Faith in Psychiatry

Twenty-five years ago, one of David Larson's med school advisers warned that he'd harm his patients by incorporating religion into his psychiatry practice. Back then many psychiatrists within the hallowed halls of academic medicine considered religious patients delusional, immature, or neurotic.

Larson has spent nearly two decades trying to prove them wrong. Now a psychiatrist and president of the National Institute for Health Care Research, Larson cites a mound of studies, both his own and others', attesting to the preventive and healing effects of religion. A sampling:

 In a 1995 report on 232 people who underwent elective open-heart surgery, those who received no strength or comfort from religion were more likely to die within six months of the operation.

A decade-long study of 2,700 people showed that after accounting for risk factors, only one social attribute--increased church attendance--lowered mortality rates.

Among women recovering from hip fractures, those with stronger religious beliefs and practices were less depressed and could walk further at discharge.

In a rigorously controlled study of elderly women, the less religious had mortality levels twice that of the faithful.

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A review of 200 epidemiological studies suggests that religion has positive effects on diseases ranging from cervical cancer to stroke.

Provocative, yes. Proof of a cause--effect relationship between religion and health? No. The problem, says Larson, is that psychiatry "has done a pretty badjob of researching the topic." For one thing, studies have ignored crucial factors like the strength of a patient's beliefs. In recent years, however, he and his peers have found meaningful ways to measure faith, including attendance at worship services and involvement in church structure.

Why has psychiatric research been so scant and shallow? For one thing, few psychiatrists are religious. While 90 percent of Americans believe in God, an American Psychiatric Association study found that only 43 percent in the profession do. And almost a third of psychiatrists with religious upbringings now profess to have no religious beliefs.

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