Study: UK spiritual participants three times more likely to experience episode of depression than secular group

I’m probably posting this as I’m surfacing from a long dark tunnel.

An international longitudinal study purports to find a greater incidence of developing a major depression among ‘participants reporting a spiritual understanding of life’:

Spiritual and religious beliefs as risk factors for the onset of major depression: an international cohort study.



Several studies have reported weak associations between religious or spiritual belief and psychological health. However, most have been cross-sectional surveys in the USA, limiting inference about generalizability. An international longitudinal study of incidence of major depression gave us the opportunity to investigate this relationship further. Method Data were collected in a prospective cohort study of adult general practice attendees across seven countries. Participants were followed at 6 and 12 months. Spiritual and religious beliefs were assessed using a standardized questionnaire, and DSM-IV diagnosis of major depression was made using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI). Logistic regression was used to estimate incidence rates and odds ratios (ORs), after multiple imputation of missing data.


The analyses included 8318 attendees. Of participants reporting a spiritual understanding of life at baseline, 10.5% had an episode of depression in the following year compared to 10.3% of religious participants and 7.0% of the secular group (p < 0.001). However, the findings varied significantly across countries, with the difference being significant only in the UK, where spiritual participants were nearly three times more likely to experience an episode of depression than the secular group [OR 2.73, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.59-4.68]. The strength of belief also had an effect, with participants with strong belief having twice the risk of participants with weak belief. There was no evidence of religion acting as a buffer to prevent depression after a serious life event.


These results do not support the notion that religious and spiritual life views enhance psychological well-being.

A few things to note. I don’t have access to the full study and so have no way of knowing how they defined ‘spiritual or religious’ belief. We also have the causality problem, within which we cannot tell if spirituality / religion precipitated depression, or if those with underlying depression were drawn to  ’a spiritual understanding of life’.

This aside, I was drawn to this study for three reasons.

The first is the strange anomaly of the UK finding. Why would it be that specifically in the UK the religious / spiritual group reports three times higher incidence of depression compared with the secular group? If we take the study findings at face value and accept that spirituality / religion precipitates depression, then would this indicate that it is particularly cognitively difficult to hold this worldview within the social environment of the UK?

The second point of interest – which is perhaps connected to the first – is the finding that strength of belief has an impact, with those of ‘stronger belief’ being more prone to depression than those with ‘weak belief’.

The third point, is of course the conclusion itself; namely, the assertion that a religious / spiritual worldview does not create a buffer against depression.

I’m probably not alone in reading material that contradicts this conclusion; however, from my own personal perspective, I can attest to the fact that my Christian religion most certainly does not counteract, or in any way, mitigate my own depression. In fact, quite the contrary.

I will say that my religion does give comfort in relation to making some sense of suffering.

The question on my mind is simply: Is the Christian religion supposed to create a buffer against suffering; mental or otherwise?

I think not.

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3 Responses to “Study: UK spiritual participants three times more likely to experience episode of depression than secular group”

  1. Ben Trovato Says:

    I hesitate to comment, never having suffered from clinical depression (as opposed to ‘the blues’) – perhaps my Faith is not strong enough.

    However, I did want to endorse your conclusion that Faith is not supposed to create a buffer against suffering; to be a Christian is to follow Christ, and Christ suffered…

  2. Simon Says:

    I’d be wary of the so-called “look elsewhere” effect. With seven countries, the odds of at least one of them showing a difference significant at the 95% level is about one in three even if the rates are actually absolutely identical.

    As you say, we haven’t read the whole report, and it’s possible that they are correcting for this effect. But it’s also possible that this is just sampling error.

  3. Belinda Says:

    HI – Just found my way here to this site whilst searching for Derren Browns ‘Miracles for Sale’ ..Stunning site, with good solid questioning hearts, seeking GODS truth. I like. As a Christian Up and Downer, it is refreshing to read the above perspective you have given. Thank you!

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