Religious College Students Have Better Emotional and Mental Health

College students who participate in religious activities such as reading sacred texts, attending religious services, or joining religious organizations on campus have better have better emotional and mental health than students with no religious involvement, reported a study on spirituality released last week by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

Students who are religiously involved are less likely to feel depressed compared to non-church goers who are twice as likely to feel depressed or have poor emotional health, says the study.

“This study suggests that religion and spirituality can play a positive role in the mental and emotional health of students,” said UCLA Professor Alexander W. Astin, co-principal investigator for the national study of 3,680 third-year college students at 46 different colleges and universities.

College students’ sense of psychological well-being declines significantly during the college years, says the study, which shows that 77 percent of juniors report feeling depressed “frequently” or “occasionally” compared to the 61 percent of freshmen. But for students who are highly spiritual, the study finds they have higher levels of self-esteem and are more likely to feel good about the direction in which life is headed.

The study defines spirituality as desiring to integrate spirituality into one's life, believing that we are all spiritual beings, believing in the sacredness of life and having spiritual experiences.

However, highly spiritual students tend to report higher levels of spiritual distress, such as questioning religious/spiritual beliefs, feeling unsettled about spiritual/religious matters, or feeling angry with God, than those who have low levels or spirituality, 22 to 18 percent. Students who are highly spiritual also report higher levels of psychological distress.

Being involved in religious activities also affects students’ alcohol consumption during college. Sixty percent of students with high religious involvement abstain from drinking beer during college compared to 18 percent of students with low or no participation religious activities. If students did not drink beer prior to college, nearly three-fourths of students with high religious involvement will continue to abstain from drinking beer but only 46 percent continue to abstain if they have little or no involvement in religious activities.

“These results,” comments Astin, “once again underscore the well-established negative relationship between religious involvement and alcohol consumption.”

Additionally, the study finds that strongly religious college students tend to identify themselves as politically conservative and hold conservative views on issues of sex, abortion, gay rights, and drugs, but they lean in a liberal direction when it comes to issues such as gun control and the death penalty.

The project is funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.