A clear finding was that spirituality played a large role in the higher PMH score of those with a religion, especially Christianity. Photo by Anthony Tan on Unsplash.

A clear finding was that spirituality played a large role in the higher PMH score of those with a religion, especially Christianity. Photo by Anthony Tan on Unsplash.

People with a religion enjoy better overall mental health, with their spirituality playing a significant role in offering them comfort and strength during tough times, a local study has found.

The results of this study, which was conducted by a team from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, comes at a time when more Singaporeans, particularly young adults, are declaring that they have no religion.

A clear finding was that spirituality played a large role in the higher PMH score of those with a religion.

Published in the International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health in March, the study assessed the positive mental health (PMH) of 2,270 adults in Singapore and identified trends relating to their religious affiliations. 

The data was collected from August 2016 to April 2018 as part of the larger Singapore Mental Health Study 2016, which aimed to find out the state of mental health in Singapore’s adult population.

In this study, PMH was measured using six markers: General coping, emotional support, spirituality, interpersonal skills, personal growth and autonomy, and global affect, which is the experience of being calm, happy, peaceful, relaxed or enthusiastic.

In an interview with The Straits Times, lead researcher Janhavi Vaingankar described PMH as “a person’s attitudes towards themselves, ability to handle life’s surprises and ability to reach their true potential and resist stress”.

Spirituality matters

Zeroing in on predominant religions in Singapore, the study evaluated respondents affiliated to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Sikhism, which made up about 78% of those surveyed. 

Participants with these religions scored significantly higher in total PMH compared to those without a religion, the study found. The total PMH score did not vary much between people of different religions.

These results add to a growing body of international evidence that religion improves overall mental health. 

Those who said they have a religion also scored significantly higher in four out of six individual PMH markers – general coping, emotional support, spirituality and interpersonal skills – than those who said they do not have a religion.

A clear finding was that spirituality played a large role in the higher PMH score of those with a religion, especially Christianity.

To measure spirituality, the survey asked questions like: “I find comfort in my religion or spiritual beliefs”, “I set aside time for meditation or prayer”, and “I gain spiritual strength by trusting in a higher power”.

In fact, after removing the spirituality aspect from the total PMH score, Christians did not show a higher total PMH score compared to those without a religious affiliation. This was the same for Taoists and Hindus.

“This indicates a likely greater relevance of spirituality and religiosity to PMH for these groups,” the study reported.

These results add to a growing body of international evidence that religion improves overall mental health. 

According to a review of existing literature on the relationship between religion and mental health, the majority of research shows that religion boosts a host of positive mental health factors, such as one’s well-being, hope, and sense of meaning and purpose, and decreases one’s likelihood of suffering from anxiety, depression and suicide.

Christians have better emotional support

Apart from spirituality, Christians also enjoyed significantly higher emotional support than those with no religion, the study found. 

“The role of emotional support is believed to be that of a mediator in the relationship between religion and mental distress, and has been found to be the strong predictor of decreased hopelessness, depression and suicide behaviours,” the study reported.

It has been proposed that active religious participation, which builds community and social support, yields higher levels of emotional support and interpersonal skills.

“Emotional support … has been found to be the strong predictor of decreased hopelessness, depression and suicide behaviours.”

This finding highlights the importance of being plugged into and involved in the local church community, especially in this digital age when privatising one’s faith is becoming increasingly convenient and commonplace. 

However, there seems to be areas in which Christians can be better equipped to care for their mental health, especially in the areas of general coping and interpersonal skills. 

While followers of Taoism, Buddhism and Islam scored higher in general coping than those without a religious affiliation – though the report did not elaborate on what this entails – researchers did not observe the same association in Christians.

Similarly, Christianity was also not found to be significantly associated with higher interpersonal skills, “which could be due to prevailing religious practices in our population”, said the study, without elaborating on these practices.

Religion improves recovery from mental illness

While those with a religion enjoyed better mental health, the study found no evidence to show that they are less likely to have a mental disorder.

In fact, it pointed out that studies conducted in Asian and Western populations have reported a higher prevalence of mental disorders in religious individuals compared to non-religious individuals.

“Religions that perceive God as forgiving, tend to demonstrate an inverse association with mental disorders.”

“However, various factors relating to religion and religiosity such as prayer, forgiveness, social support, and practice of religion, were found to be inversely associated with depression, anxiety, and lifetime risk of mental disorders consistently in various populations,” researchers of the study said.

This echoes what Adjunct Associate Professor Daniel Fung, CEO of IMH, shared at last month’s Christian Mental Health Conference 2021, about how mental health experts have found that religion improves recovery from mental illness.

For example, individuals with psychosis “actually benefit from greater community support and collaboration between clinical and religious community-based organisations, in terms of overall integration as well as quality of life”, he shared.

This underscores the importance of embracing a holistic approach, in which the Church and mental health services work in tandem to care for those with mental illness. “This is important to the recovery process,” said Prof Fung.

Researchers in this study also pointed out that it matters how the individual perceives God.

“For example, religions that perceive God as forgiving, tend to demonstrate an inverse association with mental disorders while those where God is linked to retribution, have been associated with a higher prevalence of mental disorders in a report investigating these associations in multiple religions,” they said.

The way forward: Spiritual advisors can play a role

The findings, which show that there is a direct link between religious affiliation and better PMH, bring with them important public health and policy implications, reported researchers of the study.

Involving religious organisations and places of worship in mental health promotion would be beneficial at the population level.

Given that those who have no religion showed significantly lower PMH scores, it is important to target mental health promotion in this group by addressing their coping and interpersonal skills, as well as boosting their emotional support.

Additionally, it noted that while therapies grounded in spiritual practices, such as mindfulness, have gained clinical acceptance, mental health professionals have “steered clear” of involving religion, such as prayer, in therapy.

However, based on the study’s results, researchers said that involving religious organisations and places of worship in mental health promotion would be beneficial at the population level, pointing also to a previous study in Singapore that showed 7.6% of people with mental health problems had sought help from religious and spiritual organisations.

“Our study indicates that religious and spiritual advisors are not only an important resource for people with mental disorders but they can also play a significant role in improving PMH in the population.”


FOR MORE STORIES ON RELIGION AND MENTAL HEALTH, READ:

More S’poreans, particularly young adults, declare they have no religion: 2020 population census

Religion plays a key role in wider mental health blueprint: IMH CEO

About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer at Salt&Light. When she's not working, you will probably find her admiring nature or playing Monopoly Deal with her little brother.