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.

Tags: Crtitcal, Health, Personal, analysis, responsibility

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I would not doubt such a correlation. I suspect that belief in gods is a relatively natural outcome of normal development of the human mind. I suspect it is just a continuation of our development of understanding self and other at an early age.

Once we learn to distinguish self from the rest of the universe as an infant we eventually discover others. As we cannot experience the mind of others directly we create an internal imagined sense of what they are thinking in order to better understand them. We project our sense of self onto them in order to further this. Thus we come to understand therm as beings with a sense of self similar to ourselves.

But this process does not end there. We project this sense of self on nearly anything that exhibits behavior or patterns. We do this until we learn otherwise. For things such as fire or weather and such it may take some time but eventually we as a social critter eventually came to understand that these things did not have a self point of view of their own. Or at least most of us did(there are still those that attribute nature with identity).

The trouble is there are things that exhibit behavior and patterns that are currently beyond our complete understanding. Or at least understanding enough to easily dismiss the idea of them having an identity. The universe is one such thing. For most people the idea of the universe having an identity is very difficult to dismiss.

The interesting thing is that for some people this notion of projecting identity onto such remote things simply does not happen as easily. There are many atheists (including myself) for whom the idea of gods simply never caught hold. Born atheist and stayed that way. And then there are those who for a time believed but eventually they came around to the notion that such beliefs were nonsense.

There seems to be a gradient of experience needed for various people to attribute the world around them with an identity. For believers this degree of experience seems to be less and for nonbelievers it seems to require a greater degree of experience to sway them. Whether this gradient is based on upbringing or neurology or a combination I do not know. But I suspect there is something to it. But of course that could just be my mind applying an identity to a problem which exhibits patterns. ;o)
I read a loosely ralated review about a book called A Secular Age. It's a book dabbling about the philosophical relationship between man and the universe where the author argues that most humans need to see themselves in a part of something greater, such as the universe. The author did forget though that even though we live in a secular age where atheism is becoming preferred over religion, that most scientists actually hail nature as it is, like Einstein's Spinot god or a faith similar to Taoism or patheism.
I have to tell you - I do not think "belief in gods is a relatively natural outcome of normal development of the human mind" I was raised Catholic and began questioning it consciously in the first grade - age six - while I still believed in Santa.

My daughter has never believed in god - even though she has, in no way, been 'indoctrinated' into atheism. We have only taught her tools to find things out - including reading and discussing with others. She probably, at age 14, knows more than any of her peers about Jesus, Siddartha and other 'holy' figures and the ideas surrounding them. She may even be able to garner more wisdom from those ideas since a 'proper' interpretation has not been superimpose over them by someone else.

But she feels no need to believe in god and has never expressed one.
As a psychologist, you are probably aware that people who are depressed are also people who tend to have a more realistic point of view of the world. Atheist are certainly more realist, not to be vain, so it isn't suprising that there is more depression.
Yes, but religious people would fall into the category of those more likely to suffer from delusions.
One of the problems you are going to have to control for is that intelligence is both positively correlated with unhappiness/depression and atheism. (I'd cite, but I'm lazy)

It would be a jump to say that atheism is correlated with depression without controlling for intelligence. Frankly, I don't see how you can do it, without a major new study.
I don't know... I can imagine Atheists generally being more prone to depression, but as for mental health, I think it'd matter more on the way an Atheist came to their religious conclusions rather than the fact that they did at all.

I love psychology but I can't claim to have a background in it at all, so I'm just throwing this out.
Thanks to everyone for the input. I am aware that what I have suggested is somewhat circumspect, which is why I started the thread. I appreciate there are a number of variables to account for and I would only consider taking it further if it looked as though there may be something in it. While I'm considering it, please continue to discuss, cheers.
J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2008 May;63(5):480-6.
Church attendance mediates the association between depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning among older Mexican Americans.
Reyes-Ortiz CA, Berges IM, Raji MA, Koenig HG, Kuo YF, Markides KS.

