Political Ideology, Religious Attendance And Mental Illness


As religious attendance goes up, the likelihood of mental illness goes down.” Political Scientist Ryan Burge via Religion Unplugged

(ANALYSIS) It’s bizarre to even type these words, but the COVID-19 pandemic began almost four years ago in the United States. Lockdowns were instituted in March of 2020. That’s such a weird time capsule for many of us. I know that we all could write a book about the emotions we experienced and how that period of social isolation impacted our lives.

But I’m a social scientist, and for all the death and destruction that COVID-19 brought to the United States and every other country on Earth, it also gave us a tremendous window into how folks handled mental stress in near real time.

In fact, the Pew Research Center put a poll into the field in late March of 2020. That was less than a week after many states began to shut down schools and businesses as a mitigation strategy for the spread of COVID-19. Pew made the data publicly available for download.

I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s Substack over the break, specifically “Why the Mental Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest.”

He highlights a specific question: “Has a doctor or healthcare provider EVER told you that you have a mental health condition?” His post is mostly about topics like gender, age and partisanship. But the Pew poll also asks about religion, so let’s get to digging.

I broke the sample down into liberals, moderates and conservatives and then again by larger religious tradition. Here’s the share who said that they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

I am just going to lead with what is clearly coming through from this graph — liberals are more likely to being diagnosed with a mental illness compared to conservatives. A liberal Protestant is nine points more likely than a conservative one. It’s a 10 point gap between liberal and conservative Catholics. There aren’t really any examples of a liberal person being less likely to be diagnosed than a conservative, regardless of religious tradition.

Which religious traditions have higher levels of mental illness? It’s pretty clear that there’s no real gaps between Protestants and Catholics. However, among the non-religious there is a much greater likelihood of a diagnosed mental illness. For instance, about 30% of liberal atheists have been diagnosed – that’s ten points higher than liberal Christians.

Let’s do this another way — political ideology and worship attendance.

Again, that same pattern emerges: Liberals are more likely to report a diagnosed mental illness compared to conservatives at the same level of religious attendance. Among never attenders, 28% of liberals have been diagnosed with an illness. It’s just 15% of conservatives who never attend.

The other thing that jumps out is that as religious attendance goes up, the likelihood of mental illness goes down. That’s true for both liberals and conservatives. A person who attends religious services more than once per week is half as likely to report a mental illness compared to one who never attends. That’s true regardless of political ideology.

But life is complicated. There are a myriad of factors that go into being diagnosed as mentally ill. Folks with higher incomes are more likely to have access to mental health professionals. Same is likely true with education. So I wanted to test that with a regression. I threw in some basic controls and did the same analysis — religious attendance and political ideology. Guess what?

Yeah, almost nothing changes from the prior graph. Liberals are more likely to report a mental health condition compared to conservatives. But for conservatives, there is clearly a negative relationship between being diagnosed with a mental illness and religious attendance. Said another way, conservatives who go to church a lot are the least likely to say that they have ever been told by a medical professional that they have a mental illness.

But I know what some of you are thinking. This asks about being DIAGNOSED with a mental illness. Not if someone actually has a mental illness. There is absolutely evidence that conservatives are less likely to seek out mental health services. So maybe what we are seeing here is not that conservatives are less likely to be mentally ill; it’s that they are just less likely to see a counselor for their problems.

I can kind of test that. Here’s how — the idea was inspired by Lyman Stone. Folks were asked a series of five questions about how often in the past seven days they felt things like depression, anxiety and loneliness. I added those questions together and divided the sample into three buckets based on the frequency they expressed in feeling mental illness. Then I can calculated what share of each bucket has been diagnosed with a mental illness. That’s below.

Among liberals who report the lowest level of anxiety, depression, and so on, 10% say that they have been diagnosed as mentally ill. For conservatives, it’s only 4%. So there is definitely some evidence that liberals are more likely to seek out a mental health diagnosis. In the middle bucket, a liberal is 14 points more likely to be diagnosed as mentally ill compared to a conservative. Again, this is evidence that liberals seek out mental health services at much higher rates.

But in the top bucket, that gap is a lot smaller. Among liberals who report that highest level of depression and anxiety 36% say that they have been diagnosed as mentally ill. It’s 32% among conservatives in this top third of mental issues. That’s a gap, but it’s a whole lot smaller. In short, I do think that conservative stigma is driving some of these differences, but I don’t think it’s doing all the work here.

I took three of those other questions about mental illness and analyzed those. For instance, folks were asked how frequently in the last seven days that they have felt a number of things like depression, loneliness and anxiety. Again, this is liberals and conservatives, and it’s broken down by religious attendance.

Recall that these questions were asked right at peak COVID-19 lockdowns, so this is probably one of the worst moments in recent American history for mental health.

I am showing you the share who said that they felt these emotions at least 3-4 days out of the last seven. Notice that same pattern? Liberals are much more likely to say that they felt depressed and they were experiencing anxiety compared to conservatives. The gaps on anxiety were huge, by the way — sometimes 20 or more points. However, the differences on feeling lonely were relatively small — often two or three points.

But, I think you can pretty clearly see that religious attendance has a net positive impact on some of these responses. Those who were attending religious services more before lockdowns kicked in were less likely to be anxious or depressed.

Do these results hold up with a regression analysis, though? I included controls for age, income, education and race.

I put the graph for anxiety at the top here because I think it’s the most illustrative one. Among liberals, there’s just way higher levels of anxiety. The only level of religious attendance where that abates is those liberals who attend religious services every week. Conservatives are just less mentally anxious, and that goes even lower when it comes to those who attend monthly or more.

That same general pattern repeats for the other questions, too. Liberals report higher levels of loneliness and depression compared to conservatives. It also appears that religious attendance is more of a balm on these mental issues for conservatives than it is for liberals. For instance, when it comes to feelings of loneliness among liberals, church attendance has no impact. It only lowers feelings of depression among liberals who attend religious services weekly.

Looked at in totality, I think it’s pretty hard to conclude from these results that conservatives are just as mentally ill as liberals. Yes, liberals are more likely to seek out mental health services, but that doesn’t explain all the differences. Among highly anxious and depressed conservatives, they are nearly as likely to have been diagnosed as mentally ill.

Additionally, on specific questions about anxiety, loneliness and depression, there’s some evidence here liberals struggle at higher rates than conservatives. It could be self-denial among conservatives or it could be some common causal pathway between a liberal ideology and propensity toward mental illness. These aren’t easy questions to answer.

I will say this without equivocation, though: regular religious attendance does seem to be a type of panacea for many of the mental health issues that folks encountered during the last several years. You can see it consistently across this data — weekly attenders are less anxious and depressed than those who never attend religious services.

Of course you can believe it’s because there’s supernatural healing involved in many types of religions and that wards off depression. Or you could believe that just being around other people on a regular basis tends to lift your spirits and generates a sense of belonging. Either way, finding a community of like minded folks may be a good first step for those of us who are experiencing some mental health struggles.

This piece is republished from Graphs About Religion on Substack.

Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, a pastor in the American Baptist Church and the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience. His research focuses on the intersection of religiosity and political behavior, especially in the U.S. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanburge.