Patients who believe in God may experience better short-term treatment outcomes for psychiatric illness, according to a new study.
Individuals who described themselves as having strong faith reported having a better overall response to treatment, said David Rosmarin, a clinician and instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
"We found that patients who had higher levels of belief in God had better treatment outcomes — better well-being, less depression and less anxiety," Rosmarin told LiveScience. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]
The researchers monitored 159 patients in the Behavioral Health Partial Hospital program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. The patients were receiving treatment for various psychiatric illnesses, including depression and anxiety, and their average length of stay in the program was two weeks, Rosmarin said.
The study results, however, can't necessarily prove any cause or effect; the researchers aren’t sure whether spirituality caused the treatment boost, some other factor played a role or if spiritual people, perhaps, are somehow healthier than others.
Evaluating spiritual belief
Study participants were asked to rate their belief in God and their expectations for the effectiveness of treatment on a five-point scale. At the beginning and end of the program, the researchers evaluated each patients' well-being—defined by their levels of depression, anxiety and self-harm.
Patients who reported more than a "slight" belief in a higher power were twice as likely to respond to treatment, Rosmarin said.
In addition to experiencing better treatment outcomes, patients who believed in God were also more likely to expect therapeutic benefits from their time in the program.
"Belief in God can facilitate belief in treatment," Rosmarin said. "People who had more faith also had more faith in treatment. They thought it was credible and were optimistic about treatment. They believed it was going to help them."
The impact of spirituality
When patients feel a sense of power outside their own lives — whether through religious beliefs or through connections with friends, family or even nature — it can boost their treatment outcomes, said Christina Puchalski, founder and executive director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health in Washington, D.C. Puchalski was not involved in the new study, but has done her own research on clinical strategies to address patients' spiritual concerns.
"If people are able to see something outside of themselves, they tend to do better in general, so that's not surprising," Puchalski said. "From my own clinical practice, I certainly see that if people are able to have some sense of transcendence, they often have better responses."
Part of what makes this a fascinating area of study is that spirituality can take so many different forms, which means it can have diverse implications for patient care, Puchalski explained.
"Spirituality can be broadly defined," she said. "It's not just religion, or a belief in a higher power. The ability to connect to something outside of oneself — things like hope and being hopeful, or having a sense of coherence — it's all part of spirituality."
Although the new study did not specifically look at links between specific spiritual belief, types of psychiatric illnesses and reported treatment outcomes for that particular illness, Rosmarin said the findings indicate that faith plays an important role in therapy.
However, a lot more research is needed, he added.
"It's embarrassing that there's such a disparity between what we know about patient spirituality, and how to handle it," Rosmarin said. "It's an area that's relevant to us as a people, but we have no clue what to do about it."
With a clearer understanding of the impact of spirituality on treatment, doctors can develop better treatments that meet their patients' needs.
"When I speak to audiences, the clinicians are at the edge of their seats," Rosmarin said. "Studies like this equip us health care professionals with practical guidance on how to address patient spirituality and treatment. Our whole program of research is clinically focused. We want to know how this is going to make a difference in patients' lives."
The results of the study were published Thursday (April 25) in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
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Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.