Believing in God could be the solution to overcoming mental health problems

Muslims praying

After a controversial split decision in December 2018 robbed Tyson Fury of one of the greatest comebacks in boxing history, the lineal champion steps into the ring tonight for a highly anticipated rematch against heavyweight arch nemesis Deontay Wilder, writes Najm Al Din.

Technically gifted inside the ring, Fury’s appeal transcends boxing given his greatest fight to date outside the squared circle: depression. Having almost quit the sport in 2015 following a vintage display against Wladimir Klitschko, the past few years has seen the Gypsy King embark on a remarkable journey where he has battled through alcoholism, obesity and drug addiction to climb back to the top of boxing’s elite. In the process, he has become a poster boy for those suffering with mental health problems.

The death of former Love Island host Caroline Flack highlights the all too familiar tragedy of celebrities struggling with depression. An intrusive life under the spotlight and a pathologically materialistic lifestyle are just some of the reasons their lives spiral out of control.

Besides seeking standard psychiatric treatment, some resort to self-medicating their symptoms and relapse after sobriety due to substance abuse. What’s unique about Fury’s road to recovery is that his healing is connected with something overlooked in discussions surrounding mental health: God.

Spiritual healing

We often conceive of depression in purely physical terms, as a condition that can be treated solely with medication, counselling or sometimes a combination of both. While we must seek physical cures for our mental health conditions, I think the current approach to depression is reflective of the alarmingly prevalent phenomenon of misdiagnosis and overemphasis on medication. When we talk about the effectiveness of mental health treatments, it’s time to consider how faith is a coping mechanism.

The evidence for the efficacy of religion in psychological health is not merely anecdotal. Longitudinal prospective studies and meta-analysis of several inquiries into this area reveal an inverse relationship between depression and religiosity. In fact, research indicates how religiosity influences the micro-structural and anatomical levels of the brain, helping to shape our cognitive processes to act as a buffer against several mental health conditions.

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According to a 2004 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, which compared the clinical characteristics of depressed inpatients who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation, nonreligious affiliation was the strongest contributing factor to an increase in suicide.

The study found that subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living and posed fewer moral objections to suicide whereas religious affiliation was associated with less suicidal behaviour.

Furthermore, a ten-year study of 60 depressed and non-depressed mothers and 151 offspring revealed that maternal religiosity and mother-offspring concordance of religiosity were shown to be protective factors against offspring depression.

While it’s important to avoid conclusions emerging from a simplistic linear relationship between discrete variables, these empirical studies confirm a growing literature which corroborates the benefit of religiosity in decreasing the frequency of depressive disorders and improving the chances of post-traumatic recovery.

Atheism and depression

Of course, depression does not discriminate and those who believe in God are certainly not immune. However, unlike most theists, atheists do not subscribe to any notion of ultimate salvation and redemption in an afterlife and are therefore more prone to living with the perpetual angst of a universe without purpose.

Jesuit Priest Robert J. Spitzer calls this an ‘existential anxiety’. Given the remarkable cross-cultural and cross-historical coincidence of the human expression of the sacred, it is a natural disposition to yearn for God and an afterlife. However, the moment we become detached from a transcendent reality which we implicitly desire, everything is filtered through a fog of despair.

The suggestion that depression stems from a crisis of faith was also advanced by late sociologist and historian Mircea Eliade. He claimed that man in the western civilisation is no longer homo religious and has lost sense of an absolute sacred reality which previously anchored our psychological well being.

Eliade argues that our alienation from self and reality becomes more acute as we drift from the sacred and transcendent, thus making us more susceptible to psychological illnesses like depression. This might explain why happiness is often an elusive reality in secular cultures which tend to report higher levels of depression and lower levels of religious affiliation.

There are many life metrics that improve by virtue of being religious. Communities which imbibe varying degrees of spiritual reflection and meditative rituals are more likely to invest potentially alienating events and moments of misery with profound meaning and tend to be more embedded in constructive social networks which promote cohesion and psychosocial support during times of adversity.

I am not implying that atheists are incapable of living fulfilling lives but one can argue that the emptiness arising from their de-sacralisation renders them less resilient to overcome the existential dread associated with mortality and impermanence. For many theists, this can be alleviated through faith in a benevolent Creator who comprehends pain and suffering more intimately than any human being practising carpe diem in an objectively meaningless life.

As many instances of depression are borne from a spiritual vacuum and alienation from a higher calling, Fury’s epiphany in his darkest hour highlights an intrinsic value to being religious and investing significance in what is wholly other and non-empirical for comfort and consolation.

Although social workers and counsellors are not traditionally equipped to address this elephant in the room with patients, it’s time public health professionals explore the role of religion as a therapeutic strategy in mitigating the symptoms of depression and consider integrating spirituality into clinical practice as a means to enriching our mental health.

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