In Brief

Spouses of lung cancer patients who used moderate levels of religious coping--such as prayer or seeking comfort in faith and from church member--were less depressed than those who used lower or higher levels of religious coping, according to a new study appearing in the November/December issue of Psychosomatics (Vol. 43, No. 6).

Spouses, who are often placed in the caregiver role after a diagnosis of cancer in their partner, can be vulnerable to depression and can find help in religion and spirituality, says Alexis D. Abernethy, PhD, lead author on the study and an associate professor at the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

In the study, depression was found to be lowest among spouses who used religious coping in moderation. Other types of coping that may be valuable for spouses include comfort from family and friends, support groups or literature.

The research is part of a larger study led by Paul Duberstein, PhD, at University of Rochester Medical Center that looks at the adjustment to lung cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Researchers evaluated 156 spouses for their level of religious coping, symptoms of depression, self-efficacy, level of social support and sense of control over events. The spouses' loved ones had been diagnosed with lung cancer within the previous five years. Seventy-eight percent of the spouses were women.

However, says Abernethy, those who rely on religion in an excessive way might become more vulnerable to higher levels of depression because they might neglect other coping strategies or might already be dealing with depression.

"As they are faced with a stressful situation, they may then over-rely on religious coping," she says. "Religious coping is helpful but other types of coping are also important in the context of facing such a serious illness in a spouse."

While the study did not measure the differences among the specific types of religious coping, Abernethy says preliminary analyses of some of the spouses' responses provided some insight regarding the type of religious coping that could potentially have a negative effect. For instance, spouses whose loved ones were diagnosed with cancer might feel less support from God and others and feel more discontent spiritually. "The kind of coping that has a more negative or punitive tone could also explain why that type of religious coping is associated with depression," she says.

Abernethy, whose research interests lie in the area of spirituality and health, says, "It is important to understand how religious coping and other dimensions of religiousness may or may not be helpful in disease and health."