Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Spirituality and Mental Illness

A new British study claiming to show a link between spirituality and mental illness has been circulating on the Internet today. I've inquired into links between mental illness and magical practice in the past, and reached the conclusion that there appears to be no causal link. It wouldn't necessarily surprise me to find that a higher percentage of people with psychological problems might be drawn to magical practice, but in every case I've observed the problems in question predated the practice. At first I thought that this study might contain some useful information to that effect, but as it turns out the study's conclusions are quite tenuous and require further research and analysis to be of much use.

Of the participants, 35% described themselves as "religious", meaning they attended a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. The vast majority of this group (86%) were Christian. A further 19% claimed to have spiritual beliefs or experiences without following a specific religion, while 46% were neither religious nor spiritual. More than nine out of 10 were white British, with an average age of 46.

Of the different groups, spiritual people were 50% more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder and 72% more likely to suffer from a phobia. They also had a 77% higher chance of being dependent on drugs and were 37% more at risk of neurotic disorder. Spirituality was also associated with a 40% greater likelihood of receiving treatment with psychotropic drugs.

Individuals of religious faith and those with none experienced equal levels of mental problems, the study found. But there were fewer problems with drugs or alcohol among the faithful.

Now based on that data, here's the conclusion:

The researchers wrote: "We conclude that there is increasing evidence that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder.

"The nature of this association needs greater examination in qualitative and in prospective quantitative research."

While I agree with the latter statement, there's an enormous gaping hole in the overall conclusion. Can you spot it? Here's a hint - the researchers defined the "Religious" group as those with spiritual beliefs who attended religious services, while the "Spiritual" group was defined as those with spiritual beliefs who did not. The study included no questions whatsoever regarding what a spiritual or religious person's beliefs actually consist of. So, in effect, the difference between the two groups is purely social and does not necessarily have anything to do with anyone's "religious framework." By the definitions used in this study, "Religious" people socialize in a spiritual context and "Spiritual" people do not.

Read that way, you can immediately see why the "Spiritual" group would consist of people with higher rates of phobias and anxiety disorders - people with those problems often avoid socializing because they find it stressful. Treatment with psychiatric drugs goes hand in hand with this group, as such anxiety disorders are generally treated with SSRI's, so that's a dependent data point rather than a separate one. Furthermore, drug addicts often have trouble sticking to schedules that would allow them to attend services, among many other challenges.

As a result, the data from the study needs to be better broken out in order to mean much. A simple breakdown that would have easy to implement would have consisted of (1) grouping participants by religious service attendance and (2) grouping participants by professed religious denomination. Then you could perform multivariate analysis on the two groups and see if a spike exists in the overlap between "non-attending" and "non-denominational." A strong relationship there might support the researchers' conclusion, but without the breakdown it's a lot harder to say.

If socialization is the variable rather than "religious framework," one would expect the rates of mental illness and drug problems to be the same between ("Religious" + "Spiritual") and the third group who identified as neither spiritual nor religious. The statement that drug and alchohol problems were lower in the "Religious" group than the "Non" group suggests that this might be the case with respect to drugs. The lack of a difference in mental illness between "Religious" and "Non," though, implies that there might in fact be an elevated rate of mental illness in the "Spiritual" group - but keep in mind that the study had no way of evaluating the socialization levels of individuals within the "Non" group.

The other thing that I'm always suspicious of is "percentage higher chance." It's a classic way to misrepresent data, and it gives little insight into the real results without having some idea what the percentage risk is for each group. Let's say that 5% of the "Religious" sample has problems with drugs. If the "Spiritual" sample's risk is 77% higher, the overall percentage in the sample would be between 7.5% and 8%. You don't simply add the percentages together, which is what people sometimes assume when reading quickly. 77% and 72% look like big numbers, but without knowing the percentages being compared its hard to say whether or not that constitutes a significant number of individuals.

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1 comment:

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