Depression and religion in adolescence

Depression is the leading cause of illness and disability in adolescence. Many studies show a correlation between religiosity and mental health, yet the question remains whether the relationship is causal. We exploit within-school variation in adolescents’ peers to deal with selection into religiosity. We find robust effects of religiosity on depression that are stronger for the most depressed. These effects are not driven by the school social context; depression spreads among close friends rather than through broader peer groups that affect religiosity. Exploration of mechanisms suggests that religiosity buffers against stressors in ways that school activities and friendships do not.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Jane Cooley Fruehwirth, Sriya Iyer, and Anwen Zhang, forthcoming in the JPE.  I find this to be one of the most underemphasized benefits of religion, perhaps because religious people themselves do not wish to come off as overly neurotic.  And the effect seems to be large:

…a one standard deviation increase in religiosity decreases the probability of being depressed by 11 percent.  By comparison, increasing mother’s education from no high school degree to a high school degree or more only decreases the probability of being depressed by about 5 percent.

And for the most depressed individuals, religiosity seems to be more effective than cognitive-based therapy “one of the most recommended forms of treatment.”


Prayer is the best medicine against teen depression?

Seems doubtful, but maybe the authors have a better measure for religious belief. One, for example, that does a better job alleviating depression. (Or acne, a study just waiting for the launching pad to be clear for the next moon shot.)

Why do you reduce religion to prayer? I'm inclined to think it would primarily be the community aspects of it. Or possibly an effect of having a religious worldview.

Prayer can be quite meditative. And I don't think many people would argue against the benefits of meditation for mental health.

Most religious people "need" religion in the same way an alcoholic needs alcohol. Most depressed people have mental health issues. It seems unlikely that someone who is depressed because of underlying mental health issues ill be cured of depression by becoming religious. I think the problem with this study is it is discussing two very different populations and trying to find a convergence to prove something that is unprovable.

That's just hypothesis. Remember, statistics will not tell you which way the causality arrow runs. If a rooster crows just before the sun rises, a statistical Vector Auto-Regression (VAR) test, of the kind economists like to do, will only tell you the rooster seems to make the sun rise. It's up to the researcher to conclude otherwise. So, Anon, why do you feel that way? Were you perhaps abused by a priest when a child? Remember, talk therapy, even to a stranger, even to a computer, is about as therapeutic as taking meds say some statistical studies. You can start here and tell me, I'm your friend.

you're such a curmudgeon, Ray, I wouldn't even tell you my favorite color if my life depended on it.

Can someone tell Sam Harris?


Sam Harris would likely point out that whether or not believing something makes you happy is an entirely different question than whether or not that belief is true.

It's possible people misdiagnosed as being cured of cancer are happier than those more accurately diagnosed as terminally ill. It's possible children who still believe in Santa are happier than those who have learned he is not real.

But doesn't Harris and the other militant atheists go further? They aren't satisfied to just tell us God isn't real, they want us to know that religion is actually a bad thing, bad for humanity. This post is at least evidence to the contrary.

My understanding is that they would say that it is a net negative overall for humanity but certainly not that it has negative effects in every situation. They are well aware that religious feeling has inspired a lot of great art as well as some impressive acts of altruism.

I have no problem at all with this post by Tyler, just with the idea that it refutes Harris in some way.

I increasingly think that the effects of religion are highly contingent. They depend on the institutional and social context. In the presence of stable/durable/secular institutions, I think they can be quite positive. In the presence of unstable/volatile/non-secular institutions, they can be quite negative. Very crudely, this might suggest religion is a good thing in highly developed countries and vice versa. In any case, it's becoming more clear that there are many benefits to religion that are not linked to its truth, and we should think more about how to encourage the benefits and discourage the costs. Broadly dismissing religion is increasingly a mistake in my view.

Broadly dismissing religion is DECREASINGLY a mistake, at least if we are talking about the long-term. Surely the fact that it is increasingly hard to truly believe limits some of it's positive power, has negative affects on interpersonal relationships, and leaves it open as a tool to more readily abuse the gullible.

Maybe the hard evidence is mounting that it has real positive effects, but if you can't recognize that religion has beneficial effects you are really trying hard not to recognize it. I certainly don't see any positive effects coming from religion that are new or due to modern social dynamics. Maybe as a counter-balance to bowling alone? I'm skeptical it's a tool doing more good now than it was 100 or 500 years ago.

