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August 17, 2014

Robin Williams: Treatment of depression should include religion

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Robin Williams, who committed suicide Monday, marked only the latest superstar plagued by demons of depression.

It was also shocking to me to read an advertised claim of a certain pill that it “ends depression and anxiety in less than 15 minutes.”

I am not a medical doctor but the claim sounds false to me. False claims of results after taking certain pills for example to loose weight have been around for years.

Depression is a medical condition that affects the ability of a person to function in everyday life. Almost 10 percent of American adults, age 18 and older, experience some form of depression every year. Other Western nations including Canada are not far behind.

The symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, decreased energy, fatigue, feeling anxious, feeling of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed, including sex, difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions, insomnia or oversleeping, appetite and/or weight changes and thoughts of suicide, or suicide attempts.

Although therapies – which need time and expertise - can alleviate symptoms in over 80 percent of those treated, less than half of the people with depression get the help they need. Many patents and their doctors find it is easier and faster to only take medication to alleviate the symptoms.

There is no study to suggest that the percentage of Canadian Muslims who suffer from depression is higher or lower than the general public. But as a provider of pastoral counseling I know the pain to a Muslim patient goes through and how difficult the referral to a health care professional can become.

There are indications that suggest Western societies have higher rates of mental illness than traditional societies such as among Arabs, East Asians, African and various Pacific Island groups.

There is a British study that indicates that an alarming number of English men suffer mental health problems, but most are too “macho” to seek treatment. The study suggests more work among men have to be done for the destigmatization of mental health problems.

There are empirical data to show that there are strong correlation between physical and mental health and faith, prayers, and religious practice.

However today medical care is one-dimensional and far from being holistic; Take-These Pills-And-See-Me-In-A Month, which allows doctors to cramp as many mental health patients as they can see in a day, is very popular.

But four medical researchers (Mark Townsend, MD et al) who are with the Department of Medicine at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Vermont have reviewed the medical research literature to examine what was published on the effects of religion on health. They published their finding in December 2002. They used a very rigorous yardstick for them to include any study in their critical, but very important review.

They reviewed reported medical research during 33 years between 1966 and 1999. They explain their inclusion / exclusion criteria and for a given study to be included it was read independently by all four researchers.

One study concludes that Islamic-based psychotherapy speeds recovery from anxiety and depression in Muslims. Other study indicates that religious beliefs and activities appear to benefit blood pressure, immune function, depression, and mortality.

Another study shows that Christian intercessory prayer appears to improve health outcomes in patients admitted to coronary care units and may improve survival in children with leukemia.

Among their findings: private prayer may be associated with decreased depression after coronary artery bypass surgery among married men, religious activity may be associated with decrease depression among African Americans with cancer, religious involvement may be associated with fewer depressed symptoms among older Dutch men, religiosity may limit stressors in depressed patients and religious commitment may protect against depression among retired Catholic Sisters.

One important conclusion was “Religion may also have a protective effect against suicide.”

The Vermont researchers conclude that the vast majority of Americans consider religion as an important part of their life and want health care providers to address religious issues.

They conclude also that “involvement in religion or religious activities may promote mental and physical health” and this include, “promoting positive social and interpersonal functions, affirmation of shared beliefs, improving coping skills, resolution of guilt, diminished fear of punishment, the threat of embarrassment..”

They end with a very important recommendation, “Considering that patients think religion is important, that religion likely benefits health outcomes, and that religion is without financial cost, health care providers should include religion in the care of their patients.”

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Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the author of several books focussing on the Middle East including 'The Hundred Years' War On Palestine'. He explains some of the basic facts of the struggle for Palestinian independence and the creation of the Zionist project of Israel.

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