Religion may be good for the soul, but there's now evidence it's good for a healthy mind, too.
A study by researchers in Canada has discovered that regular attendance at religious services can provide "significant protection against depression" — with the incidence of clinical depression dropping by 22% among those who regularly attend church.
Marilyn Baetz, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan and a co-author of the study, which tracked 12,000 Canadians over 14 years, said she's a little puzzled as to why regular religious attendance helps so much. "The feeling is that if you belong to a religious organization, what you are really getting is just social support, nothing else," Baetz said. "But it would appear it is something over and above that."
The researchers feel that the friendships, contacts and support from others helps, but also point to the benefits of believers feeling they have "access to divine assistance" and in many cases a personal relationship with God.
Q: What do you think it is about religious attendance that helps protect against depression? Is it just the support of fellow congregants, the sense of belonging, or could there be some divine help?
Since I'm a minister, I certainly should say that there is some divine help involved! I certainly believe there is, at any rate. Since as far back as high school and maybe even earlier, I remember thinking that the existence of God was important, maybe the most important thing in life. And I still believe that.
If there is no God, to paraphrase St. Paul, then we believers are most to be pitied (I Corinthians 15: 19). But think of it: Why shouldn't believers be happier than nonbelievers? Wasn't there a movie one time called, "All This and Heaven, Too"?
What I'm getting at is that belief in the existence of God is or can be a gigantic comfort. Yes, there is the problem of evil. Yes, there is the problem of innocents suffering. No, I have no answer for either — but if God is, could anything be more smile-inducing? I really hope I don't sound like a ninny here, or an unthinking automaton — but if God is, and I'll paraphrase the poet John Keats — that's all I know and all I need to know ("Ode to a Grecian Urn").
Thank you, God, for your gift of faith. Where would I be without that gift? The hymn, "Be Thou My Vision," has a wonderful line, with which I'll close: "Nought be all else to me save that Thou art." Not funny, perhaps, but certainly smile-inducing!
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge
As a Muslim I start from the premise that this life is full of tests and not meant to be easy, "Verily, We have created man into [a life of] pain, toil, and trial" (The Holy Koran: Chapter 90, verse 4). Another verse states "And most certainly shall We try you by means of danger, and hunger, and loss of worldly goods, of lives and of [labor's] fruits. But give glad tidings unto those who are patient in adversity." (2:155)
The Koran also speaks of believers who "…have attained to faith, and who enjoin upon one another patience in adversity, and enjoin upon one another compassion." (90:17)
It is this last verse, and the "enjoin[ing] upon one another" patience and compassion that speaks to the question at hand.
When believers come together under one roof, be it a mosque, church, synagogue, temple or someone's home, the spiritual nourishment received is medicine against the ills of depression and anxiety. Reminding each other of God's teachings, evolving our understanding life in all its facets, hearing what others go through via the prism of faith, all miraculously transform into biological affects that no antidepressant or therapist can compete with. It does so all the while soothing the soul and rejuvenating the spirit.
The major monotheistic faiths of Islam, Judaism and Christianity all have weekly congregational sermons and prayers (Friday, Saturday, Sunday respectively). This common one-week period seems a divine, universal indicator of when believers should come together and recharge their batteries.
Faith in God will never prevent trials and tribulations in life. But a community of the faithful contributes to an individual's emotional and mental strength and stamina required to deal with those trials. And God knows best.
In Colossians 1:16-17 Paul wrote about Jesus Christ's central role in all of creation: "…all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." Through Jesus Christ every person who has ever lived was created by God, in the image of God and for the purpose of having a relationship with God. By nature we are made by him for him. Life therefore only works in the fullest through and with him. People who try to live apart from him deny themselves of the very thing that sustains true life. "In Him was life," says John about Jesus, "and the life was the light of men" (John 1:4).
