"Bereavement puts individuals at risk for numerous physical and mental health disorders and subsequently increases the likelihood that they will need to use health services," say authors Holly Prigerson, Ph.D., and Michelle J. Pearce of Yale University. Their study is published in the August issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. However, "bereaved individuals who relied on religion to cope generally used outpatient medical services less frequently," they say.
The study included surveys with 265 bereaved persons with an average age of 62, followed by an interview four months later with 164 of the subjects. Researchers used a two-part question to assess how much each subject relied on religious coping. Thirty-three percent of the subjects were categorized as religious copers.
"Despite the expectation that health would decline given the documented health risks associated with bereavement, bereaved individuals who relied more heavily on religion to cope with their loss did not experience a significant increase in health problems," the researchers say.
Although the religious copers reported significantly more functional disabilities at the beginning of the study, they were just as healthy as the less religious after four months. The more religious subjects also reported making fewer visits to their doctors in the previous two months.
In contrast, the less religious subjects experienced a slight, but nonsignificant, deterioration in their health status during the follow-up period.
Pearce and colleagues suggest that since bereavement tends to increase mental and physical health problems, bereaved individuals may go to the doctor more often as a type of coping strategy. "However, bereaved individuals who use religion as a coping strategy do not need to also cope by visiting their doctor, and thus may have fewer doctor visits."
The authors also suggest that a greater reliance on religious coping could amount to large economic savings to the health care system. They estimate that with 800,000 individuals newly widowed each year, a religion-inspired reduction in doctor visits would add up to $180 million in savings.
The researchers are careful to note that they are not saying that bereaved people should seek religion in lieu of medical attention. Instead, they say, "mental and physical health care workers, as well as pastors and chaplains, may be advised to encourage religious individuals facing the death of a loved one to continue to practice their religious faith during the bereavement process."
They also note that 101 subjects were not available at the four-month follow up, reducing the statistical power of their study. Additionally, religious coping is a complex concept that is difficult to fully quantify, and the study's brief survey may not have reflected that complexity.
The study was funded with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
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