Will God Get You Out of Your Depression?

Religion can help or harm your mental health, depending on your denomination.

March 14, 2008, 6:27 PM

March 19, 2008— -- "It was then that I carried you."

Some may recognize this line from the widely popular "Footprints in the Sand," the poem that describes how, during the hardest parts of life, God carried the author through hard times.

Believers like Laverne Williams, a one-time depression patient and deaconess at Union Baptist Church in Montclair, N.J., identify with this parable. She says her religion was an invaluable resource during her depression.

"My faith really got me through because I knew it would pass," she said.

However, some people with mental illness have found their faith causes more pain than peace.

"I had no idea what was happening to me, I had all the signs of major depression," said Susan Gregg-Schroeder, a United Methodist minister and coordinator of Mental Health Ministries. "There is a huge stigma against mental health in our faith communities."

Religion, it seems, can act as a double-edged sword when it comes to mental health.

"Religion can amplify things, both positively and negatively," said Brother Larry Whitney, university chaplain for community life at Boston University. "It's not religion; it's the misuse of religion that creates a negative reaction."

"You might be shocked to find out there are some denominations that do harm to people," said Patricia Murphy, chaplain and assistant professor of psychiatry at Rush University. "Some congregations teach that depression is a sin ... that's the reaction they get when they turn to their pastor."

Being punished by your religious leader for an unavoidable disorder sounds bad enough — yet it's often compounded with tacit warnings against leaving the condemning sect.

"Some religious groups are taught that the only way you get to heaven are if you are in that denomination," says Murphy. "There are some people who are wounded by that, it adds to their depression, God becomes a problem, religion becomes a problem."

Gregg-Schroeder faced first-hand the difficulties of depression during her second year working as a minister .

Gregg-Schroeder said she and her family kept her depression a secret for two years, while she struggled with shame and the fear of losing her job.

"Studies have shown that faith leaders are least supportive [with mental health problems]," said Gregg-Schroeder. "There's this attitude that if you pray harder, you'll be able to pull yourself out of it. I've gone to funerals of people who were told to just pray to Jesus and stop taking your meds."

Religion can also exacerbate depression in individuals, like homosexuals, who have made life choices that run against their church's rules.

"When there's a mismatch between one's religion and one's characteristics, it's very difficult," said Suzanne Lechner, research assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at Miller school of medicine Miami.

"They are holding two different beliefs in their head: 'I'm a sinner, but this is who I am.'"

However, for those people with supportive denominations and a strong, inner connection to their faith, their religion may help to heal their mental disorders. Indeed, the majority of studies show religious folks fare better than non-religious ones.

"Depression patients with a strong, intrinsic, religious belief -- it holds their life together," said Dr. Harold Koenig, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center. "These people do better."

In a study that examined 1,000 patients over a six-month period, Koenig found that religious depression patients recovered from the depression faster than those who were non-religious.

But researchers say that just being outwardly religious -- going to church, synagogue, or Sunday school -- doesn't help people battle depression. They also need an internal and personal connection to their faith.

Monika Ardelt, a sociology professor at the University of Florida, notes that with end-of-life patients, those who were just socially religious weren't better off -- in fact, "it's worse than if you never had any religion at all."

Ardelt said this might be due to haunting questions (Was I a good enough Catholic?"; "Do I really believe in heaven?"), that neither strong believers nor atheists worry about at the end of life.

In order to get the full benefits of faith, researchers note that one needs to adhere to a regimen of outward activity and inward connection.

"A person has to [also] be engaged in a religious community, attending religious services once a week or more, reading a scriptures at least three times a week and praying once a day," said Koenig. "If they are doing that, they have a greater than 50 percent increase in speed of depression recovery."

It may sound like a complicated prescription -- intense inner beliefs and constant outer activity, but the benefits seem to be real.

Non- religious folks may ask why faith works so well.

"Worship provides social support, and it does help," said Murphy. "[It also] provides individual role models; [people] turn to someone like Job, God loves Job and he got through it, Christians look at Jesus, see what Jesus went through, so there's a divine social support system."

Michael Willborn of Durham, N.C., fervently believes that his Christian faith got him through his depression. "If you don't have a relationship with Christ can you be depressed? Yes you can. Can you manage? I don't see how people do it without Christ," he said.

Williams agrees, saying religion was an invaluable resource during her depression.

"Hearing from God, in terms of Him saying 'you are somebody, I will not leave you alone' -- I really believed that." Williams said. "I wasn't saying, 'oh, my goodness … it will never pass.' You have a light at the end of the tunnel -- it may be far, and it may flicker, but it's there."

So, should the depressed run out and get some religion? Doctors and counselors say it's up to the patient.

"I really think it's a matching process," said Lechner. "For people who are religiously inclined to begin with, it can be clinically enormously helpful, I'm [not ] going to recommend necessarily to someone who's not that interested in talking about God or getting involved in organized religion. As a clinician, you want to give them as many techniques to cope as they can, and I consider religion in that bag."

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