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Duke’s Harold Koenig completing major study on faith and healing

CHAPEL HILL A Duke University specialist on the link between spirituality and health is preparing a major study of how five world religions can prevent or curtail depression.

Harold Koenig, director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, said Sunday the $1.5 million research project has been underway since 2010 and is nearing its final phase.

The study examines several hundred patients treated with therapeutic approaches rooted in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hindusim and Buddhism, as compared with patients who are treated with secular behavioral therapy.

“If there’s any difference, it has to be attributed to religion,” Koenig said.

Koenig provided a status update on his research Sunday at the University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, and said he expects the results to be published this year in a major scholarly journal. Speaking to an audience of about 50 people, Koenig presented an overview of his field, which is gaining acceptance even though some still dismiss it as fringe science.

After his presentation, Koenig described his own faith journey, from being a lapsed Catholic to a med school dropout who experienced a Christian conversion. Koenig said he was expelled from the medical program at the University of California in San Francisco for erratic behavior and then lived as a homeless person for months.

Eric Bigham, a member of the Methodist chapel on East Franklin Street, said he was drawn to Koenig’s talk because one of his family members’ struggles with mental illness. One of Bigham’s lingering concerns is the need for a safety network for mentally ill people when their relatives are unable to care for them.

“I was heartened on two scores – one being that we are talking about this more,” Bigham said. “I also got the sense that our church community might be a backup system and would step in and help at least temporarily if needed.”

Almost all the research, including Koenig’s ongoing study, deals with depression and mental health problems that arise in patients stricken with a debilitating or terminal disease.

Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other such mental illnesses that are not triggered by life crises, but are crises unto themselves, are in a different category altogether, Koenig said. When asked if yoga, meditation or prayer can cure chronic mental illness, Koenig, a practicing psychiatrist, said such a thing is almost unheard of.

Then he described one exception to the rule that he witnessed personally – the case of a long-term suicidal patient on whose behalf Koenig prayed, imploring God that the patient survive one more day. Koenig confessed he was resigned to the patient losing her struggle, but the darkness of her illness cleared completely so that she was able to stop taking medication.

“By golly, a miracle occurred,” Koenig said.

Though skeptics dispute the data, Koenig said most studies show that religious people tend to be healthier mentally and physically. He said the effect of religion is so profound that it adds about seven years to the lifespan of white people and about 14 years to the lives of people in ethnic minorities.

One of Koenig’s areas of interest is measuring a patient’s religiosity by such factors as attending a house of worship, time spent reading holy books and amount of money donated to a religious institution. He said religion has the greatest health effects when believers don’t merely go through the motions of worship but surrender their lives to God.

“There’s nothing like the purpose it generates when you surrender your life,” he said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932
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