Anxiety and Depression among Pentecostals

Tanya Levin in her book “People in Glass Houses” quoted studies showing an incidence of anxiety and depression among Pentecostals as three times higher than other Protestants.

There appears to be some support for this in the literature.  This 1994 study by Harold G Koenig states <i> “Among the baby boomers, Pentecostals had significantly higher six-month and lifetime rates of depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and any DSM-III disorder. “</i>  Koenig seems to be a major researcher in this area, conducting several studies on similar themes.

There could be many reasons for this discrepancy with other Protestant denominations.  One theory put forward is that Pentecostal denominations in general are composed of lower socio-economic communities and these communities have higher incidences of anxiety and depression anyway.  

Other theories point to some element of the belief system as being the cause, perhaps the focus on end-times prophecy.

My own view is that the incidence of these disorders could be caused in a number of cases by the social environment built up in these churches.  More than any other denomination, Pentecostal churches tend to be quite heirarchical with a very strictly delineated system for achieving social status.  At the top of the social tree is the head-Pastor, with his family directly below him.  One achieves greater or lesser social status in the church depending on how attuned one is to the “vision” of the leader.  It is to a certain extent natural for young people to identify moving up this social ladder with growing in Christian faith, so they often put considerable resources and efforts into this endeavour.

But the Pentecostal church can have only one leader and it is inevitable that lesser leaders have to exit to make way for others.  It is this exit that causes loss of status teamed with the resulting loss of self-esteem that I believe causes great anxiety and depression.

8 thoughts on “Anxiety and Depression among Pentecostals

  1. Interesting theory, wazza2, but it relies on two things, regular attendance, which gives time for people to be subject to your implied hierarchical abuse, and youth, since you also imply the presence of impressionable, aspirational youth being misguided by a family dominated patriarchal system.

    However, the article you quote is based on figures from a very small group of 853 Protestant baby-boomers, born between 1945 and 1966, in a single locality, Piedmont, N. Carolina, of whom a small percentage were Pentecostals, compared to slightly larger group of elderly people.

    Not only this, but they were not all in regular attendance in a Pentecostal church, and the conclusion reached is that those who are not in regular attendance, and who do not seek psychiatric or medical assistance are more likely to remain depressed.

    ‘When analyses were stratified by frequency of church attendance, associations between psychiatric disorder and Pentecostal affiliation were strongest among infrequent churchgoers, a group also unlikely to seek help from mental health professionals. Conclusions: Young adult Pentecostals in the Piedmont area experienced high rates of psychiatric disorder, which was not generally true for Pentecostals who were middle aged or older. Infrequent churchgoers appeared to be at greatest risk, although they seldom sought professional help for their problems.’

    Did you see that? associations between psychiatric disorder and Pentecostalism were ‘strongest among infrequent churchgoers, a group also unlikely to seek help from mental health professionals’.

    This is hardly conclusive evidence to support your claims, and yet it is being fervently quoted as fact across the blogosphere, partly because it crops up in Tanya’s book, who reaches the same conclusion you do, using these figures! Suddenly, out of this limited research of a very small survey group, Pentecostals are three times more likely to be deressed than Anglicans! Especially is=f they attend Hillsong, eh!

    More impressive figures, in terms of your theory, here:

    But this still leaves us with around 7 people surveyed, admitting to being depressed over a six month period, out of a group of 128 Pentecostals, again in a limited area, and again coupled with the other evidence that those who are not in regular attendance are more prone to ongoing problems.

    Even atheists using these figures conclude that they could also indicate that the presence of a larger group of depressed people in Pentecostal churches is more indicative of their mission, i.e. promoting healing and deliverance ministry, rather than on the fruit of Pentecostalism! Or the appeal of Pentecostalism amongst the lower socio-economic strata, which you mention.

    So, first of all, those at most risk are not in regular attendance, and secondly they are not youth. Therefore they cannot be under the sway and influence of an abusive hierarchal system!

    There may indeed be more depressed people either attracted to Pentecostal churches, or present there, but there is absolutely no evidence to support your ‘hierarchical’ claims.

    There clearly needs to be far more research before these figures are taken as any kind of evidence. The authors admit this themselves.

    Am I defending the undefendable here? No I’m defending the notion of better fact finding accountability before coming to unfounded conclusions.

  2. The figures probably are questionable, since the numbers are very small and limited to one area – however the topic of depression within Pentecostal churches is interesting to me.

    Dealing with depression in a Pentecostal church environment can be a dilemma. It depends on the church and how closely it aligns itself with certain types of teaching – or if it does not see much value in people’s activities outside ‘church’ life.

    At one Pente church I was in, the senior pastor’s attitude to depression tended to the ‘just get over it’ angle, complete with lots of scriptures to speak out and have faith in. Doing this ought to relieve anxiety and any associated depression by boosting one’s faith. Probably helpful for some people, and too simplistic for others – who might then feel like failures if they are still depressed, getting depressed about their failed relationship with God as well.

    On the other hand, a different group of people gained permission to set up a counselling area where I think depression was taken more seriously, and different approaches were used. People who needed serious help were referred on to professionals. That may have been good.

