Church attendance in the United States has been dwindling over the past several decades, with people who regularly attend church now accounting for a minority of the population. More than 90% of Americans, however, report that they believe in God, with many harboring faith but not participating in formal religion. More than 30% of Americans report that they are spiritual but not religious.
Spiritual people don’t subscribe to a single set of beliefs. They may simply believe in God but dislike formal religion, or they may combine practices from a variety of religions. Spirituality is frequently associated with new-age and alternative religious practices. A new study published in the The British Journal of Psychiatry finds that people who identify as spiritual are more likely to experience a wide variety of mental health issues than both nonreligious and traditionally religious people.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at University College of London, involved surveys of 7,403 randomly selected participants. Each participant was asked about his or her religious beliefs, emotional state, history of drug use, history of addiction, and history of mental health issues. Thirty-five percent reported that they were religious. Nineteen percent reported that they were spiritual, and 43% reported no religious affiliation.
On nearly every measure of psychological well-being, people who described themselves as “spiritual but not religious” fared more poorly than other study participants. Notable findings:
- Spiritual people were more likely to have used drugs than nonreligious and traditionally religious people. They were also more likely to report drug dependence. Thirty percent of spiritual people had used drugs, compared to 16% of religious respondents. Five percent of spiritual people reported drug dependence, but only 2% of religious respondents reported addiction issues.
- Spiritual people were more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression, generalized anxiety, and phobias.
- Spiritual people were more likely to take psychoactive medications.
What Does It Mean?
While the study shows that spiritual people may be more vulnerable to mental health issues, it provides little information about why. It could be that people are more likely to identify as spiritual when they have a mental health issue; it could also be that something about spirituality makes people more vulnerable to mental health issues.
Religion provides significant social support, as well as an explanation for life’s suffering. It could be that, absent this support, people are more vulnerable to mental struggles. But even the nonreligious people in the study had better mental health than the marginally religious spiritual people, so the psychological benefits of religion don’t tell the whole story. While more research needs to be done, some possible explanations include:
- People who identify as spiritual are more likely to admit to mental health conditions or more likely to diagnose themselves with mental health issues.
- People who identify as spiritual may receive lower-quality treatment or be less likely to seek treatment, which can lead to more severe mental health issues.
- People may become spiritual because they’re searching for answers, and this search could be spurred by drug addiction or mental issues.
- The study could be a fluke; future research will need to duplicate the results before mental health professionals can state with certainty that spiritual people are more vulnerable to mental health issues.
- Castella, T. D. (2013, March 01). Spiritual, but not religious. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20888141
- Corner, D. (2006). The impact of spirituality on mental health: A review of the literature[PDF]. London: The Mental Health Foundation.
- Gallup, G. H., Jr. (2003, February 11). Americans’ spiritual searches turn inward. Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/7759/americans-spiritual-searches-turn-inward.aspx
- Merica, D. (2013, January 9). The spiritual but not religious likely to face mental health issues, drug use, study says. CNN Belief Blog RSS. Retrieved from http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/09/the-spiritual-but-not-religious-likely-to-face-mental-health-issues-drug-use-study-says/
- Newport, F. (2011, June 3). More than 9 in 10 Americans continue to believe in God. Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/147887/americans-continue-believe-god.aspx
- Spirituality ‘link’ to mental illness. (2013, January 2). PubMed Health. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/behindtheheadlines/news/2013-01-02-spirituality-link-to-mental-illness-/
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.