Religion and Mental Health: Going to Church Is Good for You

Religion and Mental Health: Going to Church Is Good for You

As a kid, did you ever ask your parents why you had to eat your green beans? If so, they probably said, “Because they’re good for you!” You couldn’t see the benefits of eating those bland beans, but still you ate them because Mom and Dad said so. Besides, they sat there watching you.

Like kids facing a plateful of vegetables, some adults may ask, “Why should I go to church?” Honoring, worshipping, and glorifying God and supporting the body of Christ are a few reasons. But here’s one more that you probably didn’t think of: “Because it’s good for you!”

That’s right—going to church is good for your health, mental health to be precise.

The relationship of religion to good mental health may not surprise some people. (As a psychiatrist, it makes perfect sense to me because our mind and soul live in very close approximation to each other.) However, what may come as a surprise is the fact that this area of research (the intersection of religion and mental health) is actively growing. In the past decade more research has been done on the interface between the soul and the psyche than ever before. The vast majority of the results show that religious involvement has a positive impact on mental health.

For example, last year two psychologists, Rita W. Law and David A. Sbarra, published a study looking at the rates of mood disorders in a large population of people (n=791).1 They looked at the rates of mood disorders in an elderly population (mean age =75.6 initially) over eight years in relation to the rates of church attendance. This study was designed to examine the relationship between church attendance, marital status, gender, and the occurrence of depressed mood among the elderly. 

Religious affiliations were reported as follows:

  • 29.6%            Anglican
  • 27.9%            United Church of Christ
  • 17.4%            Other (but 96% of these were of a Protestant or Catholic denomination)
  • 12.4 %           Catholic
  • 11.3%             None
  • 1.3%              Orthodox

Depressed mood was measured with the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CES-D) Scale.2 Higher CES-D scores (max score of 60) indicate more depressive symptoms. Law and Sbarra found that the percentage of folks with scores of 16 or higher increased from 8.9% initially to 16.1% at the last point in the study. The study used multilevel modeling to assess this change.

Physical health and social support both influence depression, and so both were statistically corrected for in the analyses. Despite these corrections, church attendance predicted the level of depressed mood at study entry. Those who went to church consistently during the five years of the study were estimated to have a lower starting level of depressed mood than those who went to church inconsistently during the same period. Surprisingly, and contrary to predictions, those who never attended church reported lower levels of depressed mood initially. However, this same group showed a more rapid rate of increase in depressed mood than the other groups. Therefore, not going to church seemed to be related to higher risk for faster increase in depression in older age.

In summary, in the older adult population studied, attending church on a regular basis helped protect against the appearance of depression. Additionally, Law and Sbarra found that getting married related to decreased depression, and getting divorced or widowed related to increased depression. These findings are consistent with other studies.

Law and Sbarra make the argument that regular church attendance is related to less depressed mood because it is a “shared spiritual activity” and it provides more meaning and purpose in life than other non-spiritual social activities. It is important to empirically demonstrate the benefits of church attendance because evidenced-based medicine depends upon science to guide what doctors recommend to mental health patients in terms of prevention and treatment.

Law and Sbarra’s study is also highly consistent with what results from previous studies. A meta-analysis involving 147 independent projects, with a total of 98,975 subjects, evaluated data from the earlier research. This enormous overview of research on religion and mood demonstrated that going to church is good for you. Specifically, it correlates to less depression.3

Isolation and withdrawal exemplify hallmark features of depression—those suffering from it often prefer to spend time by themselves. While some “alone time” is acceptable, too much can be a sign of trouble. God designed us for relationships. He wants us to have an active relationship with Him, and he wants us to stay in relationship with other members of the body of Christ. Being involved in a church not only encourages us to interact with fellow believers, the latest scientific research shows it can help lower rates of depression.

So remember, always eat your green beans and stay active in church—it’s good for you!

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.

  1. Rita W. Law and David A. Sbarra, “The Effects of Church Attendance and Marital Status on the Longitudinal Trajectories of Depressed Mood among Older Adults”, Journal of Aging and Health 21, no. 6 (September 2009): 803–23.
  2. Lenore Sawyer Radloff, “The CES-D Scale: A Self-Report Depression Scale for Research in the General Population,” Applied Psychological Measurement 1, no. 3 (June 1, 1977): 385–401.
  3. Timothy B. Smith, Michael E. McCullough, and Justin Poll, “Religiousness and Depression: Evidence for a Main Effect and the Moderating Influence of Stressful Life Events,” Psychological Bulletin 129 (July 2003): 614–36.