I think that's directionally fair and it's a good point to clarify the timeframe. I am talking more about the last 100 years or so. As developed countries have improved institutions, perhaps we've kept more of religiosity's positive aspects while materially limiting its negative ones. To your point, while the absolute amount or intensity of positive aspects isn't going through the roof, the net balance may be moving positive due institutions. In addition, to the extent the trends in many developed countries continue regarding mental health, less social trust, worse interpersonal communication, a (arguable) decay in morals, perhaps religiosity shouldn't be so easily dismissed as it has been.

There are lots of religions (gods) in this world, and a lot of related and unrelated "spiritual practices."

It went to court in California whether Yoga could be taught in Encinitas public schools. Was it exercise or a gateway to Hinduism? The court said exercise .. but were they right?

If yoga is good, does it matter?

Yoga is a heathen practice, and good Christians must avoid it at all costs.

Other heathen practices to avoid: tai chi, listening to Fiddler on the Roof, and meditation. Also good Christians must not eat samosas, bagels, sushi, or falafel.

And Kung Fu movies are RIGHT OUT.

Trump’s penis is distinct due to it’s mushroom shaped head

I wouldn't know.

What shape is Bolsonaro’s? I know it’s smaller than Trump’s but it must have a cool shape too.

I wouldn't know. Yet, research shows that leads in cranial volume and penian size.

Interestingly, Captain Bolsonaro also has 4 nipples (one extra on his chest and one on his back) and 6 toes on each foot.

It is not true. Stop lying.

Is IS true, impostor! Captain Bolsonaro is too great a man to have only 10 measly toes and 2 pathetic nipples. He is arguably the greatest statesman in the Western hemisphere.

Many right-wing Christians in America are retarded, unfortunately.

Anything right-wing and fundamentalist is retarded

Americans who convert to Islam seem to be very happy people.

That is not true, and you know that is not true.

Stop lying.

As Ulysses Everett McGill said, I guess hard times will flush the chumps.

Just kidding. People turn to religion in times of grief. No surprise they'd do so when battling depression, too, which is certainly a related psychological state.

I cannot reach an ungated copy, but I believe this study is of the type that looks to avoid that particular trap.

In any event, we have known for a long time that the religious are far less likely to commit suicide. If religion preferentially attracted the suicidal we'd see the exact opposite and see higher rates of suicide among the religiously observant.

1- search the title in quotes.
2 - many religions "legislate " against suicide.

"Many studies show a correlation between religiosity and mental health": I dare say. It's a pity the authors didn't stir themselves to mention whether the correlation was positive or negative.

Anyway, anyway - having an imaginary friend cheers you up. Is that surprising?

About 40 years ago, when I was a young lawyer, a psychiatrist working for the US Army hospitals came to me for help in a disciplinary matter he was facing. The Army threatened to fire the doctor because he was praying with his patients. The doctor claimed that the prayer sessions were completely voluntary and were actually helping his patients. Interesting first amendment issues, etc. The doctor seemed a bit odd to me (as do many people in that field), but he was sincere. If "meditation" were prescribed, I doubt there would be any controversy. But, the moment the idea of God is remotely invoked (even as a metaphor) lots of folks become very antagonistic . I'm not sure who is worse--religious fundamentalists or atheist fundamentalists. Neither seem to get the joke.

You are not a good person.

You are full of hatred.

Try and be better.

Dr. Andrew Weil once said, "The placebo effect is still an effect." If something helps you feel better, you should definitely do it. I have known many queer friends who struggled with teenage depression only because their religions had convinced them they were sinners. When they became non-believers, surprise, surprise, their mental health improved dramatically.

Religion promotes introspection, and also supplies a ready-made community support system, so long as you agree to abide by the rules. Introspection and a good support network are always correlated with mental health. This is what religion is, at its core, and those who find a way to introspect and who develop a support network outside of a religion can reap all of the benefits without any of the drawbacks.

In other news, lamplight will help you read a book, but it's not the only way to read a book.

