Belief in God or a higher power might not be on the list of prescribed treatments for depression or anxiety but a recent study concludes it can improve outcomes for psychiatric patients.
Published this past spring in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the study – entitled “A test of faith in God and treatment: The relationship of belief in God to psychiatric treatment outcome” – surveyed 159 patients over the course of a year at Harvard Medical School affiliate McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. and explored the impact faith had on treatment expectations.
Led by David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., a McLean Hospital clinician and instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the study asked patients to assess their belief in God and its role in their mental health care. Rosmarin’s team found that those who professed a high level of belief, regardless of religious affiliation, did significantly better in their short-term psychiatric treatment.
“Belief was associated with not only improved psychological well-being, but decreases in depression and intention to self-harm,” Rosmarin says.
Rosmarin was surprised that so many in Massachusetts reported such a high level of belief in God, considering the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life identifies the Commonwealth as one of the country’s least religious areas. Yet almost half of the participants identified themselves as either Catholic or Protestant, though the study concluded specific affiliation was less important than general belief. Factors such as emotional regulation and congregational support also contributed to the likelihood of positive responses to treatments, but to a lesser degree than belief.
The study reinforces what some practitioners and insurance providers already recognize: that belief in God can assist psychiatric care.
“Most people in the psychiatric, psychological and therapy worlds see belief in God as a valid worldview from which to frame mental health issues,” says David Cook, M.Div., LMHC, M.A., a licensed mental health counselor with Salem Psychological Associates (Salem, Mass.) and an ordained Presbyterian minister. “That’s what religion or spirituality provides and engagement in religious communities or other groups with a greater purpose can help a client’s progress.”
Cook says the MassHealth Insurance assessment tool known as CANS identifies spiritual/religion engagement as a strength that psychologists and counselors are encouraged to develop and that treatment outcomes often improve in direct proportion to a patient’s belief system.
Though numerous studies have affirmed the link between religious faith and psychological health, Rosmarin says their study specifically asked why spirituality might be a positive influence in a clinical context. He says participants who exhibited faith in God also showed more faith in treatment and that it was “highly unlikely” for an atheist to find treatment helpful.
“What (the study) calls for is more awareness of the relationship with patient’s faith and the treatment process,” he says. “If we have patients who are struggling with belief in the treatment process, then talking with them about faith could be helpful. And conversely if they don’t have a faith in God, then it might be harder for them to accept treatment. If they don’t have (belief) as a resource to draw on, they might need additional strategies.”
By Jo Kadlecek