Those with a mental illness and faith in a higher power fare better in treatment than non-believers, according to research published today in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
David H. Rosmarin, a McLean Hospital clinician and instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has been studying the relationship between faith and mental illness for years.
His previous research includes studies of religious and spiritual factors in depression, how the faithful tend to worry less and to be more tolerant of life’s uncertainties, and other explorations of spirituality and health.
Past research has touched on the effect of faith on mental illness, and Rosmarin and colleagues set out to explore the extent to which faith affects treatment outcomes.
"Given the prevalence of religious belief in the United States—over 90 percent of the population—these findings are important in that they highlight the clinical implications of spiritual life,” he said in a press release. “I hope that this work will lead to larger studies and increased funding in order to help as many people as possible.”
Studying God’s Effect on Psychiatric Treatment
Researchers recruited 159 patients at McLean Hospital’s cognitive behavioral therapy day-treatment program seeking treatment for major depression, bipolar disorder, and other conditions. The patients’ progress was monitored through structured interviews with researchers and consultations with the supervising psychiatrists.
Participants had a mean age of 33 and were predominantly white, and 45 percent were college graduates. Seventy-two percent rated their belief in a higher power as “moderate” or higher, and nearly 48 percent were Christian, while 38 percent claimed no specific religious affiliation.
After a year of study, researchers found that faith in the almighty doubled a person’s chances of responding well to treatment.
“Results indicated that over the course of treatment, belief in God, but not religious affiliation, was associated with greater likelihood of treatment response, as well as greater reductions in depression and self-harm and greater increases in psychological well-being,” the study states.
Does God Work in Mysterious Ways?
Researchers could only speculate about why belief in God seems to help psychiatric patients.
Belief in a higher power—God, Yahweh, Allah, or Odin—may offer patients a certain level of optimism and hope, which could bolster their treatment responses. In general, the more a person believes their therapy will help, the better their outcome, the researchers noted.
“This may suggest that faith is a general cognitive attribute representing an optimistic mental schema that can generalize to spiritual, medical, and perhaps other domains as well,” the authors conclude.