Research pitches religion

College students who have high levels of involvement in and commitment to religion have better mental and emotional health than their non-religious peers, according to research released late last month by the University of California-Los Angeles' Higher Education Research Institute.

College students who read sacred texts, join religious organizations on campus and frequently attend religious services reported having better self-esteem, fewer incidences of psychological stress and lower levels of depression than college students who do not participate in religious activities, the research indicates.

The beneficial effects of religious involvement occur as a result of several factors, according to Stephen Saunders, associate professor of psychology.

When a student is religiously active, he or she is "more likely to spend time with others who have similar lives — a church community," Saunders said, adding that the community forms a much-needed social network for students who may be lonely or sad in college.

Religion also offers a message of love and acceptance to students — a feeling they may have trouble getting elsewhere.

"Almost every religion has a comforting message," Saunders said.

The benefits religious activity can bestow on college students come at a crucial time in a young person's life, said Chris Daood, assitant to the director of the Student Counseling Center.

"Acknowleging a higher being is one way in which people feel supported in what they do," he said.

The research reports that students' "sense of psychological well-being declines significantly during the college years." For instance, 77 percent of college juniors report feeling depressed "frequently" or "occasionally," as compared with 61 percent when the same students were freshmen, according to the research.

College students' psychological well-being falls during the college years partly because of the stress and isolation that can result from leaving home for college, according to Saunders.

College students must frequently leave their home, family and friends and adopt a high-stress, low-leisure lifestyle when they transition to college, Saunders said, and this is "a perfect prescription for depression and stress."

Daood agreed: "As students go through college, they feel more free in some ways to explore, but independence can be said to be thrown upon them…All of these freedoms are stressors," he said.

"There's an inherent conflict in any relationship," he said. "Faith often leads to doubts, but these are inherent in belief."

"I would hypothesize that (religious) struggle enhances the emotional and mental health benefits of religion," Saunders said.

The research was culled primarily from the survey responses of 3,680 students at 46 colleges and universities across the nation. The responses were collected as part of the College Students' Beliefs and Values Survey, a study on the religious aspect of college students' lives. The 46 colleges and universities where students were surveyed represent a "diverse sample" of schools in terms of size, religious affiliation, or lack thereof, and status as a public or private institution, according to Michael Fleischer, a spokesman with the public relations firm employed by the Higher Education Research Institute.

In the interest of protecting the surveyed students' privacy, Fleischer was unable to reveal whether or not Marquette was one of the institutions surveyed.

The research is not the first to indicate that a correlation exists between religious involvement and improved mental and emotional health, according to Saunders.

Previous studies on the correlation between religious involvement and mental health "are pretty consistent," Saunders said. "Those who go to church pray more, feel close to a religious practice and tend to feel better."

The research's findings come as no surprise to some of Marquette's religiously involved students.

College of Communication sophomore Emily Schumacher, a member of the Catholic Outreach program and a retreat leader for University Ministry, said her faith has helped her overcome some difficult times in her life.

"When something bad happens, (my faith) is the first place I turn," Schumacher said.

Bryce Evans, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences and president of the St. Robert Bellarmine Society, said his faith has helped him through life's trials.

"Whenever I'm stressed or going through a hard time, I know I have recourse," Evans said. "It gives me peace to know that I'm subject to God's will and that He's there to help me."