A new book is getting a lot of attention discussing cell phone use and social media as they contribute to the rising mental health crisis. Yes, those are significant factors and need discussion and guidelines for use. But an overlooked factor has been brought to our attention by a Harvard professor of epidemiology, Dr. Tyler VanderWeele. He discusses the decline in church attendance as it relates to the rising mental health crisis.

Looking at the data from the Nurses’ Health Study, we see that suicide rates have increased around 40% in the US from 1999 to 2014-the same period that saw church attendance decline. To add to this, another study also correlated a decline in religious service attendance with increased rates of depression. These are only a few of the many studies that show an association between church attendance and mental health.

Church attendance and involvement provide support to people throughout life and provide a place of belonging. Both support and belonging are protective factors for good mental health. When you get out bed, talk and see people face-to-face, and interact over time, these behaviors are known to make you feel better. Going to a church and engaging with people who check on you and do life with you are positive factors in mental health adjustment.

I am not suggesting the church takes the place of mental health treatment, but the church is an important factor in contributing to positive mental health despite the early warnings of Freud who vilified religion as something for the delusional and weak. There are now volumes of data to prove Freud wrong. In fact, Drs. VanderWeele, Peteet (Harvard) and Koenig (Duke University) teamed up to author the Handbook of Religion and Health, a research text on religion, spirituality and health. The research provides ample evidence for the connection of religion, health and mental health.

So why do we ignore religion? Why aren’t we encouraging church attendance as a help for mental health? Instead of ridiculing truth and the power of God to transform, we should be embracing religion and church attendance as helps to a life worth living. Church is a place people learn about purpose and meaning, hope and healing.

It is concerning how little media and pop culture acknowledges the church as a place to help young people belong and work through identity issues, relationships and intimacy. So little cultural guidance is given in terms of healthy coping and relationships. In fact, people are encouraged to turn to substances and sources of pleasure to get through life… to survive, not thrive. As we know, this strategy usually ends in emptiness and despair. So instead of attacking religion and dismissing it from public discourse, we should be encouraging people to attend houses of worship, to be involved in the service of others, to allow their lives to be transformed for good.

Yes, there is the occasional church scandal, religion that is misused and abused by some people, but true religion has been proven to be a healing and transformative force for people. While we scratch our heads and throw money at so many programs to improve peoples’ lives that don’t get the desired outcomes, we have a free resource that is overlooked. Get people in engaged in churches and see how their mental health improves. Church attendance should not be controversial as it is been a positive force in peoples’ lives for centuries. It should be encouraged, not discouraged. And when people struggle to find a good church, help them to look and invite them to one you attend.

If you suffer from loneliness, isolation, emptiness and feel a void in your life, healthy churches are a safe, free, and transforming  resource to try. Get connected today and watch how your mental health improves.

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