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Professor asks if religion correlates with depression

Are religious people more or less likely to be depressed than nonreligious people? The answer, according to a new study, is both.

Joanna Maselko, an assistant professor of public health at Temple University, and Professor of Community Health Stephen Buka '78 published research in the journal Psychological Medicine online in October finding that aspects of religious participation correlate differently with depression.

The study presented an analysis of data from several hundred adults taking part in the New England Family Study in the Providence and Boston communities, who had been asked about their experiences with religion and tested to clinically determine their psychological health.

"About 20 percent of U.S. adults will develop clinical depression in their lifetime, and we are interested in what increases or decreases the likelihood of depression," Buka said. According to the study, a growing body of research indicates that religion and spirituality are related to better psychological health, but the authors wanted to determine which components of religion were contributing to this benefit: Were the positive effects a result of participating in a religious community or were they coming from people's faith in a higher power?

The researchers chose to look separately at three facets of religious participation: attendance at services, religious well-being and existential well-being. The study stated, "Religious well-being refers to the quality of a person's 'relationship with God' or a higher power whereas existential well-being reflects a person's sense of meaning and purpose in life."

The study's analysis showed that people who attend services and feel that their lives have meaning and purpose are much less likely to be depressed, but that people who have a strong faith in God are actually at a greater risk for depression. This latter correlation came as a surprise, according to the study, since researchers haven't looked specifically at religious well-being in the past. The study suggests that similar results might be obtained through a reanalysis of previous studies.

Buka said it is important to remember "we don't know which came first" - clinical depression or faith in God. It could be that people who are depressed turn to a higher power for help or there could be another explanation, Buka said.

The finding that religious service attendance is associated with lower levels of depression is consistent with earlier research. Buka said the religious service attendance leading to lower incidence of depression also "logically makes sense" since "strategies to prevent depression are opportunities for meaningful social exchange and contact."

Buka said that just as religious services may be a common place for adults to find community and purpose, the college experience often provides both for students. "College is a time to reflect on and solidify one's values," Buka said. Adults who have existential well-being often found that sense of purpose during their time in college, he added.

"Opportunities to develop a sense of purpose in life, which is one of the hallmarks of the Brown experience, should have long-term beneficial effects," he said.


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