- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2010

The “Big Man Upstairs” is getting accolades from mental health specialists who say they are finding that a belief in God plays a positive role in the treatment of anxiety and depression.

University of Toronto psychologists reported last year that “believing in God can help block anxiety and minimize stress,” their research showcasing “distinct brain differences” between believers and nonbelievers.

A new study released Wednesday by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago took the idea a step further.

In patients diagnosed with clinical depression, “belief in a concerned God can improve response to medical treatment,” said the new research, which has been published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.


The operative term here is “caring,” the researchers said. “The study found that those with strong beliefs in a personal and concerned God were more likely to experience an improvement.”

The researchers compared the levels of melancholy or hopelessness in 136 adults diagnosed with major depression or bipolar depression with their sense of “religious well-being.” They found participants who scored in the top third of a scale charting a sense of religious well-being were 75 percent more likely to get better with medical treatment for clinical depression.

“In our study, the positive response to medication had little to do with the feeling of hope that typically accompanies spiritual belief,” said study director Patricia Murphy, a chaplain at Rush and an assistant professor of religion, health and human values.

“It was tied specifically to the belief that a Supreme Being cared,” she said.

“For people diagnosed with clinical depression, medication certainly plays an important role in reducing symptoms,” Ms. Murphy added. “But when treating persons diagnosed with depression, clinicians need to be aware of the role of religion in their patients’ lives. It is an important resource in planning their care.”

Public opinion polls — from Gallup to the Pew Research Center — reveal that large majorities of Americans believe in God. It is a factor among the researchers as well.

Data released last year by sociologists from the University of California at Berkeley, in fact, revealed that 93 percent of the nation believes in God, a finding that has remained unchanged since 1988.

The Canadian researchers who found that belief in God lowers anxiety and stress also based their conclusions on measurements — monitoring the brain activities of believers and nonbelievers charged with some challenging tasks.

“We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors,” said Michael Inzlicht, assistant psychology professor at the University of Toronto, who led the research.

“They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error,” he said.