For many decades, spirituality, and even more so religion, was considered to be at odds with psychology and psychiatry. It is true that Sigmund Freud, arguably the inventor of “the talking cure”, was not a fan. However, as with everything in life, things change. Psychology is no longer as opposed to spirituality and religion as it’s creator may have intended it to be. Personally, I am a researcher by nature, so as with all questions I like to consult the data.
I realize that may sound quite contradictory for something that is predicated on instances and people whose existence cannot be proven– God, the Holy Spirit, immortal life, karma, reincarnation, sin, heaven, hell, deities, etc. However, the position I take as a therapist is not to have an opinion on the veracity of any particular religion or spiritual belief system, but to have a position on the benefits or utility of such beliefs for the human condition. And this is where research is the perfect tool.
There has actually been a fair amount of research on the impact of a spiritual or religious belief system on mental health. For example the American Journal of Psychiatry and Archives of General Psychiatry found that of articles published over a 12-year span that included an assessment of spiritual or religious commitment in clients, 72% of those variables were shown to be beneficial to mental health. Additionally this same study found that participation in religious services, social support, prayer and a relationship with God were beneficial in 92% of citations.
There have been numerous studies showing that a spiritual or religious belief system, and an active relationship with that belief system (as evidenced by attendance in services, prayer, meditation or other regular expressions of this belief system) have a beneficial protective factor against depression (for example see Brown and Prudo).
However depression is not the only diagnosis that seems to benefit from this quality. Sharma, et al (2017) looked at 3151 military veterans and found that religious or spiritual belief systems were associated with decreased risk for lifetime PTSD, major depressive disorder and alcohol use disorder. The higher the rating of spiritual or religious beliefs the higher the rating of a sense of gratitude, purpose in life, and good recovery from PTSD.
Perhaps even more impressive is a study done on people suffering from schizophrenia, a severely debilitating and life-long mental disorder. The Department of psychiatry at Christian Medical College, Vellore did a multi-site study involving three clinics over 5 years of follow-up. The results showed that those patients suffering from schizophrenia who spent more time in spiritual or religious activities tended to have a better prognosis.
Spirituality and/or religion seems not only to benefit the individual but also their offspring. Thomas Ashby Wills, Professor of Epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that having a strong investment in one’s religious beliefs “kept children from smoking, drinking and drug abuse by buffering the impact of life stresses.” (emphasis added) Gene H. Brody, a research professor of child and family development at the University of Georgia, Athens, found that parents who incorporated regular spiritual or religious activities into their lives had better marital relationships and parenting skills. Their children rated higher on measures of competence, self-regulation, psychosocial adjustment and school performance. Miller et al. made a 10-year follow up study on depressed mothers and their offsprings and reported that mothers who had a strong spiritual or religious belief system and who had children who also agreed with these beliefs had less incidence of depression in their children. In terms of how people with mental illness rate the importance of spirituality or religious beliefs, Wagner and King conducted a study of patients who had psychotic illness and found that the existential (i.e. spiritual or religious) needs were the most important even compared to things like housing or employment.
Again this is just a sampling, but having reviewed many more articles over the years it is my firm belief that having a strong spiritual or religious belief system, coupled with an active practice of those beliefs (through prayer, meditation, attendance of services, reading of literature or other activities) can be a significant source of help and protection in the area of mental health. Research shows it not only protects us against developing many mental illnesses but helps us recover better from or live better with those disorders. It strengthens our pair-bonds/marriages, helps us be better parents and improves our outlook on life. As a therapist I am an unabashed fan of spirituality and religion. What kind is up to my client and their spiritual advisors. But I do encourage anyone who has not found a spiritual belief system or religion that feels comfortable for them to continue to look. There are many options and, so far as we can tell from the research, no one provides more mental health benefits than the other.
I hope during this holiday season, when images and reminders of spirituality and religion abound, you will pause to consider whether or not you have these beliefs in place and how that may impact your mental health. While no one can argue that religion and spiritual beliefs have at times been grossly misused, it may be time not to throw the baby out with the bath.
Wishing you health, happiness, peace and serenity in this holiday season and into the new year,
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