Lecture – Associations Between Religious Service Attendance and Mental Health

Available with English captions.

Presented by Tyler VanderWeele, PhD, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – Visiting Scholar Series

Research suggests a strong connection between mental health and regular participation in religious services.

In this talk, VanderWeele explores the associations between religious service attendance and mental illness, particularly the impact of religious activity on depression, anxiety, and suicidality.

He discusses the methodological challenges of studying the links between religion and mental health. Also, he offers his thoughts on how health care policymakers and clinicians can incorporate research findings on the impact of spirituality on mental health into their work.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • Studies into the connections between mental health and participation in religious services
  • Study designs and challenges associated with this research
  • Findings regarding the impact of participation in religious services on rates of depression, suicide, and anxiety
  • The potential impact of these findings on public health policy
  • How these findings can be used in clinical practice

For years, VanderWeele reports, many researchers in the field of psychiatry asserted that there was no data to support the idea that there is a link between religion and mental health. Recent studies, however, suggest that religious participation does impact mental health.

For example, VanderWeele states that many studies associate religious participation with lower depression rates. Also, he reports, 63% of the 272 cross-sectional studies published since 2000 suggested that religious participation may protect against some types of mental illness. Also, 47% of cohort studies since 2000 suggested that religious participation may protect against some psychiatric conditions.

However, VanderWeele cautions, the majority of these studies are cross-sectional studies, which often look at data from particular groups at a specific point in time. This, he says, may limit our understanding of the relationship between religion and mental health.

With this in mind, VanderWeele calls for changes in research methods. In particular, he suggests a move toward longitudinal studies. This would permit researchers to collect data over time, increase the evidence base, and allow for better analysis of the link between religion and mental health.

Despite the drawbacks in study design, VanderWeele believes that the impact of religious participation on mental health is significant and could have an enormous effect on public health policy. He states that religious participation is an important social determinant of health and should be considered by mental health professionals.

“We need to take these trends in religious service attendance into account when thinking about the trends in mental health outcomes,” he says. “To not use them would be turning a blind eye to one of the major forces shaping mental health in this country.”