have a low self-esteem usually have a more realistic view of themselves as opposed to those that are happy or have average to above average self-esteems. I think they compared the subjects' self-ratings with how other people rated them on things like attractiveness.

    If you have a higher propensity to being delusional, like those who are religious, than maybe when reality presents bad situations you're just better at pretending its not really that bad. The universe doesn't really seems to favor us, so if we want to be emotionally happy it seems we need to be a bit delusional about something here and there.

    Although in my opinion, it's still more advantageous to try and assess your surroundings for the way they really are...

  4. This seems to be on the same level as the studies that found a non-existent link between breast cancer and abortion. If you only ask women who have breast cancer, you don't get a good enough sample set to make the conclusion that there is a link.

    With atheists/non-religious people being a severe minority across the world, I have to wonder if the study conclusions are as valid as you make them out to be.

  5. I believe spirituality leads to hope. And it is hope that keeps depression from setting in.

    Religion in and of itself is merely a hobby, a set of rules, unless one is committed to it with one's heart.

    I'd like to know where the religious people in the study were found. In church, perhaps? Where the "believers" are most likely to NOT be depressed? What about the depressed people who don't leave the house, but still believe in a God?



  6. Dallas, I don't know that study, but there are two facts that might lead you to expect it. First, on average, people think that they are above average (the Lake Wobegon effect). Second, depressed people have worse self-image then non-depressed. Put the two together, and you might expect that depressed people actually have accurate self image!

    Jay, it's a good point. There is evidence that the people with happiness problems are the doubters in the middle, rather than the confident atheists. None of the studies reviewed by Koenig considered this possibility.

    Babbo, these were a range of different studies in different populations using different measures. No doubt there's nuances in there that are very important!

  7. What does religious mean?

    You can break down religiosity into at least three dimensions, religious attendance, devoutness, and affiliation. I have seen several studies showing high correlations with mental health problems and religiosity or attendance, at times conflicting other studies.

    Additionally, dimensions are not distinct, in that religious attendance could really be a measure of a regular life, and not a religious component per se. Growing up as an atheist - clearly, since I was 12 - I can attest to the enormous familial resentment and anger I was subject to; any people might be ostracized from their families.

  8. Being a realist, as oppossed to prone to delusion, CAN make a person depressed.

    However, being deluded has disadvantaged of its own. So those believers in the study may not be depressed but may have stagnant careers and dysfunctional families.

    Depression isn't exactly the worst of all evils. Being an enthusiastic, happy doormat isn't exactly a good thing.

  9. Those prone to depression for which religion is an antidote...are they also the group at risk for becoming religious fanatics?

  10. i think religion makes a diffrences in peolpes lives!!!!.. im a Christian Seven Day Adventist, it means that we are dicisples of God, and were waiting for the 2nd coming of jesus christ!. amen praise jesus!!. if u have faith in the LOrd he will help u u just have 2 ask him what u want, and GOd will give it 2 u!!. u just have 2 be very patient and have 2 hear God's Voice!!. God bless eveyone,!! and be safe! just belive and miracles will happen!!


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