It is always good when research confirms something you thought was true in medicine. And so it is this week. Research reported by doctors at Columbia University is telling us things that many of thought were true years ago. Religion and spirituality appear to have a positive effect on those who have a family history of depression.

In an article published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Psychiatry[i] it was found that people who have a family history of depression are 90% less likely to have depression if they view religion and spirituality as an important part of their lives! My, is that ever different from the conclusions of Freud and those who would follow him when they said religion and particularly Christianity was the source of all guilt ridden neurosis. Even better, this difference can be seen in an objective manner.

MRI scanning that looks at the cerebral cortex of those who were in the study showed a difference in the thickness of this portion of the brain between those who for whom religion was important and those for whom it was not. This difference in the MRI was a difference that we could literally see in those who saw religion as important and were 90% less likely to be depressed.

It is important to keep in mind that this was a study that looked a correlation and not causation. The authors were not saying that considering religion to be important caused the cerebral cortex portion of the brain to be thicker. Nor, were they saying that religious belief caused the subjects to be less depressed. They were saying that both things could be found in those who viewed religion as important.

Studies like this should never be used to tell people who are depressed that if they have enough faith their depression will disappear. That is not what the research showed. It does tell us that something we believed has been supported in a way that can be measured. Spirituality/Religion affects the outcome of those thought to be at risk for depression, it does not cause it. It also appears to indicate that how one views religion is connected to and may change the very structure of our brains.

Another interesting part of the study showed that it was the importance the patient placed on religion not church attendance that made the difference. As tip of the hat to those trying to avoid legalism, going to church three times a week does not seem to insulate patients from depression. As one friend said, "we would have expected that. It is easy enough to attend church out of duty and get very little from it."

As a physician and a believer this makes me want to shout "as a man thinks in his heart so is he," along with lots of other encouraging passages of scripture. As a Biblical counselor it encourages me to want to help those who struggle or face problems that make them sad.  It gives me confidence that as Peter told us God has granted us everything pertaining to life and godliness including how to deal with sadness and depression.


[i] Miller L, Bansal R, Wickramaratne P, et al. Neuroanatomical Correlates of Religiosity and Spirituality: A Study in Adults at High and Low Familial Risk for Depression. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;():1-8. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.3067.

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