Gathering with others for worship is just one of the many ways that God makes life work for us. God's ways always improve our lives. Jesus said: "where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst" (Matthew 18:20). So while religious attendance does provide the support of other like-minded people, and a place to belong, and the opportunity to get out of our own little worlds, it more importantly is a place to meet the Lord Himself. Jesus said: "I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly" (John 10:10). This is what lifts worshipers out of depression.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
I definitely believe that divine assistance helps many people endure the challenges of life and ultimately guides them to become better people. Judaism teaches that human beings are comprised of two dimensions, the physical and the spiritual. In addition to the physical characteristics and instinctive traits we share with creatures of the animal kingdom, we also possess a powerful spiritual component. Humans are created in the image of God, and therefore we have a divine soul which allows us to bond with divinity in a very special way.
We naturally look after our physical necessities such as food, drink, and shelter; all of us strive to ensure that our corporeal needs are met. However, we sometimes neglect our equally important spiritual requirements which also need care. The book of Proverbs states that "the candle of God is the soul of man." A person who does not nurture his spirituality is likened to a candle without a flame.
A wholesome approach to life requires that we feed our bodies and our souls, enabling us to be both physically and spiritually healthy. Being affiliated with a religious group and regularly attending services of your faith community does wonders for the soul. And it ultimately helps an individual to be healthy in a complete manner — including, as this recent survey indicates, offering the benefits of enhanced mental and emotional stability.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center
When a couple comes to me to officiate at their wedding, because they are not members of a congregation or do not share the same faith tradition, one of the first questions I ask is why they want a member of the clergy to perform their wedding ceremony. And their answer is almost always that they are "spiritual but not religious." When I probe further, I often find that they have negative feelings about the religious congregations they have attended or heard about and don't want to taint their new relationship with those feelings.
The sad thing for me in their response is that I know personally the great power of religious communities and the positive effects they can have on the lives of congregants. And now I learn from this Canadian study that attendance at religious services can act as a powerful antidote to depression, even more than secular communities do. That is certainly a boost for my lifetime commitment to religion. And it appears that the value increases the more often a person attends.
Now I don't know for sure what extra values are parts of regular religious participation, but I believe that religious communities have the benefit of engaging us with questions of ultimate value. Those questions for me are: Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? And what am I called to accomplish? Consequently, I think it is very important to join together with others who are struggling with the same questions. Whether we believe in a divine presence or not, I think those are the issues with which we all grapple.
At its best, I believe that religion can be a vital part of life. It joins us with those who are seeking answers beyond the usual ones. And those answers can give us meaning, purpose, and joy. That is certainly not depressing.
Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
Here are the things that, according to my limited understanding of clinical depression, provide significant protection against it: psychotherapy, antidepressant medications, some forms of diet and exercise, some herbs if you trust them, electrical stimulation of the brain if you're super-brave or super-desperate, and perhaps visual focus therapy.
Not church. Certainly not church without any of those other things. Please, depressed people, do not self-treat your depression by coming to church. Get help from someone who knows what they're talking about. Engage the brave battle of months' worth of experimentation with meds and dosage and therapy and health regimens and don't give up, keep at it, keep experimenting till you find a balance that helps you.
Don't be put off by meeting that first therapist who's not the right match for you. Don't be dissuaded by your unhelpful family and friends who try to be helpful by telling you you're fine just as you are. Don't cave in to that part of you which talks you out of things.
Do battle. Fight for your wellness, fight for your lightness of being, and the life you want to be able to live. Don't give up. Don't give in to the lethargy. Do something, even something tiny, every day; something that's your choice for happiness — and call every one of those tiny things a victory, even if it's just that today you showered and dressed. And keep doing some tiny thing like that every day, till you get stronger and it gets better.
And if coming to worship gives you the courage to stick with it, then come on ahead. 'Cause you know what? Figuring out some place you want to try, setting your alarm to wake up, showering, changing, getting in your car, going there, and walking into a room full of strangers — when God knows all you feel capable of is staying in bed that day — doing all that, instead, is about 10 kinds of victory, and hosts of angels will sing with you a mighty song of your soul's triumph.
