Individuals who describe themselves as spiritual are more likely to have used drugs, or be dependent on drugs, and also more likely to have generalized anxiety and neurotic disorders than those who are neither spiritual nor religious, research shows.
In this survey of UK households, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, "individuals who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder," conclude the researchers.
The researchers, led by Michael King (University College London Medical School, UK), also found that religious individuals are less likely to have ever used drugs or to be a hazardous drinker than individuals who are not religious or spiritual.
The results of the survey, however, failed to confirm North American evidence suggesting that having a religious understanding of life provides protection against mental disorders.
"It also concurs with other evidence from England that there is no clear relationship between religiosity and happiness," write King and colleagues.
The researchers examined data from interviews conducted with 7403 individuals who participated in the third National Psychiatric Morbidity Study in England.
Of these, 35% were identified as having a "religious understanding of life," 19% were spiritual but not religious, and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual.
Overall, religious people were similar to those who were neither religious nor spiritual in terms of the prevalence of mental disorders, although religious people were 27% less likely to have used drugs and 19% less likely to abuse alcohol.
Compared with individuals who were neither spiritual nor religious, spiritual individuals were 24% more likely to have used drugs, 77% more likely to be dependent on drugs, and 46% more likely to have abnormal eating habits.
In addition, spiritual people were 50% more likely to have general anxiety disorder, 72% more likely to have any phobia, and 37% more likely to have any neurotic disorder. They were also 40% more likely to be taking psychotropic medication.
The researchers note that the results differ from those of a large US study suggesting that self-identified spiritual individuals were more likely to be extroverted and optimistic, rather than neurotic and psychotic in the UK analysis.
They also note there are some limitations to the analysis, namely the cross-sectional nature of the study. As a result, "we cannot attribute cause and effect to any relationship between spiritual beliefs and mental health," write King and colleagues.
In the UK analysis, just 54% of individuals were identified as religious or spiritual, whereas worldwide this number is closer to 70%, they add. The UK, as a whole, is a less religious country than the USA in terms of number of people expressing a belief in God or attending places of worship.
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