By Dr. Tim Millea
Nearly 400 years before Christ, Plato lamented the ignorance of his fellow Greeks in understanding the causes of illness. He stressed the need for a more comprehensive view of the entire society, stating, “The part can never be well unless the whole is well.” Nowhere is this truer than the area of mental health disorders; the world we live in today is a convincing proof.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the incidence of anxiety and depression among Americans was increasing gradually. During the pandemic, the incidence has increased dramatically, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. In 2019, approximately 8% of adults surveyed in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety and nearly 7% reported symptoms of depression. Follow-up surveys done between April 2020 and August 2021 revealed staggering increases in both disorders, with incidences of 32% for anxiety and 26% for depression. Even more troubling, the greatest rise was in the 16- to 25-year-old age group.
The explanation for this worrisome explosion in anxiety and depression is complex and confusing. Researchers in the psychological and social sciences attribute it to a wide variety of causes: loneliness and isolation, social media, distrust, the constant barrage of the news media, etc. These and many other factors play a part in this “mental health pandemic” and it will take time to understand how to heal “the whole” of our society’s “parts.” Meanwhile, we must address a more pressing question: What can we do about it now?
An effective answer to that question appears in scientific literature, which provides convincing evidence of the protective effects of religious beliefs and practices regarding anxiety and depression. Among people who value and maintain an active faith life, these disorders are less likely and, conversely, their happiness and contentment are greater. In a January 2022 Gallup survey, 67% of Americans who attend church services weekly reported being “very satisfied” with their personal lives. For those who attended less than once per month, the number dropped to 48%.
Studies in the area of religion and quality of life have appeared with greater frequency over the past 20 years. Dr. Harold Koenig and his colleagues at Duke University are leaders in this field, with their publication of the “Handbook of Religion and Health.” Their work included a “Happiness Survey” in relation to the individual’s attendance at religious services. Of those who attended services weekly or more, 43% reported they were “very happy.” If attendance was monthly or less, that number dropped to 31%. For those who seldom or never attended, only 26% reported being “very happy.”
The benefits of a commitment to one’s religion appear across all age groups. In a study of nearly 2,000 senior citizens of various religions in New York City, the Catholic faith seemed to provide more resilient protection compared to other faith groups. Depressive symptoms were twice as prevalent in non-Catholics as in practicing Catholics. The helpful effects of Catholicism seem to correlate with Mass attendance. As the authors stated, “Lack of attendance at religious services was associated with greater prevalence of depression among all groups, and significantly so among Catholics.”
In fact, having a faith life is potentially lifesaving. In 2016, researchers with Harvard’s School of Public Health reported a study of nearly 90,000 female nurses in America and their religious practices. The study’s results are striking. Those who never attended religious services had a five-fold higher incidence of suicide compared with those attending weekly or more often. A study of 7,000 Catholic women who attended Mass more than weekly found that none took their own life.
Our faith provides us with a strong spiritual foundation that sustains us through difficult times. Studies such as those noted above describe benefits that extend to our physical and emotional health as well. Bill Donohue summarizes the direct connection between our Catholic beliefs and our wellbeing in his book, “The Catholic Advantage.” Donohue summarizes the “Three B’s of Catholicism”: beliefs, boundaries and bonds. With these standards in place, Catholics can then enjoy the “Three H’s of Catholicism”: health, happiness and heaven.
It would be a mistake to see these recent studies as new information. The first detailed report of the benefits of a Christian life were outlined 2,000 years ago. In his letter to believers in Galatia, St. Paul contrasts the characteristics of a life without faith versus one guided by the Holy Spirit. Those not committed to Christ fall victim to many failings, including immorality, idolatry, jealousy and selfishness. However, St. Paul describes those who are “guided by the spirit” with the blessings of love, joy, patience, kindness and generosity. It is true today, as it was then, that those who follow Jesus’ teachings benefit abundantly — psychologically, physically and eternally.
(Dr. Tim Millea is president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Medical Guild and a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport.)