By Anastacia Mott Austin
A recent study done at Temple University explores the question of the role that spirituality plays in mental health.
The report’s author, Joanne Maselko, Sc.D, looked at the patterns in adults who had been religious as children but had drifted away from spirituality as adults, as well as other pattern changes in religious participation.
“A person’s current level of spirituality is only part of the story,” said Maselko, assistant professor of public health. “We can only get a better understanding of the relationship between health and spirituality by knowing lifetime religious history of a person.”
Women who changed their pattern of spiritual participation, whether it was to decrease or increase their involvement, were three times as likely to develop anxiety and other mental health problems as compared to women who had continually stayed active within their church or spiritual practice.
The study does not explain the possible life circumstances that might coincide with either a dip or an increase – or a complete change – in spiritual patterns, such as a death in the family and similar major life events that might accompany spiritual searching.
In men, the effect seemed to be the opposite. Men who had stopped being religiously active or who changed their spiritual patterns were less likely to suffer mental health effects than those who had remained consistently active.
The study hypothesizes that the reason for the gender difference has to do with social networking within a person’s spiritual circles. Maselko says that women are more connected to that network than men. “Women are simply more integrated into the social networks of their religious communities,” says Maselko. “When they stop attending religious services, they lose access to that network and all its potential benefits. Men may not be as integrated into the religious community in the first place, and so may not suffer the negative consequences of leaving,”
Maybe so, but that doesn’t really explain the seeming benefit of leaving a religious circle for men, if the statistics of the study are to be believed.
In addition, those who had never been spiritually active did not have significantly different rates of anxiety or other mental health issues.
The study, released in 2008, in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, involved 278 women and 440 men. Its goal was to examine and compare lifetime religious participation and lifetime psychiatric history. Fifty-one percent of the women had not been spiritually active since their childhoods, and 39% were still involved with a religious practice.
The study seems to back up claims that having some kind of spiritual practice acts as an emotional and mental anchor in our lives.
At least for women.