Going to Church Helps You Stay Clean

Going to Church Helps You Stay Clean

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
James 1:27 (NIV)

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

In previous Today’s New Reason to Believe posts, I talked about the benefits of church attendance, including fewer mood disorders and longer life, and about how those with positive attitudes towards Christianity proved to be generally happier than their peers. In this article, I will discuss the church’s impact on substance abuse.

As an emergency psychiatrist, I work with patients who are experiencing mental health crises, some of them quite extreme. Nearly 70 percent of these patients are seen because of an addiction-related illness. Yet the great majority of my patients tell me they are Christian. As a matter of fact, a recent Barna study found that 98 percent of the people where I live (Shreveport, LA) claim to be Christian—the highest rate in the nation.

Why, then, does this area have such a huge drug problem? Research has shown that maintaining an active role in a faith community—not merely claiming to be Christian—may have a positive impact on people attempting to break an addiction.

In response to this work, scientists from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences conducted their own research to determine why religion helps people conquer substance abuse.1 The team used data from the National Drug Use and Health survey; a huge number of subjects (just over 36,000) took part in that study.

The researchers looked at social support or mental health status as possible underlying factors in religious involvement’s impact on staying clean.

The social support hypothesis suggests that staying involved in healthy relationships with people who are not using drugs may help an addict abstain. As the researchers point out, other teams had examined this hypothesis previously and found it lacking. However, the University of Arkansas researchers wanted further verification. What they show in their own work agrees with previous conclusions: it seems that it is not just being in a good environment with good people that helps addicts abstain—spiritual/religious activities in particular may have a direct influence in helping people stay clean.

The University of Arkansas team also examined mental health status as a possible factor. The rate of substance abuse in those with mental disorders is higher; these are the “comorbid” or “dual-diagnosis” patients that have, for instance, both depression and alcohol dependence. Whereas, people who stay active and involved in a spiritual and religious environment enjoy better mental health: they are happier, have fewer mood disorders, and live longer. So, it is really important to see whether mental health status is causing the apparent effect on staying clean. The study found that simply having better mental health wasn’t a factor in helping people stay sober.

As it turns out, social support and mental health do not play a role in religious involvement’s positive impact on helping addicts stay sober. Maybe something or Someone else (namely, God) has something to do with it? I believe this research study provides implicit evidence of God’s direct effect on human lives. We can expect that our faith in Jesus Christ, that hope and assurance for what we do not see with our eyes, can be a powerful force in helping us get clean and stay clean, too!

  1. M. J. Edlund et al., “Religiosity and Decreased Risk of Substance Use Disorders: Is the Effect Mediated by Social Support or Mental Health Status?” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 45 (August 2010): 827–36.

James C. Patterson II, MD, PhD

Dr. James C. Patterson II received his MD and PhD degrees from the University of Texas Medical Branch in 1996, and currently serves as Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Emergency Psychiatry at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, Louisiana. He is also a member of the Shreveport Chapter of RTB.