    I suffered from depression for about 9 months many years ago, while regularly attending a Pentecostal church. The cause of my depression had nothing to do with the church, and all the people there and in another Pente group I attended were very patient and gracious towards me. One of them (a CLC worker based in Frank Houston’s church) gave me a little booklet on grief, which was actually extremely helpful. I guess I wasn’t a case for clinical referral, but to be honest, at that time, I found my church (CCC) a good place to go, where I focussed on God to help me through it.

    There are, I believe, some false religious beliefs that can lead some people into depression, which are present in some Pente churches.

    As you suggest, wazza, the lack of significance unless you are a leader in some kind of ministry could be depressing for some people after a long time.

    Giving and expecting that God will honour your giving by answering your prayers in some specific (and very important to you) way, without any apparent answer, could also lead to depression.

    Feeling that any work you do outside church lacks any value other than its enabling you to give to the church, can also lead some people to feel that most of their working life is insignificant, frustrating (as it gets in the way of their desire for ‘Christian’ activities), and therefore depressing after some time.

    I used to feel depressed after going to a service with 2000 people, and not finding a single person I knew to chat with or hang out with after the service – it was a little soul destroying. I prefer smaller churches where its easier to meet people – I find getting lost in a megachurch depressing. (Though not clinically so.)

  3. Interesting comments RP and FL. As far as the statistical relevance of the two studies is concerned, I am a layman on these matters but I am not sure that they can be dismissed so easily. Yes there were only 7 Pentes who admitted they were depressed but the total Pentes surveyed was 128. This may very well be a reasonable sample statistically. Just as if one observes a cluster of 7 cancers in a town where statistically one would only expect to see 2 cancers in the population, it may be cause for concern. I note that the article is in a journal of the American Psychiatric association and I assume has been peer-reviewed by that community – I have no reason to think it is making outrageous statistical claims.

    My interpretation of the results were that young adult Pentecostals were most at risk. Church attendance is a tricky one. It may be that attendence at church lessens the incidence, or it could be that incidences of depression and anxiety decrease the likelihood of church attendance in the future. Social isolation is a feature of both conditions.

    It may be reasonably suspected that Pentecostals would under-report symptoms of depression due to the practice of “positive confession” and also a literal interpretation of some pronouncements by some leaders that depression is a “demonic spirit”. It would probably be only those who have high-level disorders and therefore less likely to regularly attend church who would report these symptoms.

    All in all I think it should be cause for some concern and further study. It wouldnt hurt for churches to do some surveys of well-being for all their members. Many of these churches promote prosperity and healing and use many testimonies in their services. It might be a good idea to collect some statistics, not only for those who remain in the church but also those who leave it or trail off in attendance.

    I agree with RPs comments about the general culture of Pentecostalism when it comes to the issue of depression. I think they many churches are just coming to terms with it and are starting to have a more nuanced approach to the subject. Its pleasing to hear though that there was some help available though at the right time.

  4. “Giving and expecting that God will honour your giving by answering your prayers in some specific (and very important to you) way, without any apparent answer, could also lead to depression.”

    Yep. The two I have come across in what brings depression in these types of churches is the ‘giving’ aspect and ‘status’ building. The status thing is a huge problem in these settings. Many young girls (ages from 15-30) face this issue. In some instances it has been a spiritual thing. On other occasions, they don’t feel good enough or they are not accepted therefore slumber into depression.

    I’m now starting to see this happening with young pentecostal males. The ‘image’ is what is making this depression worse. And I can only narrow it down to this problem being rooted in spiritual pride and vanity.

    Interesting post Wazza. Thanks!

  5. “Giving and expecting that God will honour your giving by answering your prayers in some specific (and very important to you) way, without any apparent answer, could also lead to depression.”

    A couple of very common examples are giving faithfully, and waiting for a husband to arrive, for years and years and years, while being so loyal to the particular church that moving on to a congregation with a better balance of men to women is unthinkable. I know _many_ attractive, intelligent women, with absolutely nothing wrong with them, in this situation, waiting in faith. Some have sacrificed much – they still have their faith – but no answer to this particular prayer.

    Another example is giving and hoping for an end to a variety of financial issues, yet continuing to struggle and be hit by financial set backs for years and years and years. Giving the value of a house deposit to a building fund (or more – I know of several people who’ve given maybe half a house to a building fund). Years later, still not being able to afford to house yourself.

    After long enough, and with age advancing upon them, this is enough to make people feel that their efforts have been futile, and to enter a depressed state. Mostly, their decisions were made in their youth – without understanding that youth is a once only opportunity.

    Promoting an image to aspire to only helps create further self-tyranny for people to labour under.

    I would love to see churches help people be set free of the values with which we all burden ourselves at some stage. When they become obsessed with building funds etc, it is still a very material obsession, and doesn’t help people become free from believing in the importance of these things. How can a person be free from the desire for material possessions if their church models that very desire while demanding from them?

    I do not claim to be free of the tyranny of such desires. It’s my awareness of that tyranny in myself – and the freedom which I glimpse and experience at times – the freedom that I _know_ is there, when I’m in a better place in my relationship with Jesus – that helps me believe that it would be so much better if gatherings encouraged people to move on from believing in the importance of these things. These burdens contribute much stress which can definitely contribute to depression.

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