Self-Described Spiritual People at Greater Risk of Mental Health Issues

Hands pressed together in prayerChurch 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
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.

The Results
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.

References:

  1. Castella, T. D. (2013, March 01). Spiritual, but not religious. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20888141
  2. Corner, D. (2006). The impact of spirituality on mental health: A review of the literature[PDF]. London: The Mental Health Foundation.
  3. 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
  4. 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/
  5. 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
  6. 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-/

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  • 13 comments
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  • Salie

    Salie

    March 28th, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    Wow! 90% believe in God? I honestly didn’t think it would be that high.

  • Roxy

    Roxy

    March 28th, 2013 at 9:39 AM

    I can’t exactly say why, but this just “makes sense.” I think it’s because most of the people I know who are recovering drug addicts and alcoholics seem to be “spiritual” but I can’t even put my finger on exactly what I mean by spiritual. It’s like they believe in something bigger than themselves and feel that they are a very important part of that bigger thing. I think that the mental health issues come first and then the spirituality is integral to the healing.

  • tally

    tally

    March 28th, 2013 at 9:41 AM

    alls i know is that i have had to deal with mental health stuff my whole life and nothing got better until li foundgod and once i did that it was like a whole different world opened up and now i am not ashamed to tell anyone and everyone who my savior is cuz he has done so much for me ‘n my life i tell you now if you don’t know the lord it is time to find the healing only he can provide i’ll be praying for you

  • Mondo

    Mondo

    March 28th, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    This doesn’t sound right to me:

    it could also be that something about spirituality makes people more vulnerable to mental health issues.

    How could being spiritual make you mor more likely to have mental health issues? It seems to me like it’d make you stronger.

  • jericho

    jericho

    March 28th, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    This study could be a fluke?

    It must be a very poorly conducted study if that’s true. They had over 7000 subjects.

    Of course, then again, where did they get the subjects? They said randomly selected but were they randomly selected from low income housing people, randomly selected while waiting at the discharge area of a mental health facility, or randomly selected from the mall?

  • Molly dunn

    Molly dunn

    March 28th, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    I am not sure that I agree with everything here.

    The way that I see it is that perhaps those who see them selves as more spiritual could simply be more willing to open up about the issues that trouble them and they are more open to having conversations about their personal mental health stories.

    I think that any of us could have mental health issues at some point in our lives, as a matter of fact I don’t think that there is one person who hasn’t felt kinda crazy at some point in their lives.

    But those who are more spiritual might just be able to see a little more clearly that they could use some help and they don’t feel that shame that so many others could experience when it comes to asking for help and taking it.

  • jamon

    jamon

    March 29th, 2013 at 4:07 AM

    Please don’t make the assumption that just because someone is spiritual (self described) means that they are searching for deeper meaning via the use of alcohol or drugs.
    In my world, yes, we are looking for answers but that is not driven by substance abuse.
    And my friends and I, while perhaps not a traditional part of what you would call organized religion, we are indeed a part of something bigger than us and have that same support system that is often referred to only by those who are talking about organized religion and churches.
    You CAN have all that without the traditional sense of the word.

  • chris.p

    chris.p

    March 29th, 2013 at 11:51 PM

    I was surprised to see spiritual people are worse off mental health wise compared to irreligious people. That religion provides a buffer is a well known fact. But I thought the same would be true for spiritual people too.

    My guess as to why this happens is that spiritual people are more open in the sense of inquisitiveness and also revealing about themselves. That may have led to these results, although I am sure the results would change with a different sample group.

  • brian

    brian

    March 30th, 2013 at 6:03 AM

    maybe it’s just that the church goers don’t feel as open to letting others know what they are feeling emotionally, maybe somehow afraid that they will be shunned for admitting that they are feeling a little bit out of control

  • regg

    regg

    March 31st, 2013 at 12:14 AM

    Not really convinced about this due to the reasons given. I am a spiritual individual myself and I sure do hope this isn’t true either ;)

  • Heidi

    Heidi

    April 1st, 2013 at 5:13 AM

    I swear, this kind of feels like a right winger who thinks you have to be in church every time the doors are open who are supporting this theory! They are convinced that if you don’t go to an organized church then you are going to have problems. I so strongly disagree with this that I can’t stand it. I am a very spiritual person and I do believe in God, but I don’t feel like I have to follow the piper so to speak, I prefer to worship and believe in my own way and I am tired of feeling condemned just because I choose to do it a little differently from the way that is comfortable to others.

  • Christopher Smith

    Christopher Smith

    April 16th, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    There are some interesting thoughts in this article. However, I was struck at the opening by the statement that “More than 90% of Americans, however, report that they believe in God” – in part because of the number of atheists and agnostics but also because of the world faiths present in the United States that are not monotheistic. The cited Gallop poll actually has the percentage at 86% (not more than 90%) and speaks of “believe in a personal God who answers prayers”. Even this seems a little high but more likely given the broader definition.

  • Wendy H

    Wendy H

    November 17th, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    Its because no-one believes spiritual people thats why we go ****ing crazy….

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