Religion Better for Mental Health Than Sport, Study Finds

Researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands studied the impact of various social activities on depressive symptoms in older European people. They found that participation in religious organisations was associated with a decline in depressive symptoms, while being part of a political or community organisation—such as a local branch of a political party—had a detrimental effect on mental health. Membership of sports and social clubs had short-term benefits, but did not lead to a decline in depressive symptoms in the longer term.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, followed 9,000 Europeans, aged 50 and above, over a four-year period. Mauricio Avendano, an epidemiologist at the LSE and the study's lead author, said that religious activity, such as going to a church, mosque or synagogue regularly, was the only reliable predictor of sustained mental welfare among the factors studied. "The church appears to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness in later life," said Avendano in a statement accompanying the study. However, he added that the study did not prove how much of the benefit was down to religious factors—faith in a higher being, for example—and how much was due to the sense of belonging which comes with being part of a group.

Speaking to Newsweek, Avendano adds that further research into religious belonging could offer assistance to medical professionals and psychologists developing mental health treatments. "There may be things about the church...the kind of cognitive therapy that you may get from having this help to deal with moments of illness that could be useful in designing interventions to decrease depression among older people," he says. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide.

A 2006 report by the Mental Health Foundation, a leading U.K. mental health research charity, noted that religion and spirituality had been linked to lower levels of depression and that religious belief was helpful in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but also that children with a strict religious upbringing often expressed increased mental health problems. A 2011 study by Harvard University researchers found that meditation, an originally-spiritual practice that grew out of religions including Hinduism and Buddhism, alters the structure of the brain, resulting in improved memory and a reduction in stress.

Nick Spencer, research director at Theos, a pro-religion think-tank based in the U.K., says that religious activity adds an extra dimension to the health benefits which accompany belonging to an active group, such as a book club or sports team. "My sense is the difference with religious groups is that...religious belief furnishes people with a sense of purpose, secure identity and security with regards to your ultimate destiny," says Spencer.

However, Terry Sanderson, president of the U.K.'s National Secular Society, which campaigns for the separation of religion from public life, disagrees and says that avoiding social isolation is the key to maintaining good mental health. "Religion is not the factor in this, friendship and human interaction [are]," says Sanderson. "All claims that religion can have health benefits are irrelevant. If you don't have a faith, you can't just start to believe it as a kind of alternative to medication." Sanderson adds that psychiatric hospitals are full of people "who think they are hearing voices from God" and claims that religion does not seem to have improved their mental health.