Does Faith Help Prevent Depression?

There have been numerous reports in the medical press about the beneficial effects of faith-based beliefs as having a positive influence on stress, depression, and other behavioral health conditions, as for example a 90% decrease in the risk of major depression, assessed prospectively, in adults who reported that religion or
spirituality was highly important to them. There is evidence that this beneficial effect is independent of frequency of church attendance, which has not been positively related to depression risk. Brain imaging findings in the adult children of high-risk families conducted at Columbia University have revealed large expanses of cortical thinning across the lateral surface of the right cerebral hemisphere, which are due to the effect of depression on these brain structures.

To determine whether high-risk adults who reported a high importance of religion or spirituality in their lives actually had thicker cortices than those who reported moderate or low importance of religion or spirituality, researchers at Columbia conducted a new study of 103 adults (aged 18-54 years) who were the second- or third-generation offspring of depressed (high familial risk) or nondepressed (low familial risk) individuals. Religious or spiritual importance and church attendance were assessed at 2 time points during 5 years, and cortical thickness was measured on anatomical images of the brain acquired with magnetic resonance imaging at the second time point.

The results of the study show that, in individuals who cited religion or spirituality as important, and did not specify a high frequency of church attendance, thicker cortices were observable in the left and right parietal and occipital regions, the mesial frontal lobe of the right hemisphere, and the cuneus and precuneus in the left hemisphere, independent of familial risk. In addition, researchers report that the effects of faith importance on cortical thickness were significantly stronger in the high-risk than in the low-risk group, particularly along the mesial wall of the left hemisphere, in the same region where they previously reported a significant thinner cortex associated with a familial risk of developing depressive illness.

Although the researchers note that these findings are correlational and therefore do not prove a cause and effect association between importance of spirituality in a person’s life and cortical thickness, it is nevertheless evident that a thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may have beneficial effects and help prevent the development of depression in individuals at high familial risk for major depression.

“Our findings therefore may identify a neural pathway through which the personal importance of spirituality or religion protects against major depressive disorder in people who are otherwise predisposed to developing it,” the researchers concluded.

“This study points to measurable, beneficial effects of presumably healthy spirituality, especially for individuals with biological predispositions to depression,” Mary Lynn Dell, M.D., told Psychiatric News. She is a professor of clinical psychiatry and pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University and has studied spirituality and religion. The study, she continued, “adds to substantial and growing evidence that psychiatrists should support healthy development in that sphere of patients’ lives. Studies such as these may also inform the particular ways and methodologies religious professionals…employ to care for and work with depressed individuals, while at the same time staying true to their particular religious beliefs and traditions.”

The Overwhelming Stress of Paranoia

My spouse and I have been married for several years and we have beautiful children. Beginning some time ago, and following some life events and difficult circumstances that have occurred to us and between us, my spouse has begun suspecting me (and accusing me) of having an affair, trying to hide financial assets, threatening physical harm, wanting to hurt the children, tapping the phone, bugging the house with cameras and listening devices, not loving, planning on leaving for someone else.  I haven’t done any of these things.  I love my spouse with all of my heart, but this is definitely taking a toll on me.  I am now locked out of the house and there is a restraining order preventing me from contacting my spouse or my kids.  I remember that when we first met I noticed a slightly paranoia, which now has gone off the deep end (at least with respect to me, while still being fairly rational and normal with everything else.)  My spouse will not talk to me at all, throws away my letters, deletes my emails and accuses the counselor we were seeing of lying and now won’t go to a counselor either.  What should I do?

paranoiaIt is likely that your spouse may be suffering from a paranoid disorder. This is a condition that tends to get worse over time, since in many cases its underlying cause affects the brain much like a degenerative neurological disorder.

Some people exhibit signs of paranoid thinking at an early age, which may indicate an early psychological trauma. In one typical case, a patient seen for the first time at the age of 16 had a serious head injury when she was 6. She is now 38 and on certain occasion manifests some paranoid symptoms, but is married with three children and has steadily improved throughout her lifetime. It’s a relatively rare but encouraging example of how paranoia can remit almost completely in a supportive and caring environment.

Many patients with serious paranoid disorders eventually divorce their spouses, despite efforts by everyone who cares for them, including their loving spouses, in trying to stop them. The patient’s therapist, minister, friends, relatives and spouse may go to truly extraordinary lengths to try to prove that the paranoid fears are unfounded, but “proof” very rarely has any lasting effect.

Certain medications can help control paranoid thinking, particularly when the person is experiencing schizophrenic or manic symptoms along with being paranoid. In a pure state of paranoid thinking, without any psychotic or manic symptoms, however, medication has been shown to propduce only minimal improvement. Talk therapy is also somewhat unsuccessful, although there may be instances of nearly full recovery.

People who suffer from paranoid thinking don’t give their spouses too many chances to regain trust. It is possible that paranoid patients may let tjheir spouse back into their world again. If they do, it is important to spend as much time together as possible and be completely transparent about one’s activities and whereabouts. The more time spent with paranoid spouses, the less chances they have to imagine what one could be doing behind their back. Also, stress clearly increases paranoid thinking, and when the couple is together there is generally less wondering and therefore less anxiety.

For a while, the healthy spouse may experience singificant stress from all the accusations, and these may even cause significant anger and resentment. But it is useless to argue. Often, what works best is to reassure the spouse of love, and promise to never leave. This may calm the situation, at least temporarily. Also, it is important to call regularly throughout the day. The more of your time given, especially when it is in the form of undivided attention, the fewer symptoms you are likely to occur.

People with a paranoid disorder imagine all sorts of plots designed to do psychological, financial, social or even physical harm to them. Some are dangerous to live with because they are convinced their spouses are planning to kill them. There are documented cases of paranoid patients who have tried to kill their spouses in what they think is “self defense.” Whenever a patient who threatens to kill their spouse, a separation is a must, until there is clear evidence of remission.

If there does not seem to be any danger, the healthy spouse should make every effort to reunite with the spouse. In many case there is a positive response within a few weeks, or at the most, a few months.

It is advisable to make repeated efforts to talk, and when possible, reaffirm love. It is important to always stick to the truth, refusing to go along with any paranoiod fantasies just to try to get along. If the paranoid spouse demands a confession of having done some imaginary transgression, gently state that you would never do anything to inflict intentional hurt. Give regular reassurance that you care and don’t let yourself become so frustrated that you end up saying something that would would contribute to hurt feelings.