Attitude toward God, faith impacts mental health

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Women with breast cancer who are angry or disillusioned with God and their faith are more likely to experience negative mental health symptoms, according to a study.

"They were more likely to be depressed when they were assessed at eight to 12 months [later]," said Dr. Randy Hebert, medical director of Forbes Hospice of the West Penn Allegheny Health System and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

"We were able to find out that people who increased their negative feeling toward God also experienced negative changes in mental health," said Bozena Zdaniuk of the Center for Urban and Social Research at the University of Pittsburgh, and one of the co-authors.

Fifteen percent of the people enrolled in the study -- tracked at the beginning and at the end -- had negative feelings toward God and lacked faith, Dr. Hebert said. That 15 percent may not have involved the same individuals, as people's attitudes may have changed over the 8- to 12-month study. The 15 percentage with negative religious, however, is "fairly consistent" with the finding of larger studies, he added.

There also were a few agnostics among the study participants, "but the numbers were too small to do any statistical analysis," Dr. Hebert said.

On the basis of the study, clinicians might want to ask their breast cancer patients about their religious beliefs, he added. If a doctor finds a patient is mad at or feels abandoned by God, the physician might want to talk to her about seeing clergy.

"I did this study because [God] comes up on a daily basis" in his conversations with patients, Dr. Hebert said. "I don't go one day without someone bringing up God .... I said let's look at this and see if it affects things."

The researchers assessed patients for depression, anxiety and life satisfaction, but did not measure whether those with a strong faith system experienced increased well-being.There has been a lot of research on how experiencing something bad helps a person grow, he said. "Most people with bad experiences can get good from that experience. What people usually say when they have a death or a loss or an illness is that they learned a lot about themselves. Others will say they learned what was important."

The study enrolled 198 women with early stage breast cancer and 86 women with later-stage breast cancer who were recruited from a number of Western Pennsylvania hospitals. They were interviewed at the time they entered the study and at eight to 12 months later.

They were asked to rate four statements about themselves:

• "I've been working together with God as partners to get through this problem;

• "I've been looking to God for strength, support and guidance;

• "I've been wondering if God has abandoned me;

• "I've been expressing anger at God for letting this happen to me."

Dr. Zdaniuk noted that "we really weren't looking at the causality questions here. ... [but] even without pointing out causality one can probably safely conclude helping people resolve anger with God may end up with an improvement of mental health."

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 28, 2009) Sister Janet Schaffran comforted a patient at Forbes Hospice in Oakland. The caption of a photo that ran with this story about faith and mental health of patients in July 22, 2009 editions had the wrong spelling of the sister's last name and wrong location of the hospice.

Pohla Smith can be reached at or 412-263-1228.


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