A substantial amount of research points to the benefits of faith to mitigate symptoms of depression. In one study, for example, researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, found that belief in God was associated with better treatment outcomes. They followed 159 individuals over the course of a year to examine the relationship between a person’s level of belief in God, expectations for treatment, and actual treatment outcomes. Individuals with no belief — or only a slight belief — in God were twice as likely to not respond to treatment than people with stronger beliefs.
Of all my sanity tools, my faith is what has kept me alive during severe depressive episodes. When I’m convinced that no one else could comprehend the intense suffering I’m experiencing, I cling to my belief in a God who created me for a reason, who knows my pain more intimately than any other human being, and who will see me through to the other side.
Faith Provides Hope
I was just 11 years old when I learned of faith’s power to strengthen someone in the midst of a deep depression. In the year of my parent’s separation, my mother, devastated by the loss, prayed a novena to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. On the fifth day of five consecutive days of prayer — when tradition holds that the person will receive a shower of roses — our neighbor Mr. Miller, who kept an impeccable garden, was pruning his rose bushes. He gave six dozen flowers in stunning shades to my sister to surprise my mother. I’ll never ever forget the tears of hope she cried when, on the fifth day of her novena, she walked into a kitchen that looked and smelled like a rose garden. Through the intercession of St. Thérèse, she knew her prayer had been answered and God would give her the resolve she needed to get through her depression.
For a nonbeliever, I know it may appear lame to depend on such “signs” from God — superstitious attempts to make sense out of nothing. But these “signs” have provided me immense comfort during critical times in my mental health journey; they’re consolation that God is with me. They’ve even saved my life at times, reminding me that although I can’t always feel God’s love, He is with me.
Faith Changes Your Brain
One reason that faith protects against depression could be that religious practice actually changes the brain. According to research conducted by Lisa Miller, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, a thickening of the brain cortex is associated with spiritual and religious activities. This study links the protective benefit of spirituality or religion to previous studies that identified large expanses of cortical thinning in specific regions of the brains of adult offspring of families at high risk for major depression. A previous study by Miller and her team published in September 2011 in The American Journal of Psychiatry showed a 76 percent decrease in major depression in adults who said they highly valued spirituality or religiosity, and whose parents suffered from the disease.
Faith Assigns Meaning to Suffering
All religious traditions, especially the Jewish and Christian faiths, offer plenty of examples of how some very bad situations (think Job) were redeemed in the end, and all the suffering actually had a purpose — some greater good came out of it. The Christian story is a powerful provider of redemption and hope in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Pope John Paul II explains in his encyclical on suffering, Salvifici Doloris, that because of the Cross, all suffering has a purpose and is even a vocation. I, for one, find immense consolation in that concept: that my tears and angst have a greater purpose and can be used for goodness. The Psalms are full of verses of inspiration for those caught in depression’s hold, saying that God is there in our trials and will carry us through the valley of despair.
Faith Provides a Support System
According to research conducted at the University of Colorado in Boulder, regular churchgoers live longer than people who never go to worship services. One reason associated with the longevity is the social support gained by a church community. One consistent key to happiness is weaving a network of support for yourself: We all need a security net. If you go to church regularly — and especially if you get involved in your parish or church community — that social support is provided. Also, regular churchgoers are more likely to GIVE support to others, and this act of generosity, or any altruistic activity, really, promotes better health.
Faith Provides Heroes and Inspiration
We do better navigating the dark night when we know people have walked the same steps before us and arrived at the light. Different faith traditions offer us plenty of heroes we can turn to for inspiration. Like my mom, I have always maintained a strong devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, my patron saint. In my deepest depressions, I would read her Story of a Soul over and over again, trying to imitate her faithfulness and little ways despite her despair at the end of her life. So many of the saints have known profound anguish and depression, which is why they can be helpful guides to anyone with inner pain.