Christmas is fast approaching, and many people will be focusing their thoughts on spiritual matters. Interestingly, a growing corpus of research has examined the link between religious belief, religious practice, and mental health. These studies reveal a set of consistent findings.
What do the studies say?
The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as "religiosity") is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Religiosity is also associated with better physical health and subjective well-being.
Likewise, research indicates that religiosity can enhance recovery from mental illness, aiding in the healing process. For example, one classic research study shows that recovery from severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is better in countries with higher levels of religiosity.
How does religion help mental health?
Some social scientists have made the distinction between public (or "extrinsic") and private (or "intrinsic") religiosity. Public religiosity refers to active participation in a religious congregation, whereas private religiosity refers to religious belief and practice that occurs less ostensibly, often at home or simply deep in the individual mind. Both forms of religiosity have been shown to promote mental health.
For example, regular attendance at a place of worship embeds an individual into a community of people who can offer material, moral, emotional, and social support, all of which can foster good mental health. Similarly, many people with mental illness report that private prayer, devotional readings, and religious programming (on TV, radio or internet) can provide solace and comfort, which can enhance the recovery process.
All this is discussed in the fascinating short video below with Dr. Eric Jarvis from Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, a world authority on religion and mental health.
The famous Israeli sociologist Aaron Antonovsky argued that "existential"commitment (including religiosity) can provide a "sense of coherence," imparting deep meaning and an organizing framework to individual life experience. This framework can be especially helpful in times of adversity, distress, and suffering. His research showed that this can even allow Holocaust survivors to live a mentally-healthy life.
These findings overlap with studies indicating that religiosity may be especially important in times of heightened stress and vulnerability, for example, when experiencing a life-changing event such as divorce or bereavement. In these cases, religiosity is a resource that can help people mentally adjust to a new reality.
Religion and Mental Health Services
Numerous studies show that religiosity is rarely harnessed as a resource for recovery by routine mental health services. In fact, there is an ongoing tension between psychiatry and religion, manifesting itself in high rates of atheism among mental health professionals, as well as skepticism towards religion among leading historical figures in psychology such as Freud, Skinner, and Ellis.
This situation can be detrimental to all people with mental illnesses, but especially those from minority communities. For example, African-Americans have very high rates of theism, and much African-American culture and social life revolves around religion. Incorporating religious approaches into mental health care settings may go some way to reduce low rates of service-utilization, engagement, and adherence in this demographic.
To address this situation, I recently developed the notion of "religious competence" for mental health professionals, stemming from a five-year research project examining facilitators of recovery from mental illness in African-Americans.
Religious competence refers to clinical "skills, practices, and orientations that recognize, explore, and harness patient religiosity to facilitate diagnosis, recovery, and healing." It involves generic skills, such as active listening, as well as "asking the right questions and using the elicited information to support religious activities that might facilitate recovery."
This approach has been examined in a variety of contexts suggesting a positive effect. Indeed, the wider enactment of religious competence may make mental health services more attractive and more effective, better reflecting the cultures of communities served.
As we think about matters spiritual during the holiday season, let’s remember that religiosity can foster good mental health, not just in December, but throughout the year.