Sealy Center on Aging, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX 77555-0460, USA.

BACKGROUND: The objective of this study was to examine how the effect of depressive symptoms on cognitive function is modified by church attendance. METHODS: We used a sample of 2759 older Mexican Americans. Cognitive function was assessed using the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) at baseline, 2, 5, 7, and 11 years of follow-up. Church attendance was dichotomized as frequent attendance (e.g., going to church at least once a month) versus infrequent attendance (e.g., never or several times a year). Depressive symptoms were assessed by the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D; score >or=16 vs <16). General linear mixed models with time-dependent covariates were used to explore cognitive change at follow-up. RESULTS: In unadjusted models, infrequent church attendees had a greater decline in MMSE scores (drop of 0.151 points more each year, standard error [SE] = 0.02, p <.001) compared to frequent church attendees; participants having CES-D scores >or=16 also had greater declines in MMSE scores (drop of 0.132 points more each year, SE = 0.03, p <.001) compared to participants with CES-D score <16 at follow-up. In fully adjusted models, a significant Church attendance x CES-D x Time interaction (p =.001) indicated that, among participants with CES-D scores >or=16, infrequent church attendees had greater decline in MMSE scores (drop of 0.236 points more each year, SE = 0.05, p <.001) compared to frequent church attendees at follow-up. CONCLUSION: Church attendance appears to be beneficial for maintaining cognitive function of older persons. Church attendance moderates the impact of clinically relevant depressive symptoms on subsequent cognitive function.
Unless you are gay.
J Nerv Ment Dis. 2008 Mar;196(3):247-51.
Religion, spirituality, and depression in adolescent psychiatric outpatients.
Dew RE, Daniel SS, Goldston DB, Koenig HG.

Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA.

This study examines in a preliminary manner the relationship between multiple facets of religion/spirituality and depression in treatment-seeking adolescents. One hundred seventeen psychiatric outpatients aged 12 to 18 completed the brief multidimensional measure of religiousness/spirituality, the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), a substance abuse inventory. Controlling for substance abuse and demographic variables, depression was related to feeling abandoned or punished by God (p < 0.0001), feeling unsupported by one's religious community (p = 0.0158), and lack of forgiveness (p < 0.001). These preliminary results suggest that clinicians should assess religious beliefs and perceptions of support from the religious community as factors intertwined with the experience of depression, and consider the most appropriate ways of addressing these factors that are sensitive to adolescents' and families' religious values and beliefs.
Int J Psychiatry Med. 2007;37(3):301-13.
Religiosity, spirituality, and depressive symptoms in pregnant women.
Mann JR, McKeown RE, Bacon J, Vesselinov R, Bush F.

Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Columbia 29203, USA.

OBJECTIVE: Depression during pregnancy has potential repercussions for both women and infants. Religious and spiritual characteristics may be associated with fewer depressive symptoms. This study examines the association between religiosity/spirituality and depressive symptoms in pregnant women. METHOD: Pregnant women in three southern obstetrics practices were included in a cross sectional study evaluating religiosity, spirituality, and depressive symptoms. Symptoms of depression were measured using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS). The depression outcome was measured in two ways: the EPDS score as a continuous outcome, and a score at or above the recommended EPDS cutoff (> 14). A wide array of potential confounders was addressed. Special attention was given to the interplay between religiosity/spirituality, social support, and depressive symptoms. RESULTS: The mean EPDS score was 9.8 out of a maximum possible score of 30. Twenty-eight women (8.1%) scored above the recommended EPDS cutoff score. Overall religiosity/spirituality was significantly associated with fewer depressive symptoms when controlling for significant covariates, but there was a significant interaction such that the association became weaker as social support increased. Social support did not appear to be an important mediator (intermediate step) in the pathway between religiosity/spirituality and depressive symptoms. CONCLUSIONS: Religiosity and spirituality may help protect from depressive symptoms when social support is lacking. Longitudinal research is needed to assess the directionality of the observed relationships.


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