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.”