The festive season is a time when many people focus their minds on religious matters. For some, this will involve attendance at public worship in a community of believers. For others, it will involve private spiritual devotions at home alone or with the family.
Interestingly, prayer is one religious activity that can occur in both private and public settings. Moreover, the act of prayer is considered an integral and desirable activity within major faith traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Prayer can take many forms: It can be spoken, silent, spontaneous, formulaic, or repetitive. Indeed, theologians down the ages have argued that prayer should be defined broadly. Common among these definitions of prayer is what I call "a deep dialogue with the divine."
Intriguingly, mental health researchers have examined the impact of prayer on the lives of ordinary people, both with and without mental illness. The results from these studies converge on a set of common conclusions.
The amassed research indicates that prayer is modestly but positively correlated with a range of mental health outcomes. These findings are demonstrated in two recent U.S. studies examining the relationship between prayer and mental health, both with large samples and scientific rigor.
One large population study, led by Harvard Professor Tyler VanderWeele, found that young adults who prayed daily tended to have fewer depressive symptoms, and higher levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive affect, in comparison to those who never prayed.
Another study examined the perspectives of over 2,000 adults with mental illness in California, finding that over 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that spirituality was important to their mental health. Moreover, over 70 percent indicated that prayer was helpful to their mental health.
These findings overlap with my own research in Washington, DC, on African-Americans in recovery from a mental illness. In this study, participants repeatedly told me that regular prayer was a major factor in their recovery. Interestingly, they frequently mentioned the importance of reciting and reflecting upon the well-known Serenity Prayer, with one participant stating:
The major thing that we can say in our recovery is that we finally understand the meaning of the Serenity Prayer—Change the things you can, accept the ones you can’t, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
Likewise, my colleagues and I found similar results in a just-published study on French-Canadians in recovery from mental illness. Study participants often reported the importance of prayer for their healing and recovery, with one talking about group prayer as follows:
There is a certain level of calm brought by reciting your rosary. It's like reciting a mantra. And on top of that, you meet people, you discuss, you socialize; it's like two different aspects that can help you.
In sum, prayer can have a positive impact on recovery from mental illness and also on the well-being of people without mental illness. Additionally, these studies indicate that regular prayer can be especially important for people who are lonely or socially isolated.
Prayer in the Clinic?
It is important to state that the above studies find that prayer can have a significant but modest effect on mental health recovery. In other words, prayer should not be considered an alternative to conventional psychiatric treatment, but one of many factors that can promote mental health.
These findings lead to an interesting question: Should prayer be encouraged in mental health service settings? Such a question raises important ethical and legal issues, which can vary by jurisdiction. Importantly, the rights of atheists must be respected in such efforts.
This complex situation has led some experts to conclude that prayer in the clinic should only be initiated by a patient. Likewise, it has been argued that silent prayer is most appropriate when clinicians and patients are praying together, thus overcoming any faith or theological differences.
A more feasible approach may be for clinicians to elicit the religious worldviews of patients during intake and follow-up interviews. These clinicians can then encourage religiously-inclined patients to engage in private or congregational prayer according to preferences.
Such action could be conducted with the support of health service chaplains from the appropriate faith tradition. Likewise, such chaplains could be encouraged to set up prayer groups for healing in clinical settings, which, of course, must be completely optional for attendees.
A growing literature indicates that recovery from mental illness is fostered by a range of psychosocial factors that are often under-harnessed by the official mental health system. More and more research studies indicate that regular prayer is one of these factors.
The approach of the festive season is a time for the spiritually inclined to take stock of their lives and think afresh. For them, prayerful dialogue with the divine may reap manifold mental health benefits.
This research is something for us all to consider this Christmas and beyond.