US clergy support medical treatment for depression, poll shows

About 21 million US adults have had at least one major depressive episode, reports the National Institute of Mental Health.

A new study now finds that those who went to a priest or pastor for advice were most likely encouraged to see mental health professionals and take medication for treatment.

That’s according to a nationally representative survey of clergymen serving US congregations across the religious spectrum. The National Survey of Religious Leaders surveyed 890 people whose primary role is clergy leadership about the causes of depression and appropriate treatments for it.

The study, published this week in JAMA Psychiatry, reports that 90% of the clergy surveyed said they would encourage someone with depressive symptoms to see a mental health professional, and 87% would encourage people to take prescribed medication to do so.

“There are some clergymen out there who advise against medical care,” said Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, who co-authored the study with Duke sociologist Anna Holleman. “But it turns out it’s a small minority, even among conservative religious groups.”

The study, funded by the Templeton Foundation and conducted from February 2019 to June 2020, is believed to be the first nationally representative survey of clergy’s views on depression, Chaves said. The larger study involved 1,600 church leaders, of whom 890 key ministers were interviewed for the depression study.

Multifaceted approach

While many clergymen also advocated religious treatments for depression, such as prayer or scripture study, these religious remedies were complementary. They do not replace medical treatment.

The study also asked clergymen what they think are the reasons people suffer from depression. The vast majority attributed this to “stressful circumstances”, “traumatic experiences”, “chemical imbalance”, “lack of social support” or a “genetic problem”.

Only 29% of clergy said depression was caused by “lack of faith” and 16% said they were “possessed by demons.”

Black Protestants and white Evangelical Protestants were more likely to promote religious treatment for depression without a medical component than Catholic priests or white Protestant ministers. But even among these groups, only a small minority—about 15%—advocated replacing religious measures with medical measures.

Non-Christian clergy made up 8.5% of respondents, including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders. They scored similarly to mainline Protestants and Catholics, Chaves said, with very “pro-medical” views on treating depression.

Most clergy advocated a mix of medical and religious approaches to treating depression.

allies in treatment

“These results suggest that medical professionals should consider the vast majority of religious leaders as allies in identifying and properly treating depression,” the study concludes.

Major depression is the most common mental disorder in the United States and the leading risk factor for suicide. Studies have shown an increase in depression in the US population from 6.6% in 2005 to as much as 9% in 2020, according to a report last year by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the City University of New York published study.

The National Survey of Religious Leaders was conducted online, on paper, and by phone right at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But Chaves said he doesn’t think the results would change dramatically if the study were conducted today.

“I don’t see why the pandemic could change people’s views on the underlying causes of depression and how to treat it,” he said. Still, he said, the study provided a baseline that should be repeated to assess changes over time.

Harold G. Koenig, a Duke professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences unaffiliated with the study, said the results were encouraging.

“The majority of mental health professionals are not religious, and that’s a problem because the majority of their patients are religious,” Koenig said. “So it’s encouraging to see that the vast majority of clergy see depression as something that has biological or situational causes, rather than religious ones.”

EDITOR’S NOTE – This article, written by Yonat Shimron, was originally published by the Religion News Service.