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The Influence of Religiousness on Mental Health

Religious practices provide resources, which prevent depressive symptoms

(January 2020) Preventing illnesses and supporting health-promoting behaviour is of great importance for Europe’s ageing population. With the majority of older people still belonging to a religion, science started to investigate whether religion has an effect on people’s health outcomes. Earlier research about the association between health and religiousness pointed to favorable outcomes in several physical and mental conditions for religious individuals. Religiousness also tends to be associated with depression, but due to different measurements of religiosity, studies are inconsistent about the extent of this association. Where some found a clear positive effect of religiousness on depression, others found no association at all. For the United States, research was able to confirm the association between religiousness and mental health, but so far, there is no evidence for the European population. Danish researchers Opsahl, Ahrenfeldt, Möller and Hvidt tried to fill this gap with their newest study.

Conceptualisation of religiosity: Two types of religious internalisation

To encounter previous contradicting results, Opsahl et al. differentiate between two types of religiosity, referring to the degree of internalisation. They contrast religiosity, which arises in response to crisis, with restful religiosity, which is practiced continuously and is more instrinsically motivated. Indicators for crisis religiosity are occasional prayer and occasional to no religious service attendance. Restful religiosity is measured as a higher frequency in both prayer and service attendance. Since crisis religiosity may be spurred by adversities, it is expected to be not associated with good mental health. In contrast, restful religiosity may even be a protective factor for depression.

Data about religion-related practices

For the study, the authors used data of waves 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 (2004 – 2015) of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The sample consisted of 23,864 individuals from ten European countries. Besides frequency of prayer and religious service attendance, religious education was included as measure of religiousness. Participants, who reported praying, attending religious service and were religiously educated, where understood as restful religious. Participants who reported praying, but neither religious service attendance nor having been religiously educated, counted as crisis religious. A negation on all three measures was registered as non-religious. Depressive symptoms were measured by using six out of twelve items from the Euro-D scale used in SHARE.

Religious service attendance has a positive effect on mental health

The results confirm earlier research’s presumption that religiousness is associated with fewer depressive symptoms. This effect was most pronounced for religious service attendance. Attending religious service indeed seems to protect against depression. This may be explained by the community and social support, as well as the structures for coping with stress, which religious service provides. On the other hand, crisis religiousness was associated with higher odds of having certain depressive symptoms, like having been irritable recently and having experienced fatigue, compared with non-religiousness.

Implications for health policies

Following the presented findings, it may be advisable to encourage older persons who are religious to maintain their religious practices and attend religious service. This could lower the odds of developing undesired mental health issues. Additionally, researchers and policy makers should investigate ways to offer similar non-religious services to older individuals who are not connected to religion.

Study by Tobias Opsahl, Linda Juel Ahrenfeldt, Sören Möller and Niels Christian Hvidt (2019): Religiousness and depressive symptoms in Europeans: Findings from the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe. Public Health 175: 111-119. DOI: 10.1016/j.puhe.2019.07.011.


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