In “Can Religion or Spirituality Help Ward Off Depression?” (World of Psychology August 25, 2011), a somewhat skeptical John M. Grohol reports,
The new longitudinal research out of Columbia University wanted to followup on previous research demonstrating this correlation between spirituality or religiosity and a reduced risk for depression.
The researchers continued to followup on a set of subjects they had used in the previous study, following them from the 10-year mark (when the older research had ended) to the 20-year mark. The subjects in the study were 114 adult offspring of both depressed parents and parents who had no depression.
At the 20-year mark, had there been an episode of major depression? Only one quarter of the people who said religion or spirituality was important had experienced major depression. Time spent at religious services didn’t affect this outcome.
The really interesting find was that
Those at the highest risk for depression because they were the child of a depressed parent (that genetic and environmental connection that’s important for determining depression risk) had the biggest reduction in risk due to their spirituality or religious nature.
Grohol suggests more research.
These conclusions should be less surprising than they are to some, for several reasons. Religious Christians (all study participants were Christians) tend to live in tightly knit communities which, if healthy, play a strong role in fighting major depression by identifying the warning signs early. Thus many threatened episodes may never happen. Second, traditional Christians expect some level of unavoidable suffering as part of life, accepting it as a test of character (not of faith, because their faith told them to expect it). The same situation might look very different to the person who honestly believes that if things aren’t going well, there is something wrong with him. Also, they are taught that Jesus suffered too, and was once near despair over his mission, in Gethsemane – and that it is not a sin, only a trial.
OBJECTIVE: Previously the authors found that personal importance of religion or spirituality was associated with a lower risk for major depression in a study of adults with and without a history of depression. Here the authors examine the association of personal importance of religion or spirituality with major depression in the adult offspring of the original sample using a 10-year prospective longitudinal design. METHOD: Participants were 114 adult offspring of depressed and nondepressed parents, followed longitudinally. The analysis covers the period from the 10-year to the 20-year follow-up assessments. Diagnosis was assessed with the Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia-Lifetime Version. Religiosity measures included personal importance of religion or spirituality, frequency of attendance at religious services, and denomination (all participants were Catholic or Protestant). In a logistic regression analysis, major depression at 20 years was used as the outcome measure and the three religiosity variables at 10 years as predictors. RESULTS: Offspring who reported at year 10 that religion or spirituality was highly important to them had about one-fourth the risk of experiencing major depression between years 10 and 20 compared with other participants. Religious attendance and denomination did not significantly predict this outcome. The effect was most pronounced among offspring at high risk for depression by virtue of having a depressed parent; in this group, those who reported a high importance of religion or spirituality had about one-tenth the risk of experiencing major depression between years 10 and 20 compared with those who did not. The protective effect was found primarily against recurrence rather than onset of depression. CONCLUSIONS: A high self-report rating of the importance of religion or spirituality may have a protective effect against recurrence of depression, particularly in adults with a history of parental depression.