Conventional wisdom maintains that people who are spiritual or religiously oriented are protected against depression.
The very notion of being connected to a higher power who is watching over humanity can be comforting, and spiritual people are often less concerned with material possessions, the pursuit of which often leads to unhappiness.
Furthermore, the practice of religion usually involves regular interaction with other people, preventing the isolation that can lead to depression.
Despite these noble concepts, research on this matter has not consistently shown a link between increased spirituality and decreased depression – until now.
Thicker Cortexes Equals a Tougher Skin?
Lisa Miller, Ph.D., heads the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University in New York, and is also the Associate Editor of the APA journal “Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.” She and her colleagues have published new research that highlights brain changes in people who are spiritual. The researchers used MRI’s to examine the brains of people who are considered at familial risk of developing depression, due a history of clinical depression in their parents or grandparents.
Clinical depression is defined by specific symptoms, such as a depressed mood for most of the day for at least a two week period, disturbed sleep, and a loss of interest in pleasurable activities.
Previously, these researchers had discovered that adult children of people who were depressed had noticeable brain changes: thinning cortexes in the right cerebral hemisphere.
In this December 2013 study, however, they discovered a reversal of the phenomenon in spiritual people.
People who are at genetic risk of depression but reported placing high importance on religion or spirituality had thicker cortexes, in exactly the same areas of the brain where they should have been thinner according to the previous research!
It seems that valuing religion and/or spirituality changed the make-up of their brains, indicating that faith did in fact protect these at-risk people from depression.
Faith and Depression: A Contradictory View
In contrast, an earlier (September 2013) study found different results in the general population. Researchers, led by Dr. Michael King from University College, London, followed more than 8,000 people from seven countries in an effort to study the relationship between religion or spirituality and mental health. The countries they surveyed were: Spain, Slovenia, Estonia, Chile, Portugal, Chile, and the United Kingdom.
The researchers interviewed people who had come for treatment at general medical practices, following up with them after six months, and again after twelve months. The patients came from both urban and rural areas, and stemmed from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. The interviews assessed the subjects for depression, and the accompanying questionnaires assessed the people’s spiritual and religious beliefs. The researchers termed religion as the practice of a faith, e.g. going to a mosque, church or synagogue. They defined spirituality as having spiritual beliefs or experiences, but not following a formal religion.
Once they analyzed the results, the researchers noted that people with spirituality or religion were not less prone than secular people to experience depression. In fact, people who were spiritual but not religious were more likely than others to be taking medications to treat psychiatric disorders.
That doesn’t mean that their spirituality caused their depression; it could be that people sought spirituality because they were already feeling depressed. Yet, the researchers concluded that there is no evidence to support the idea that a spiritual or religious lifestyle enhances psychological well-being.
Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health
These two seemingly contradictory studies could leave people scratching their heads about the true role of religion and spirituality in mental health. Dr. Dan Blazer, a researcher from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center wrote an illuminating editorial about this confusing subject. He pointed out the innate difficulty of properly assessing religious or spiritual belief, and stressed that because the nature of religious practice has drastically changed during the past century, there is less social pressure involved in the religion of today.
Dr. Blazer warns that regardless of the outcome of the studies about the benefits and dangers of religious beliefs, the research is simply observational. In other words, the research studies give us more knowledge about the world and its inhabitants, but they do not supply information about how to treat patients.
Observational Studies: Interesting, but Irrelevant
Observational studies tell us what we have observed, but do not, at the bottom line, give guidelines for treatment. Therefore, Dr. Blazer views the results as somewhat irrelevant. When treating patients who are depressed, mental health professionals should ask them about their spirituality, but simply use that information to better understand their patients so they can better help them.