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Is ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ a risk to one’s mental health?

Is ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ a risk to one’s mental health?

A study published in this month’s British Journal of Psychiatry, says spiritual but not religious people are more likely to develop mental problems and dependence on drugs. From CNN’s religion blog:

Can being spiritual but not religious lead to mental health issues? The answer is yes, according to a recent study.

The study, published in the January edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry, says spiritual but not religious people, as opposed to people who are religious, agnostic or atheist, were more likely to develop a “mental disorder,” “be dependent on drugs” and “have abnormal eating attitudes,” like bulimia and anorexia.

“People who have spiritual beliefs outside of the context of any organized religion are more likely to suffer from these maladies,” said Michael King, a professor at University College London and the head researcher on the project.

Thirty percent of respondents who identified as spiritual said they had used drugs, a number that was nearly twice as much as the 16% of religious respondents who said they had used drugs, according to the study. Among the spiritual respondents, 5% said they were dependent on drugs, while 2% of religious respondents identified as dependent.

On mental health issues, the study said spiritual but not religious people were more likely to suffer from “any neurotic disorder,” “mixed anxiety/depressive disorders” or “depression” than their religious counterparts. Overall, 19% of spiritual respondents said they suffered from a neurotic disorder, while 15% of religious respondents responded the same way.

The study was conducted with the government of the United Kingdom, which asked the questions as part of a larger psychiatric study. The project sampled 7,403 people, finding that nearly 19% of England’s population is spiritual but not religious. That number is higher in the United States, where, in a 2002 poll sample of 729 adults, 33% identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

Read full post here. What do you make of this? Any ideas why the “spiritual but not religious” among us might be more susceptible to mental health problems?


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barbara snyder

(It also could be that people involved in organized religions are not as willing to seek help for their problems – or to admit to them in the first place.

I’ve heard people say that they feel they can’t really admit to some of the things they feel when in the church environment. Religious groups, after all, can be extremely conventional.

Just another possibility….)


For the little bit that they are worth, I offer the following observations. I am 68 years old and I have been an Episcopalian since I was 30. I have been certifiably mentally ill since I was 50, with three different periods of psychosis and hospitalization. From my point of view as a mental health consumer (that’s the euphemism used nowadays), “Is ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ a risk to one’s mental health?” forms an absurd proposition. There is, or should be, broad disagreement on what constitutes “spiritual,” there is, or should be, broad disagreement on what constitutes “religious,” and there is, or should be, broad disagreement on a definition for “mental health,”

Also, for what it is worth, I offer a proposition of my own which is, or should be, quite interesting: Manic-Depression is not just a mental disorder, it’s a goddamned adventure. You can quote me on that.

Alvah Whealton

barbara snyder

Perhaps it’s correlation-not-being-causation? I admit I have problems reading these kinds of studies, though, to see if that’s what’s at issue; could anybody more practiced say?

“Spiritual but not religious” people, IOW, could already have these problems and be seeking some way to fix them outside of religion, for whatever reason (bad experiences with bad religion, finding it hard to join groups, etc.).

Also, and I think importantly: “spiritual but not religious” can (but doesn’t necessarily) imply having no “spiritual” community in which to find support.

And along those same lines: the approach to the “spiritual life” might be a sort of “making it up as you go along” thing, which is not actually very helpful.

In fact, I’ve been taught that “going it alone in spiritual matters is dangerous,” because you may “read in” to any situation all sorts of erroneous interpretations. You need people to talk with about whatever “inspiration” you feel you’ve received from God; it could be – in fact it very likely is – your own spin.

I’ve also been taught that religious people have left a wealth of practices behind them – practices that have been used to good effect over many centuries by many different kinds of people. That’s a kind of “open source” approach, in which the bugs and problems can be worked out over time; we know that certain things work, or have worked for hundreds and thousands of years for many different kinds of people. Trying out your own spiritual practice is just a local experiment, and who knows if it’s going to be effective?

Perhaps it’s simply the loneliness that comes of trying to be a solo practitioner….

Maria L. Evans

I’d be curious how many of the respondents of all forms are “looking for something.” “Searching” is an emotionally disturbing experience and puts one at more risk; conversely, someone depressed, anxious, etc. is often “looking for something” because they wish they felt better, and it would be interesting if there are higher numbers of people “looking for something” in the SNBR set than the others. I guess I would like to see a parameter that describes a level of “spiritual unease.”


I wish I could have read the full report, rather than just the abstract, because one of the things I cannot tell is the sample size.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that the religious folk made up 35% of the respondents; the not-religious folk (atheist and agnostic) made up 46%; and the spiritual-but-not-religious only 19%.

The reason I am dubious is due to the fact that “Religious people were similar to those who were neither religious nor spiritual with regard to the prevalence of mental disorders.” So religion per se is not the factor here. I would want more information before jumping to any conclusions about the SBNR crowd.

Laura Toepfer

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