You keep at it. Get good help; and celebrate every tiny victory. You'll get stronger. You will.
The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge
The Bible says "Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones" (Pro 3:7-8 NIV). Right in that passage I think we see that ill-health should be diminished among those who revere God, and since it was his idea to create the church, it makes sense that regular attendance in this worship community would prove healthful both mentally and physically.
There was a time, and still is a bit, where mental depression was dealt with simply by prescribing pills to correct chemical imbalances in the body. It didn't work as well as hoped, but it attempted to address a spiritual issue through physical means. I think there is truth to the healthy-body-healthy-mind idea, and that also in reverse. If the root cause of depression is lack of purpose, or loneliness, or bored existence, or anguish from past wrongs, people let themselves go and they feel worse.
But involvement in Christian fellowship may provide the real path to health. Besides friendship, church offers a regular schedule of faith building and a sense of significance that comes with personal involvement, and there is the joy in knowing one is right with God; that he has entered into positive relationship with you, and that whatever you do has eternal significance. Besides all this, Scripture reminds, "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." (Rom 1:20 NIV). This means that the most sane thing a person can do is to acknowledge the truth of God's existence, and then follow him via his ordained means — the church. Romans 8:6 says "the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace." Go to church!
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
I am not at all surprised to find that regular church attendance is correlated with a significant drop in depression. And I am glad that this study controlled for obvious factors such as social support, educational level, marital status and health that might explain lower depression rates.
Christ promised us in Matthew 18:20 that when two or three of us are gathered together, he is present in our midst. Christians are commanded not to forsake gathering together to worship. This is not simply for social support, but to corporately experience the benefits of the presence of God. Psalms 16:11 states, "You show me the path of life, for in Your presence there is joy and at Your right hand there are pleasures for evermore."
Corporate worship provides the opportunity for an individual to focus their attention and awareness on the presence of God. The National Opinion Research Center affiliated with the University of Chicago conducts a General Social Survey to collect demographic and attitude data on people living in the US. In 2004, the GSS asked people how frequently they experienced God's presence. Among Christians, 55% of weekly church attenders reported experiencing God's presence one or more times daily which was 1.5 times more frequently than non-attenders.
I believe that when we corporately worship, Heaven invades Earth, and Romans 14:17 makes it clear that wherever God's kingdom is manifest, there is peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Thus the more we experience God's kingdom in our midst, the more exposure we have to his peace and joy. God's presence releases his power, and it is not unusual to see people physically and emotionally healed during corporate worship.
Pastor Ché Ahn
In the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the writer does some strong writing focusing on Divine presence. The writer makes the point that kindness and forgiveness rather than judgment cause us to complete each other rather than compete with each other, because we see God in each other. In this chapter Jesus says that if two or three agree about anything that they ask for on earth it will be done by God in heaven, and if two or three gather in Jesus’ name Jesus will be present.
Worshipers may gather because they draw strong support from each other, but they also may gather because they believe that the one whom they worship has gathered with them to hear their petitions, and to bring comfort and direction to their lives. While certainly worshipers pray during the week, they gather as a faith community to check in with God as a group journeying together.
I have seniors in my congregation who go from week to week perhaps without seeing another friend. I have young people who may go all week without talking to another teen about their faith. Worship is the time that they encounter their spiritual associates, enjoying the handshakes and hugs that are so important to human existence. It can be a time when attention is less focused on outward appearance and more focused on inward yearnings and aspirations, a time they may contemplate their life destinies in the light and love of the Savior who has promised to be a traveling companion. Whether they have lost their spouses, or are contemplating which high school or college to attend, they see others making it through their faith, and it gives them faith to believe that they can make it too. They witness God operating in the lives of their friends and perhaps it gives them humbleness and courage to accept that same God love into their own lives. Together we feel God, hope and aspiration present.
The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel