Religion can help improve children’s mental health, new study finds

People who grew up in a religious household reported fewer symptoms of depression. Getty

Children who are raised with religious or spiritual beliefs tend to have better mental health into their adulthood, a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found.

According to the study’s findings, people who attended weekly religious services or prayed or meditated daily in their childhood reported greater life satisfaction in their 20s. People who grew up in a religious household also reported fewer symptoms of depression and lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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On top of the mental health benefits, researchers found that religious subjects weren’t as likely to smoke, use drugs, or contract a sexually transmitted infection compared to people who had a less spiritual upbringing.

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The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, followed more than 5,000 youths between the ages of eight to 14 years.

Why does religion benefit mental health?

According to Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele, the study’s senior author and a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, attending religious services, like church, for example, may benefit youth because it’s a shared experience with people who hold similar beliefs and values. Community is thought to be beneficial to well-being.

VanderWeele also said that being involved in a religious community may offer adolescents role models and mentors other than their parents.

When it comes to the positive effects of prayer and meditation, VanderWeele said it’s likely that the practices “give rise to an experience of God or of transcendence so that an adolescent need not turn to drugs or risky sexual behaviours in their search for something more.”

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“That experience of God may fundamentally make a person more other-oriented, leading to greater volunteering, forgiveness, and a sense of mission, and these things ultimately make one happier and protect against depression,” he told Global News.

“Adolescence is a particularly critical time of development and self-understanding, and the establishing of these practices may shape health and well-being throughout life.”

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Religion also helps people think about their health in a holistic way, where the mind, body and spirit are all connected, said Jane Kuepfer, a specialist in spirituality and aging at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo.

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“[With religion], when one aspect of ‘who we are’ suffers, the whole suffers. And when one aspect is healthy and vital, ‘all that we are’ benefits,” she said to Global News. “Religion teaches us to value life, and to respect and care for our physical bodies.”

Kuepfer also stressed the importance of belonging and feeling connected to others as a factor contributing to well-being. Social isolation and loneliness are harmful to anyone’s mental health, but particularly to vulnerable populations.

“A sense of belonging is really important, and something we don’t always get in our society in other places,” she said. “[Religion] also gives you a larger perspective and connection across generations.”

Even for those who don’t attend religious services, spirituality benefits health

While attending regular religious services was key to well-being, the study also found that daily meditation and prayer greatly benefited mental health — even in adolescents who didn’t attend service as often.

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VanderWeele, the study’s co-author, said that previous studies of adults showed that religious service had the strongest effects on health. But with kids, both service attendance and prayer and/or meditation were strongly associated with well-being.

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“For some outcomes, the associations with prayer and mediation were even stronger than for service attendance,” he said. “This is different from adult populations.”

Kuepfer said prayer and meditation are known to be calming and can help people cope with stress. They also offer people a chance to connect with something larger than themselves and work through problems they’re dealing with.

“Religion or belonging to a faith community and participating in spiritual practice helps to slow us down and get perspective,” she said. “We realize that life isn’t all about us, and we don’t have to carry the world on our shoulders. It takes the pressure off.”


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