Can you show me an example population of "reaping all the benefits". The literature I have seen shows that this does not appear to actually happen for any organization, ever. Be it communist cadres, the rationalist community, or any other secular support network that has as strong an impact on mortality as your average church.

Please do show me the data, because I have atheist patients would like such a community, but cannot locate them.

Jews? Half the ones I know are atheists.

Nah, when we've studied Jewish rates of suicide we find that it is not as strong as a protective factor (e.g. all Jews in Israel have a higher suicide rate than all Muslims), but when you look at observance rates, observant Jews are much more protected against suicide.

The big kicker for religion's benefit is that many studies find a dose response pattern like that is basically as good as the data gets without doing a prospective cohort study (a clinical double blind being impossible here, much like say all studies of sexual behavior).

This comment is supposed to be for "Sure." I haven't figured out this new Marginal Revolution comment threading, so forgive me if I put it in the wrong place.

Can I provide you with an "example population?" No. But I can provide you with countless examples of individual people who have accomplished this, myself topping the list. My beliefs about religion are not comments about how societies should organize themselves. I don't give a whit about that. I only care about individuals. This is what works for me, you can do what works for you.

The funny thing is I have a bunch of patients who try to do "what works for them" and they can't find the secret sauce.

When we evaluation religion like any other public health intervention its numbers are just insanely good. Highly scaleable. Large effect size. Replicable. Very broadly effective.

Lots of things work for individuals. Virtually none of them work for large masses of people. Religion seems to be uniquely capable of working at a societal level.

The funny thing is I have a bunch of patients who try to do "what works for them" and they can't find the secret sauce.

Well, that's pretty obviously sampling bias. Good story, though.

"Religion promotes introspection"
Is that what the "I" in ISIS stands for? No wonder they are so carefully and thoughtfully throwing gays off buildings.

Curious to see these results for LGBT youth, because religion WAS the cause of depression for me! (it’s hard shake being gay and Mormon)

Maybe you were depressed because you are gay, not because you are Mormon.

Is it religiosity or other factors present in the environment of the adolescent. Adolescents in an environment in which religiosity is prevalent tend to be in families that are secure, stable, two parent. Maybe the causation is in the secure, stable, two parent environment. Or maybe religiosity causes the secure, stable, two parent environment. What this study ignores is what happens after adolescence. Many adolescents raised in a particularly religious environment have depression in their twenties or thirties once they realize the religious fables aren't true.

Correlation is still there when you correct for marital status, SES, education, and zip code. Depression rates for religious individuals remains lower in the 20s and 30s and remains lower throughout the lifespan.

In any event it is kindof funny a few comments up one poster is saying that religion's health effects are no big deal because you may deconvert and live longer (e.g. if LGBT) and you are positing the exact opposite.

The problem I have is that this analysis holds for basically every medical intervention created. Do blood pressure medications increase life expectancy directly or are the people who can maintain a blood pressure regimen able to better create a supporting environment? Evidence could go either way (and it would be shocking if the people conscientious enough to manage complex pill/exercise/medical treatment plans were not better at community building).

If anything else had the impact on mortality that traditional religious praxis shows using standard analyses, we would be paying top dollar for it. The cost effectiveness of the QALYs are among the best we have ever discovered.

It’s a correlation, not a proof of causal relationship - maybe there’s a third factor at play.

Depressed adolescents are preys for religions.

Grant that for a moment. Why wouldn't religious individuals have higher suicide rates then? You are saying we have two populations. Group A has fewer depressed people and higher rates of suicide. Group B has more depressed people and lower rates of suicide.

I would submit that if A and B described to two competing drug regimens every physician would start prescribing B and some would entertain half serious ideas about adding it to the water supply.

Many religious people will still commit suicide if their priest/pastor/imam ask them to do so.

That's interesting, can you show me your data?

Ah, but what's the Straussian reading of this paper?

This strikes me as one of those findings that is both probably true and not very useful, in the sense that you cannot decide to promote "religion" or "religiosity" as a simple intervention. In the real world, it all too quickly spins into a bunch of really fraught questions.

It's interesting. I'm an agnostic, but I feel like I'm friendlier to this post than the median commentator. Basically "a practice" can help people, even if the unanswerable questions remain so. Related:

Robert Wright, "Why Buddhism Is True"

Seems basically in accord with my own observations. Depression is often triggered by social disconnection and religious families tend to have a greater connection (and by extension, their children have greater social opportunities outside their immediate family).

