Religious women who stop attending services are three times more likely to experience generalized anxiety and abuse alcohol than women who continue their religious activity, reports a January study in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology (Vol. 43, No. 1).
What's more, women who'd been religious since childhood exhibit the lowest incidence of mental illness compared with women who cease public religious activity and those who weren't religious as children.
However, the study found the opposite effect among men: Those who attended religious activities as children and continued as adults were at higher risk for major depression than men who had ceased public religious activity.
Lead researcher Joanna Maselko, ScD, of Temple University, speculates that the difference might lie in how men and women participate within their religious communities. For example, by joining weekday prayer groups and sticking around for "doughnut hour" after weekend services, women tend to be more socially integrated into their religious communities than men and more apt to receive social and psychological support from their religious activities. When they stop attending services, they lose that support and are more vulnerable to mental health problems, posits Maselko.
The findings, says Maselko, give empirical heft to a common assumption.
"There is a desire, especially in popular media, to say religiosity is always good for your health," she says, "but the picture is much more complicated."