Is there a correlation between mental health and atheism?

I'm a psychology teacher with a keen interest in both mental health and atheism and I think I have spotted a link between the 2. Of the atheists I chat to regularly, a significant number of them have mental health issues and I believe there is a negative correlation. I would like to know if a) the same applies to you; and/or b) if you are aware of any studies that have investigated this link.

So far I have not unearthed any and the study being conducted by Sam Harris is looking at a positive correlation. I am considering a study of my own but it is most definitely just an idea at the moment. I would appreciate candid responses, but recognise it's not necessarily a subject people want to talk about.

I have my own theory as to why this link occurs, but I will keep it to myself for now. Many thanks to those who feel they want to and can respond.

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Health Soc Work. 2008 Feb;33(1):9-21.
Relationship between religious involvement and psychological well-being: a social justice perspective.
Aranda MP.

School of Social Work, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90098-0411, USA.

Although religion has not been a mainline topic of empirical inquiry in the gerontological social work literature, there has been growing recognition in the past two decades of the health protective effects of religious involvement on both physical and psychological well-being. Depression interferes with both individual and social functioning that can lead to persistent problems in healthy human development, social relationships, and empowerment in the service of social justice. Attention to the salubrious effects of religious involvement on the psychological well-being among older U.S. racial and ethnic groups is still in its nascent stage. This article examines the relationship among religious involvement, private prayer, and depression in a low-income clinical sample of 230 older U.S.-born and immigrant Latinos. Higher levels of religious attendance were associated with lower risk of depressive illness after adjusting for selective factors such as physical functioning, stress exposure, and social support. Private prayer was not associated with depression. Although immigrants were more likely to attend worship services, they reported the same rates of depression as their U.S.-born counterparts.The study is an initial step toward disentangling the mental health protective effects of religious involvement on the health and well-being of older Latinos in the United States.
The Southern Medical Journal had a special issue on this:
Volume 100(7), July 2007, pp 746-747
Publication Type:
[Special Section: Spirituality/Medicine Interface Project]
I've never heard studies about this before. What exactly does "mental health conditions" mean? Do neurological conditions in the brain count? If so, I'm atheist and I have epilepsy. As far as I know, my atheist friends are healthy, though.
Wow, what a neat question!

In general, no; epilepsy is not a mental health condition. Currently, the accepted definition of a mental disorder is behavior or thought that causes distress, disability, or suffering; a neurological disorder is something that affects the nervous system, such as brain lesions or Alzheimer's Disease.

The neat thing is that research is showing that there is not much difference in the type of damage that occurs, regardless of cause. An example:

Alzheimer's disease is brain damage that is accompanied by amyloid beta, which may be causing the damage. In the chronology of AD; the first problem that occurs is oxidative damage in the brain (unknown cause), then amyloid beta begins to form. Amyloid beta has been shown to be an anti-oxidant inside the brain, however. There is some thought that amyloid beta is an improper response of the immune system to this oxidative damage. As amyloid beta builds up, it ends up damaging the brain and producing the symptoms we know as AD. Some people consider AD an autoimmune disease because of this.

There is evidence that depression is also an autoimmune disease. For instance, depression prevalence is much higher in people who also have an autoimmune disease like lupus or arthritis. Further, this depression is inversely correlated with immunosurppressant treatment. If that weren't enough, it appears that the common anti-depressants work as anti-inflammatories, and anti-inflammatories appear to have anti-depressant action. Also, while supplements such as L-tryptophan and 5-HTP (nobody take 5-HTP- it's dangerous. Msg me.) cause an immediate uplift in mood, anti-depressants such as SSRIs take much longer to work, which jibes with the brain undergoing healing after inflammation. Since inflammation is an immune-mediated response, people such as myself also consider depression an autoimmune disease.

Crazy, huh?
Richard, thank you so much for your very informative posts. They are definitely food for thought and I will look at the studies. Incidentally, what is your profession? I'm curious because of you knowledge base.
I'm formerly a molecular biophysicist in neuroscience.

Basically I'm a bored scientist.
from a 100% biological view, yes. However, the issue seems to be that we can never say if depression occurs when the serotonin level is low or not, since some people can have a very low level and still not feel depressed etc.

Also, did you read what I said about the correlation with females who lost their mothers before the age 12 who later developed a higher depression tendency?

It is also true that females who live alone with children and have a low income also have a tendency to feel more easily depressed due to their poor living standards, which really speaks for itself.

I don't think we should ignore psychosocial factors. Depression is also inheritable, if someone in the family is prone to more often get depression attacks, then others in the family also will.
Anne Halligan: So far I have not unearthed any and the study being conducted by Sam Harris is looking at a positive correlation.

I have very little doubt you'll find a positive correlation that will stand up to statistical analysis. However, I think you'd be barking up the wrong tree. If you did a similar study on people in general with active and inquiring intellects, I suspect the results would be the same. Remember, atheists don't hide from reality, they stare it in the face. Gaze into the abyss if you will. Atheists are a subset of this group (intellect and education tend to have an inverse relationship with religiosity after all, as many have observed). As are artists - another notable group prone to depression and substance abuse.

To me, if you spend enough time observing events as they unfold in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, to not have intimate encounters with depression would be an aberration.

Don't set your scope too narrowly. Good luck.
If it were possible to have two people with identically low levels of mental health I would imagine that the theist would be better able to present as mentally healthy. Life is easier when you know you have no responsibility or control, and that this life is a dressed rehearsal or a test for the post death bliss. I can see that this would be very calming for the mind. That doesn't make it true though.

A mentally ill atheist would, I would imagine, be more likely to present to a mental health unit to deal with confusing issues thus showing up in mental health statistics.

A theist would be more likely to seek non-qualified, religious guidance or treatment thus they would not show up in statistics. They might live their whole life loving the pain of mental health problems believing that it is their special brand of crucifixions or a supernatural test for a better after life... or some such nonsense.

Life is easiest when you are asleep.
I had something called dysthymia a couple of years ago, but I wasn't an atheist back then.
I'm definitely happier now. *grins*
I've had it too, something I realized now afterwards, which was caused by many internal conflicts within me due to outside circumstances I could not control.
I feel happier too. I think I was also dysthymic. Before becoming atheist I was confused and accepting cognitive dissonances and deep down I knew the religious claims were bullshit. When I became atheist, suddenly things were clear to me and I realized that science and the universe were much cooler than spirituality bullshit and I was no longer under the influence of psychologically abusive co-religionists.

Religion has the potential to exacerbate mental illness. If a person already has that predisposition, in certain religious/spiritual settings it could go unnoticed b/c seeing visions or hearing voices is viewed as a religious/spiritual experience instead of hallucination.




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