Our inherent ability to connect to our spiritual side is...

Our inherent ability to connect to our spiritual side is a muscle that can protect us against mental illness, an expert says. Credit: Getty Images/Kathrin Ziegler

The mental health crisis among our youth has sparked an explosion of people seeking psychotherapy and a nationwide shortage of therapists. Unfortunately, psychotherapy offers largely temporary solutions, including antidepressant medications with undesirable side effects that must be taken for life.

But what if most common mental illnesses, such as anxiety, addiction and depression, do not have a biological cause? Psychologists today are looking elsewhere for answers.

In a groundbreaking study two years ago, The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science examined so-called “deaths of despair,” such as suicide or drug overdose. Researchers who tracked 66,000 women across 16 years discovered that those who attended religious services at least once a week "were 68% less likely to die by suicide, drug overdose or alcohol,” as were 33% of the 43,000 such men tracked for 26 years.

Tyler J. VanderWeele at The Human Flourishing Program says that social relationships within religious communities might “provide support and encouragement when individuals face problems and are confronted with despair.”

Researchers at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital concluded in July that spirituality should be part of whole person-centered care.

There is even evidence of physiological differences between the brains of spiritual/religious people and others.

Psychologist Lisa Miller, founder and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia Teachers College, relates in her latest book, "The Awakened Brain," how she first identified a correlation between spiritual or religious practice and a healthier brain.

Looking at a multigenerational sample of clinically depressed and non-depressed women and their children and grandchildren, she analyzed data from subjects who answered the question, “How personally important is religion or spirituality to you?”

Using MRI scans, her team compared the brain structures of depressed and non-depressed candidates. They found a stunning correlation between brain health and those for whom religion or spirituality ranked highly.

“The high spiritual brain,” she said, “was healthier and more robust than the low-spiritual brain. And the high-spiritual brain was thicker and stronger in exactly the same regions that were thinner and weaker in depressed brains.”

Miller described everyone’s inherent ability to connect to their spiritual side — through prayer, meditation, a sense of awe from nature, or even a basketball game — as a muscle that can protect us against mental illness. 

The protective effect may not necessarily come from organized religion, but the spirituality and community connection that accompanies it.   Contemporary atheists like Sam Harris and Yuval Harari regularly talk about the role that meditation plays in their lives. Spirituality may include different forms of seeking meaning than traditional religion.

Miller theorizes that human beings live in two worlds, the everyday world of buying groceries and the transcendent world that brings lasting satisfaction and meaning to life. Her research found that when mother and child are both high in spirituality, the child is five times less likely to be depressed.

In 2020, after a succession of suicides, the U.S. Army collaborated with Miller on a “Spiritual Readiness Initiative” that added an entire chapter discussing "spiritual core” to the new field manual for all Army soldiers in basic training.

So, a solution to most mental illness may well be found by confronting the existential questions of “Who am I?”, Why am I here?”, and “What is my purpose?” These are outside the realm of science, but no less important to mental health.

This guest essay reflects the views of Alexander H. Roberts, founder and chief executive of Community Housing Innovations, Inc. until his retirement in 2021.

This guest essay reflects the views of Alexander H. Roberts, founder and chief executive emeritus of Community Housing Innovations, Inc.