The Most Religious States Are Also the Most Depressed, Says a Flawed Study

In her recent article "When God Is Not Enough: Religious States Have Highest Rates of Anti-Depressant Use," Laura Gottesdiener notes the correlation that some of the most religious states also have some of the highest rate of medication usage, specifically antidepressants.

The phenomenon that the author identifies in no way implies that religion causes depression. The data about prescription drug use from Express Scripts and Forbes indicate that Utah and the Bible Belt, the most religious states, are not the only states with high depression. Maine, Michigan, and Kentucky make the list for highest antidepressant usage, while not the one for high rankings of religiousness. Neither these studies nor Gottesdiener promote the conclusion that religion leads to depression.

However, the correlation of religion and antidepressant usage existing side by side makes perfect sense. Religion is neither the sole nor necessarily the most important factor that determines a person’s quality of life — or lack thereof. Many identifiable factors are responsible for the high rate of antidepressant use in the most religious states. For example, states in the Bible Belt generally have the highest levels of obesity, lowest levels of education, and the most persistent levels of poverty in the country. The least religious and least depressed states are on the other side of the spectrum, enjoying relatively high levels of health, wealth, and education. It seems intuitive that these factors are inversely proportional to both religion and depression. The more appropriate implication to be drawn from the correlation that Gottesdiener identifies is that both religiousness and depression spring from poorer circumstances.

The author’s implication that religion is not enough to counteract depression is problematic. The studies she cites do not support such a conclusion. Their data does not reveal the percentage of people who describe themselves as "very religious" and as depressed or taking antidepressants. Without that direct correlation, it impossible to reach the conclusion that religion is not enough to counteract depression and vice versa. Without overlapping percentages, one could reach the unlikely but equally valid conclusion that none of the religious people in the most religious states are depressed.

Instead, since the secular or moderately religious have been exposed to, but do not share in the faith and community of their more religious neighbors, the former alone could possibly account for the higher levels of depression. A more indicative study would compare rates of depression and antidepressant use among people who describe themselves as very religious against those who do not.

Nevertheless, it seems only natural that the faith of the pious would improve the quality of their lives. However, exactly to what degree faith can inspire happiness is a fascinating question and, being deeply personal, a difficult one to answer.

Religion is not a panacea. It does not blind or protect people from poor circumstances or the painful aspects of life. Ideally, religion offers hope in the face of desperation, and desperate situations, like those often found in the Bible Belt, naturally lead people to yearn for the better. Religion can serve as a powerful channel for that hope, while antidepressants can simultaneously provide buoyancy. The two are not exclusive of one another. While religion may not be enough to overcome depressing circumstances, it should help its practitioners cope with them.