Study: Pastors at Greater Risk of Depression, Anxiety

A new study conducted among more than 1,700 pastors has found that clergy are at far greater risk for depression and anxiety, mostly due to stress, than those with other occupations.

The study by the Clergy Health Initiative (CHI) at Durham-based Duke Divinity School interviewed over 1,726 United Methodist pastors in North Carolina by phone and through online surveys. It found that the clergy depression prevalence was 8.7 percent and 11.1 percent respectively, significantly higher than the 5.5 percent rate of the national sample.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Primary Prevention, also found that anxiety rates among clergy were 13.5 percent, and more than 7 percent of clergy experienced both depression and anxiety.

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"Pastors may have created a life for themselves that is so strongly intertwined with their ministry, that their emotional health is dependent on the state of their ministry," CHI research director Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell was quoted in the study. "So it's possible that when pastors feel their ministry is going well, they experience positive emotions potent enough to buffer them from mental distress. Of course, the converse is also true."

Depression and anxiety are caused mainly due to stressful activities pastors are required to undertake, such as grief counseling, fulfilling the competing demands of church members and delivering message every week during the worship service, the study noted.

"It's common for public health professionals to ask pastors to offer health programming to their congregants," Proeschold-Bell remarked. "These findings tell us that we need to reverse course and consider how to attend to the mental health of pastors themselves."

Pastors should take time off ministry, form friendships outside of the church and seek counseling when required, but others can also help, Proeschold-Bell said.

Seminaries can mentally prepare their students to expect stress and train them to negotiate conflict, Proeschold-Bell recommended. Leaders of denominations should also understand and compliment pastors serving churches with conflict. Even church members can encourage their pastors by taking up responsibilities so that the clergy can take time away from the church.

"It's concerning that such a high percentage of clergy may be depressed while they are trying to inspire congregations, lead communities and social change ventures, even just trying to do counseling of their own parishioners," Proeschold-Bell said. "These are responsibilities that you would really want a mentally healthy person be engaged in, and yet it may be the challenges of those responsibilities that might be driving these high rates of depression."

The research is scheduled to continue over the next three years.

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