Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Most U.S. Religious Leaders Endorse Medical Understanding of Depression, Survey Finds

By some estimates, up to 25% of people with mental illness in the United States seek help from religious leaders. What do these leaders believe about the cause and treatment of depression?

This was the question that Anna Holleman, Ph.D., and Mark Chaves, Ph.D., both of Duke University, set out to answer using the National Survey of Religious Leaders. They reported their findings in JAMA Psychiatry.

Holleman and Chaves focused specifically on the data obtained from the 890 primary leaders of religious congregations who predominantly completed the survey online between February 2019 and June 2020.

As part of the survey, respondents read a vignette describing a hypothetical congregant meeting the DSM-IV criteria for major depressive disorder.

“Respondents were asked how likely it is that this situation might be caused by chemical imbalance, genetic or inherited problem, traumatic experience, demon possession, lack of community or social support, lack of faith, and stressful circumstances in the congregant’s life,” the researchers wrote. Additionally, the respondents were “asked how likely they are to encourage this person to seek help from a mental health professional; take prescribed medication; and address the situation through prayer, scripture study, or other religious activity.” The respondents were asked about each cause and treatment separately, with the response options of not at all likely, a little bit likely, moderately likely, and very likely.

The top three causes of depression endorsed by clergy as moderately or very likely were as follows:

  • Stressful circumstances (93%)
  • Traumatic experiences (82%)
  • Chemical imbalance (79%)

“Religious causes of depression were, by a large margin, the least endorsed by clergy,” Holleman and Chaves noted: 29% of those surveyed endorsed a lack of faith as a moderately or very likely cause of depression; 16% endorsed demon possession. “Even when clergy maintained that depression has a religious cause, they mainly combined that religious interpretation with a medical one.”

Most of the religious leaders indicated that they would be moderately or very likely to encourage a congregant with depression to seek help from a mental health professional (90%) and take prescribed medications (87%). Most leaders (84%) also said they would encourage the congregant to pray, study scripture, and participate in other religious activities.

“Religious leaders were much more likely to encourage a religious treatment for the depressive symptoms than they were to endorse a religious cause, but relatively few would encourage only a religious treatment,” the authors wrote. “These results suggest that medical professionals should view the vast majority of religious leaders as allies in identifying and properly treating depression.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Partnership Between Psychiatrists, Faith Leaders Untapped Key to Expanding Reach of MH Care.”

(Image: iStock/Liudmila Chernetska)

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