Church has always been as much about creating a community and entertainment as it has been about religion.

Church is a great place to meet chicks.

I doubt the finding. They are using within school variation for selection for religiousity, bu how are they measuring religiousity without biasing the result. Depressed people withdraw for social interactions. Religion is a social interaction. The group that is more depressed is going to be less religious if religiousity is measured in terms of church attendance, participation in religious customs like prayer, etc. How do you know the causation isn't going the other way? Depression causes one to reduce their religiousity. Why don't you ask the simpler question: Is belief in God associated with less depression when we control for participation in various social activities and other behaviours associated with depression. I bet the answer to that is no.

The original post points to adolescent depression as tho' it could be an age specific issue that could be alleviated thru' religious beliefs. Likely postulated by researchers with strong religious beliefs rather than a real understanding of the causes of depression.
The potential for depression affects people of all ages equally & is a common reaction to grief, pain &/or isolation. Religious beliefs would also be considered non age-specific.
The previous comments speak for themselves & are mostly hilarious indictments of those believe religion cures all ills.

Try and ponder over this question -

maybe you do not like anybody

you just like to analyze

Hilarious? That is not a question for the rest of us, that is a question for you ....

Nobody, you slanderous little fellow, has ever said that religion cures all ills.

Try and be kinder in the future.

It is not good to slander people, as you did, with your little insulting reference to what you imagine we are devastated to think you think is hilarious.

Try and care about other people as much as you can.
God loves you.
Trust me.

As someone who grew up in a very religious environment (Mormon), I can honestly say that religion was a significant contributor to my adolescent depression, because I was a square peg getting constantly shoved into a round hole by a community that applies a great deal of social pressure. But I understand that this is not true for everyone. Plenty of people find what I experienced as awful pressure to be something more like reassuring support.

What part of the country did you grow up in?

There are pretty large cultural differences between regions which also may have been a factor for you in terms of community.

Maybe your mother and father were just bad people, religious or not, who did not put in the necessary effort to explain the world to you. Lots of people are confused by the world because they do not want to entertain the thought that their parents did not care about them: such confusion is more likely when the parents claimed to be religious.

That is not the fault of people who love God and call themselves religious because they love God, that is the fault of people who claim to be religious because it is convenient.

For example, I think Roman Catholics are wonderful people, but it breaks my heart when they claim that unloving people like Dorothy Day are saints, (poor Dorothy hated hated hated suburban moms and their beloved husbands, because she was excited to think that she loved "the poor", and in the pride of her heart she thought this gave her the right to despise people who lived in the suburbs of her day - sad to think, she did not love her neighbor), or G.K. Chesterton who laughed at Jews because he was a Real Englishman and they were just unreliable foreigners (pray for the poor little fat man, he is probably still in Purgatory for one and only one reason - he was unkind to the Jews, which is a very bad thing when one is good enough of a poet to know how much God loves the Jewess Mary of Nazareth, and to know how many Jews were good Englishmen, and died fighting for England while the ancestors of Chesterton stayed home and drank beer), Paul (Pacelli), and even the arrogant Pole John Paul II - who never had the virtue to call out all the fakers who praised him - a simple virtue that no real saint would have missed - the people who surrounded him who were not even not Christian, neither loving God or hating God, but profiting from their place in the church - who were not, probably, even minimally decent human beings ---and poor Wojtyla did not call them out, simply because, in his pride, he enjoyed the praise of evildoers too much to look into the question - were they actually the Christians they claimed to be ???? ....

Trust people who care about you. Trust God. Don't trust people who tell you they know who the real saints are and who the real saints were. I could be wrong, but I think that is important advice. God loves you. Maybe someone else - in a few cases, your parents, in a few other cases, friends, and every once in a while, a person who loves you the way God wants you to be loved - Maybe someone else. But there is always God, and the angels, and the one or two real saints who lived a long time ago, or not that long ago, and who have been praying for you every hour of your wonderful unique beloved little (or not so little) life.

and if you are one of God's elect who have gone through this world without once having the certainty in your heart that anybody you have ever met really cared about you --- and there are many of us who can say that ----
Trust God.
Your prayers are like a fantastically beautiful sunrise in heaven, if you say those prayers with love in your heart.

