Feeling blue? Tried therapy and medication? Here’s a radical thought: try visiting your local church next Sunday.
A new study adds further evidence to what we have known for quite some time: going to church is good for your mental health. Last Thursday, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing issued a press release announcing its latest findings. Following over 6000 adults aged 50 and over for six years, they found that regular church attendance (mostly Catholic in this group) was strongly associated with a lower incidence of depression.
“Although we did not find longitudinal evidence for a causal effect between religiosity and mental health, we found a robust association between religious attendance and lower depressive symptoms at baseline.”
The researchers found that this benefit could be partially, but not entirely, attributed to higher levels of social engagement. Religiously minded individuals who did not attend services were actually worse off. (The study design was unable to determine why that might have been so, leaving ample room for speculation but no evidence).
Human behavior and religious faith are both highly complex matters, making it nearly impossible to tease out the exact connection between religion and mental health. Is it merely the social engagement? In this study, that only partially explained the benefit. Would this apply to every church? Probably not, considering that many are admittedly dysfunctional. Should one “embrace a lie” just to enjoy the benefits? Be honest. There’s plenty of good evidence for God. To believe or not is a matter of choice. How about non-Christian faiths? A few studies show similar benefits; though again, it probably depends on the details.
Despite the complexity of the matter, the accumulated research is sufficiently compelling that psychologists can conclude:
“The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as “religiosity”) is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. “
Religious faith could even save your life. There is a powerful connection between church attendance and reduced risk of suicide. Writing in the July 2019 Wall Street Journal, Erika Andersen reported:
“A 2016 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that American women who attended a religious service at least once a week were five times less likely to commit suicide…. It’s true that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but there’s strong evidence that people who attend church or synagogue regularly are less inclined to take their own lives.”
Our most current understanding regarding the cause of depression offers further explanation why religious faith – particularly Christian faith – may be protective. The most effective and enduring treatment available is cognitive therapy. In its simplest terms, this means learning to break through mental habits of despair, self-absorption, and self-abasement. Strange as it may seem to some, this means thinking Biblically:
- Instead of despair we find hope. (Romans 5:2)
- Instead of self-absorption, we are to embrace humility and concern for others. (Philippians 2:3)
- Instead of self-abasement, we find unconditional forgiveness and can stop comparing ourselves to others. (Romans 4:7)
So, if you’re attending regularly, good for you! Look out for new visitors and make them feel welcome. Pay them a visit, or at least a phone call. Haven’t been in a while? It’s never too late to go back. Everyone will be happy to see you. Tried and it didn’t work? Try a different church. Never been and wouldn’t know where to start? Ask someone you know, or look for one with a lot of cars in the parking lot. Someone may greet you, or no one may, but fill out that little card and you may get a friendly call or visit.
[“Speaking of mental health, aren’t you forgetting someone?” – the Spaniel. “Never, little buddy” – me.]
The secret is out. Going to church is good for your health!