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Researchers: Do 'Higher Power' Relationships Lead to or Out of Depression?

Results of New Study on Religiosity and Depression Presents Questions in Addition to Answers

Are people who have a spiritual relationship with a higher power more likely to get depressed? Or is it that depressed people tend to establish such relationships on the way to getting out of depression?

Those are some of the questions being asked currently by researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia who recently revealed in a study how a person's religiousness — also called religiosity — can offer insight into their risk for depression.

For their study, researchers characterized the religiosity of 918 people according to three areas – (1) religious service attendance, or how involved a person is with a church; (2) religious well-being, or how the quality of a person's spiritual relationship to a higher power is; and (3) existential well-being, or whether a person has a sense of meaning or purpose in life.

Lead research researcher Joanna Maselko and fellow researchers then compared each domain of religiosity to their risk of depression.

What they found was that people who with a higher sense of purpose, or a high existential well-being, were more likely to be happy and were 70 percent less likely to have had depression than those who had a low sense of meaning in life.

Maselko said it's because people with high existential well-being had a "strong sense of their place in the world." They also have what she called a "good base, which makes them very centered emotionally."

The researchers also found that people who were involved in religious activities, such as going to church on Sundays, were 30 percent less likely to have had depression in their lifetime.

According to Maselko, people involved in the church are more likely to interact with others in the community, which helps them form relationships — an important factor in preventing depression.

What was most interesting, among the latest findings, was that people with higher levels of religious well-being were 1.5 times more likely to have had depression in the past than those with lower levels of religious well-being.

It could be because people who experience depression will tend to turn to God and prayers to help them cope, suggested Maselko.

The lead researcher said that her team is currently investigating whether depression or being religious came first in their pool of participants.

In her report, Maselko also warned against assuming whether a person will become depressed based on the three areas that her team had looked into.

"For doctors, psychiatrists and counselors, it's hard to disentangle these elements when treating mental illness," she said. "You can't just ask a patient if they go to church to gauge their spirituality or coping behaviors.

"There are other components to consider when treating patients, and its important information for doctors to have," Maselko stated.

The new study, published online this month in Psychological Medicine, was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health and by the Jack Shand Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Other authors on the study are Stephen Gilman, Sc.D., and Stephen Buka, Sc.D., from the Department of Public Health at Harvard University and Brown University Medical School.

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