People who were less fortunate than you rely on you, rely on your prayers.

I think it’s time to get off the ecstasy

thx for the good advice but

in real life my favorite drug is making people smile

making sad people less sad
making happy people happier

My guardian angel - if I have one - you certainly do but I often am reminded, waking or in dreams, that it is possible that some of us do not have guardian angels but for that reason we are closer to God, in God's suffering and in God's joy - anyway, if I do have a guardian angel, that angel remembers it all

I will remember it all, too, someday/ i don't, right now, but that is not because I have ever taken an excess of drugs, or ever taken any of the dangerous drugs ....

C.S. Lewis, who did not die young (63, I think) but who entered old age with its pain in his 50s, and thereby obtained an unusual form of wisdom, said that Heaven (which is of course real) contains EVERY MEMORY WE HAVE, except that each of these memories are wonderful in our memory, as we recreate what used to fall short of being all it could be

Imagine thousands of one in a million artists repainting every picture you thought you wanted to paint
Imagine thousands of one in a million singers resinging that song you thought you were singing so well while your young spouse cringed a little inside -

all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

As always, thanks for reading. I don't know your name, but I will try to remember, if you ever remind me, that I was one of the people who told you Heaven is real, we were born to be kind, and there is nothing more important than being kind to a creature who never had a friend in this world

I remember

I'm struggling to see the relevance of this reply to my question/comment.

Perhaps you intended it to go to the person I was replying to?

Religion is the fluoxetine of the people!

If fluoxetine were half as effective as religion we'd save thousands of lives.

Strictly looking at the numbers of course.

Which do you prefer, depressed and creative, or religious and ...

From the British Psychological Society: Here’s what the evidence shows about the links between creativity and depression

Or PsyToday: A Little Weird? Prone to Depression? Blame Your Creative Brain

Where I am the per capita GDP isn't too far off the United States, the country is much less religious, and the country has much lower rates of depression. I was quite surprised when I looked at the difference. So I'd say the trick isn't be religious. It's be Australian.

Or better still, be Ugandan or Spanish. They have even lower depression rates.

the article here:

Section "Data" Page 4: "Depression is measured on the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression (CES-D) scale..........The CES-D scale consists of a list of symptoms, to each of which respondents report how often they experience the feeling." The problem with depression is that not sleeping well, not eating well, having some endocrine problems or just being stressed can make you answer YES to the questions on the depression survey. That's why doctors do a general check up to make sure the cause of depression is really depression, the mood disorder, and not something else.

These researchers found that CES-D scale test produces too many false positives in adolescents in 1991 (nineteen ninety one) "The results indicate that neither the BDI nor the CES-D should be used by themselves as methods for case ascertainment in either epidemiological or experimental studies"

I would not worry too much about the outcomes of the article, half of the data seems to be really, really weak.

Religion seems to be a kind of tool and, depending on the brand and the skill of the user, a potentially powerful one. Powerful tools can be helpful and/or dangerous. I encourage introspection.

For young males not getting sex, deciding that you you should not be trying for it is quite a relief.

This is no help for people who are intelligent enough to understand that the mythos underlying most religions is scientifically implausible.

You want people to be more religious, come up with a religion that people who aren't idiots can take seriously.

Maybe check this one out:

I like my idea of a religion based on space colonization better. There's no godhead at all, just a moral imperative to replicate life.

Religion is based on faith. Faith comes from trust. Trust creates sanity. Doubt makes us not trust. Doubt increases mistrust and results eventually in insanity.

Was this a mad-lib?

Thinking they have a real chance of becoming a hip hop star, computer game sports champion, or actor probably helps keep teenagers from suffering depression but are often discouraged.

But why not encourage dreams that are at least based in reality? There's no need to lie to them about their odds of making it, but we can provide support if they want to try.

After all, some people do become hip hop stars but there is no good evidence at all that Ereshkigal even exists, let alone that it is possible to gain her favor. And the same goes for other supernatural beings.

More evidence that religiosity reduces depression is that Middle Eastern countries (including Israel) tend to have extremely low suicide rates.

Don't tell Utah any of this.

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