Faith and Spirituality Beneficial in Treatment, Study Finds

May 3, 2013

A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders has shown that people who believe in God, regardless of religious affiliation, are more responsive to short-term treatment of depression.

The research looked at 159 patients in a day-treatment program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Most participants had a primary diagnosis of major depression but also included people with bipolar disorder and other diagnoses such as anxiety disorders. The average length of stay in the program was two weeks.

The participants were asked to rate their belief in God, as well as their expectations for treatment outcome, on a five-point scale. Levels of depression, wellbeing and self-harm were assessed at the beginning and the end of their treatment program.

Seventy-two percent reported their belief in God or a higher power as “fair” or greater. This group was more than twice as likely to respond to treatment as those who reported “no” or only a “slight” belief in God. Results showed that belief was associated with improved psychological wellbeing as well as decreased depression and intention to self-harm.

Greater than 30 percent of participants claimed no specific religious affiliation. It did not seem to matter which God the participants believed in, but only faith in a higher power.

People who believe in God were also more likely to have higher confidence in their treatment and expect better outcomes. Researchers suggest that those with faith in God are more optimistic and believe the treatment will help them—and this might be the mechanism by which belief in God can impact treatment outcomes.

While the study does not prove any cause or effect, it shows the positive effects of spirituality. Study author David H. Rosmarin stated, "Given the prevalence of religious belief in the United States — over 90 percent of the population — these findings are important in that they highlight the clinical implications of spiritual life. I hope that this work will lead to larger studies and increased funding in order to help as many people as possible."

As Christina Puchalski, director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health in Washington, D.C. commented in a article about the study, “[Spirituality is] not just religion, or a belief in a higher power. The ability to connect to something outside of oneself—things like hope and being hopeful, or having a sense of coherence—it’s all part of spirituality.”

As hopelessness is often a major symptom of severe mental illnesses, finding ways to incorporate spirituality into treatment could be a key step to recovery.

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