Steven Pirutinsky, Touro College – Practicing Religion May Benefit Some But Not All

Religious practice can lead to lower depression for some, but what about the non-religious?

Steven Pirutinsky, assistant professor in the graduate school of social work at Touro College, looks into whether the non-religious would benefit from religious practice.

Steven Tzvi Pirutinsky, Ph.D., is assistant professor at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work.  He teaches foundational courses in human behavior and clinical practice courses including couples and family therapy. He is a clinical psychologist whose research focuses on the intersections of spirituality, religion, culture, mental health and well-being. Pirutinsky earned both his MS and PhD at Columbia University.  He is Director of Research at the Center for Anxiety Disorders & JPSYCH in New York City.

Practicing Religion May Benefit Some But Not All


Research suggests that religion and spirituality are associated with lower levels of depression. Yet, in clinical practice, I noticed that some people who were involved in religion appeared to have some negative effects. I began to wonder why some people benefit from religion and spirituality and others don’t. Based on previous research, I hypothesized that religious practice may only benefit those who are intrinsically motivated and find meaning and purpose in these activities, and that identical activities might be harmful to those who practiced religion due to other, more external factors.

To test these ideas, I collaborated with Dr. David Rosmarin, and conducted a three-year longitudinal study of 154 Jewish men and women with mood disorders. The data was drawn from a larger study on Judaism and mental health.  We measured each participant’s religious activity, religious motivations, and mood every six months.

Results supported our hypotheses. For participants who were not intrinsically motivated, religious practice related to increased depression.  The results suggest that if you’re attending religious activities out of duty and or for other reasons, it is likely not pleasurable, possibly stressful, and appears to have negative effects on your mood over time. On the other hand, if you are engaged in religious practices out of a true inner sense of meaning and spiritual engagement, these practices are likely pleasurable,  and appear to improve mood over time– even for people with clinical mood disorders.

In terms of clinical relevance, these findings demonstrate the importance of integrating religion and spirituality into psychotherapy when working with religious patients.  However, for those who are not intrinsically motivated, these behavioral strategies may make things worse. Our results highlight both the positive and negative possibilities for religion and spirituality and demonstrate the need for awareness among therapists as well as further study.



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