Praying Away the Sadness: The Nuanced Link between Spirituality and Depression


Initial results from a study published by Cambridge University Press present extremely nuanced findings regarding the relationship between depression and religion. In cases where individuals were intrinsically motivated to practice their respective religion, their faith served as a preventative measure for symptoms of depression. People who practiced their faith and felt accepted in their own respective religious communities were found to be at less of a risk for depressive symptoms. Additionally, people who did not practice religion at all were found to be at more of a risk for depression than the individuals who were intrinsically motivated to practice. Perhaps the most interesting finding of this study is that people who were already exhibiting depressive symptoms generally were at more of a risk for clinical depression when surrounded by people in their respective religious communities.

The reality of the situation is that oftentimes, depression in particular is extremely stigmatized in religious communities. In many religions, particularly monotheistic faiths, belief in God and the afterlife is supposed to be the ultimate coping mechanism for depressed thoughts. Focusing on the afterlife is supposed to make worldly concerns and problems seem more bearable. In addition, individuals who suffer from depression are often seen as “ungrateful,” or told that their faith is not strong enough. Beliefs in the suffering of prophets such as Jesus and Muhammad often add to this stigma. Individuals are told that their suffering can never compare to that of their prophet. As a result of this, people in the early stages of depression often have their feelings invalidated, which can lead to feelings of isolation and worsening symptoms.

There is also a certain level of self stigma that goes along with depression in religious individuals. People take depression as an indication that their faith in God is not strong enough, and that there is something lacking in their prayer and beliefs. In addition, depressed individuals who struggle with suicidal thoughts tend to struggle even more, because suicide is considered a major sin in most monotheistic religions.

Religious individuals have been shown to be even more reluctant to receive mental health treatment than the average individual. While this is mostly due to stigma, this problem could also be due to the lack of mental health professionals that openly identify with their faith. Religious people might feel more comfortable talking to a counselor that is of the same faith as them and understands their concerns, and many counselors do not specify their religion or are not particularly religious.

Overall, changes need to be made in both religious communities and in mental health treatment to make getting help for religious individuals more accessible and less stigmatized. Depression should not be attributed to a lack of faith, and the focus should shift to the religious community coming together to support the individual through love and acceptance. In addition, more openly religious mental health professionals need to be present for counseling. In the meantime, counselors who are not religious should still be getting at least some form of training on how to better serve the needs of more religious clients. If not, many individuals will continue to suffer in silence.

 

Sources

McCullough, M. E., & Larson, D. B. (1999). Religion and depression: a review of the literature. Twin Research, 2(02), 126-136. doi:10.1375/twin.2.2.126

Mir, S. (2014). Muslims and depression: the role of religious beliefs in therapy. Integral Psychological Therapy, 2(2).

Petts, R. (2008). Religion and adolescent depression: the impact of race and gender. Review of Religious Research, 49(4), 395-414.

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