Attendance at religious services lowers risk of depression, study finds

A major new study that tracked more than 12,000 Canadians over a period of 14 years has found that regular attendance of religious service offers significant protection against depression.

In an article published in the April issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan write that incidence of clinical depression was 22% lower among those who attended religious services at least once a month compared with people who never attended.

“Significantly fewer monthly attenders reported having episodes or a diagnosis of depression,” the authors write. “This … suggests a protective effect of religious attendance.”

Marilyn Baetz, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan, co-wrote the study with Lloyd Balbuena and Rudy Bowen. In an interview she said the explanation for the effect remains something of a mystery.

The researchers controlled for the subjects’ sense of “social support” — for example, whether they felt they had someone to confide in or felt loved — and found that religious attendance had an impact beyond the sentiment of belonging to a community.

“The feeling is that if you belong to a religious organization, what you are really getting is just social support, nothing else,” Dr. Baetz said. “But it would appear it is something over and above that.”

They also controlled for age, income, medical history, marital status and education.

The conclusion: there is an “unmeasurable” aspect of religious attendance that benefits worshippers, she said.

“Some ingredient of the religious experience other than behaviours, networks or attitudes alone probably contributes to the benefit,” the authors write. “From the believers’ perspective, they have recourse to divine assistance (even a personal relationship in Christian traditions) and thus are less likely to feel alone with the vicissitudes of life.”

The study drew on data from the longitudinal National Population Health Survey, beginning with 12,583 people who were not depressed in 1994, and following them to 2008.

‘Some ingredient of the religious experience other than behaviours, networks or attitudes alone probably contributes to the benefit’

The researchers did not differentiate between different faiths, but Dr. Baetz said that in the baseline year, about 80% of worshippers would have been from Christian denominations.

Researchers said religious attendance lowered the risk of depression in a “dose-response” fashion: People who attended frequently had the least depression, those who attended occasionally were in the mid-range and those who never attended had the most.

The study found that people identifying themselves as spiritual but not attending religious service did not experience any health benefit. “It might be something about the organized component of religion that is the healthful component,” Dr. Baetz said.

She began researching the connection between religion and health about 15 years ago and said at that time the questions she was asking were considered controversial. But she said the medical profession has become more accepting of the role of spirituality.

“Although in some ways we’re secular, in other ways, particularly when people are stressed and have health problems, you do tend to look outside yourself for other means of coping or support,” she said.

Of course there’s no guarantee that any individual will benefit from religious attendance. “And you can’t really prescribe it,” Dr. Baetz said. “But it’s interesting to see a 22% decrease in something that’s pretty common.”