A new study has found that participating in religious activities improved mood among those with depression and bipolar disorder, but only those who truly valued religion reaped these mood-boosting benefits. Others, who were conflicted about their religious life, actually became more depressed from their religious involvement.

The study, conducted by researchers at Touro College and Harvard Medical School, was published online in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Previous research has found that spirituality and religious practice improve mental well-being and are associated with lower levels of depression. But Steven Pirutinsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical social work at Touro College, suspected that for those who struggle with their spirituality, religious activities might be a stressor.

“We thought that for people who were intrinsically motivated—meaning that they are motivated by internal beliefs, attitudes, and feelings—it would lower their depression, but for those who were extrinsically motivated—they did it for social connections, status, family—it would relate to higher levels of depression,” says Dr. Pirutinsky.

He and David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School and the Center for Anxiety, conducted a three-year study of 160 Jewish men and women who met the criteria for a major mood disorder. They were drawn from a larger study on Judaism and mental health. Each participant answered questions about their religious activities and their motivations for religious practice, and they were assessed for depression every six months. Sixty percent of the participants were Orthodox Jews.

The researchers found that for people who were intrinsically motivated, religious practice improved their mood over time, but for those who were extrinsically motivated, religious practice predicted increases in depression. The study also found that both the positive and negative effects of practicing religion were greater in those with bipolar mood disorder as compared to those with depression.

Religious practice can improve a person’s mood because it provides opportunities for meaningful and rewarding activities and social connections, says Dr. Pirutinsky. But if someone doesn’t derive meaning or purpose from religion, the activities not only do not bring them pleasure, but they can create negative thoughts and feelings and can create a sense of disconnect with others, fueling a depressive mood.

“Although studies have found that religious practice is generally positive for mental health, it’s important to recognize that there are times when it isn’t, and in fact it could be a source of stress,” says Dr. Pirutinsky, who wants to get the word out to therapists who work with particularly religious patients. One of the strategies to treat depression is behavioral activation which involves identifying meaningful activities that patients can engage in to raise their mood. For those who have a lot of religious commitments, many of these opportunities may be religiously based. But this study shows that for people who are not intrinsically motivated, these religious-based activities may actually make things worse.

“If a clinician is going to recommend religious activities, they need to carefully assess what meaning religion has for the person,” says Dr. Pirutinsky.

Although this study only included Jewish participants, similar dynamics may exist in other religious cultures, particularly those in which religious life is intertwined with everyday life and behavior, but further research is warranted.

Message For Jewish Educators

“Judaism emphasizes observing commandments with the goal of shaping our personality, refining our character, and acting more like G-d,” said Rabbi Tzvi Flaum, mashgiach ruchani and professor of Judaic Studies at Touro College.

“This study points out the need for religious educators who teach children and young adults to focus on the ideological foundations of Jewish observance. Instead of emphasizing purely textual study or the mere acquisition of knowledge, we must show students how that knowledge is designed to be incorporated into daily life and help them become more spiritual people,” continued Flaum. “Educators must translate Torah into the Book of Life with practical takeaway messages from every commandment. People who don’t realize that the Torah is supposed to change them are missing what the Jewish religion is all about and, as shown by this study, they are not able to experience religion as a positive source of strength.”

 

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