Does religious attendance protect against depression? That was the tantalizing suggestion of a recent study by University of Saskatchewan researchers Marilyn Baetz, Lloyd Balbuena and Rudy Bowen published in the April issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Key among their findings wasthat people who attended religious services at least once monthly had a 22 percent lower incidence of clinical depression compared with those who never attended.
The researchers drew on data from the National Population Health Survey, which tracked more than 12,000 Canadians from 1994 to 2008. “Individuals were surveyed every two years and changes in depression, health and religion were monitored,” says Dr. Baetz, head of the university’s department of psychiatry.
While the researchers did not differentiate between different faiths, in the baseline year, about 80 percent of people were from Christian denominations. The researchers controlled for the social support that religious attendance provided people and found that there was still an impact beyond that.
“Certainly, the element of ‘community’ is important,” Dr. Baetz says, but adds, “The ability to reframe life’s difficulties and give meaning to suffering are important pieces as well that religion can provide. We think that there may be an element of emotion regulation that occurs from regular attendance. And with enhanced ability to regulate emotions, there may be less chaos in one’s life or a better opportunity to deal with stressors.”
The study also found that those who called themselves spiritual but did not attend religious service did not experience any health benefits.
Dr. Baetz’s research in the area of spirituality and mental health began during her psychiatry residency; she worked with a psychiatrist who was interested by his patients who were religious and fearful of being involved in the psychiatric system. “We discovered that very little research was done regarding the relationship of religion to psychiatric illness,” she says.
In the future, Dr. Baetz says, “We would like to specifically look at whether religious attendance or spirituality can impact the ability to regulate our emotions, and if this might be one of the mechanisms by which there is an improvement in depression outcomes.”
But the same effects of group membership apply to joining any respected community. That is one reason people with depression are encouraged to join support groups.
The regulation of emotions is mitigated by joining a group, and the ‘uplifting’ can be of short or long-term duration.