Study: People Who Believe in God Are More Responsive to Treatment of Depression

It may be that "the tendency to have faith in conventional social constructs" can be generalized both to religion and the medical establishment.
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PROBLEM: Although both modern psychiatry and organized religion (or other forms of spirituality) are seen as places to turn during times of mental or emotional turmoil, we know surprisingly little about the overlap between the two, including if and how faith might help people overcome mental illnesses.

METHODOLOGY: At McLean hospital, a psychiatric institution affiliated with Harvard Medical School, researchers approached 159 patients in a common room and asked them how strongly they believed in a god. Their faith quantified on a five-point scale, they were also asked how credible they thought their treatment was and effective they believed it would be in relieving their symptoms. 

All of the patients in the sample had prominent symptoms of depression. The researchers assessed their symptoms when they were admitted and again when they were released. 

RESULTS: Seventy-one percent of the participants reported that they at least "fairly" believed in a god or a higher power. Strong belief was associated with better outcomes over the course of treatment: the lessening of depression, reductions in self-harm, and increases in what they called psychological well-being -- things like peace of mind, ability to have fun, and satisfaction with life. This association wasn't affected by which god patients believed in, or whether they were affiliated with a specific religion (or any religion at all). 

IMPLICATIONS: The researchers point out that people who believed in a god, or were affiliated with a religion, were also more likely to believe their psychiatric treatment was credible and to expect positive results. It may be, they write, that "the tendency to have faith in conventional social constructs" can be generalized both to religion and the medical establishment. Since other studies have shown that faith in a given treatment is an important predictor of its effectiveness, that could help explain the association with improved outcomes found here. 

Other traits often associated with faith, like optimism and hope, may also be at play. "It's hard to have faith in the physical world," lead author David Rosmarin, PhD, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, said, reflecting on last week's bombings in Boston, which he witnessed. It can be even more difficult, he went on, for someone suffering from acute depression or anxiety. "Faith in something metaphysical, which can really transcend the world in front of us ... that could carry a person through."


"A test of faith in God and treatment: The relationship of belief in God to psychiatric treatment outcomes" is published in The Journal of Affective Disorders.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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