x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Research reveals that faith offers hope to the stressed

There is a strong connection between religiosity and mental health.

The World Health Organisation published a paper last year entitled Risks to mental health. It outlined the value of mental well-being, viewing it as essential to leading a fulfilling life, including the ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships, study, work and pursue leisure activities.

The risks to mental health are many. These include individual, social and environmental risks, such as genetic predispositions, work-related stress, unemployment and gender and social inequalities.

The paper, however, also considers protective factors, one of which is valuing and practising religion. This factor might be particularly worthy of exploration in Arabian Gulf societies where religion has traditionally played, and continues to play, a very important part in daily life.

Research on the relationship between religious practice and mental health has spanned the full spectrum of faiths. Studies generally agree that strong religious faith is consistently associated with improved mental health.

One article examined 115 independent studies, all of which focused on the relationship between religiosity and mental health in adolescents. The authors concluded that in at least 92 per cent of cases, practising religion was associated with a better mental state.

Another review, in the more specific context of major depressive disorder, considered 147 independent studies, including a total of 98,975 participants. This meta-analysis (quantitative study of studies) reported a significant inverse relationship between religion and depression.

In other words, participants who were more religious tended to be less depressed; this is even after taking into consideration age, gender, socioeconomic status and other demographic variables that might influence the relationship.

In the Arabian Gulf, the few studies exploring this relationship repeat the same pattern.

A study undertaken in Saudi Arabia assessed depressive symptoms, subjective well-being and religiosity within a sample of 7,211 Saudi schoolchildren. As predicted, religious devotion was positively related to subjective well-being and inversely related with depressive symptoms.

Similar studies among Kuwaiti adolescents and adults have reported the same relationships: religiosity positively correlated with subjective well-being, and inversely correlated with the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Relationships, however, tell us nothing about causal dynamics. For example, maybe mental health problems cause a decrease in faith; or, perhaps faith offers protection against mental health problems. Perhaps it is also conceivable that some third unidentified factor is influencing both.

The first follow-up study to address this issue in adults was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2012.

Participants initially reporting high levels of religiosity, had a relatively low risk of developing a major depressive episode over a 10-year period.

This is fairly convincing evidence that being religiously devout protects an individual against developing major depression.

Mental health promotion efforts aimed at minimising the burden of problems might benefit from working with this important resilience factor.

Regular religious practice remains an important and widespread occurrence in this region.

Religiosity also appears to be an important factor in the prevention of sometimes debilitating psychological disorders such as major depression.

This might be a fruitful area of overlap between individuals working in the fields of heritage preservation and health promotion.

Justin Thomas, an associate professor at Zayed University, is the author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States: The New Arabia Felix