Nurse Faculty Scholar Devon Berry, Seeks "Active Ingredient" that Gives Religious Followers Mental and Physical Edge

Berry had an epiphany as a teenager that guides his work in health care to this day: Religion, he observed, seemed to help keep people healthy.

    • April 23, 2009

Devon Berry’s faith in the protective power of religion grew stronger as he grew older. As a teenager at a religious high school and later as a nursing student at Cedarville University, a religious institution in small-town Ohio, Berry, R.N., Ph.D., concluded that his religious friends were less likely than his secular friends to suffer from depression or to engage in risky behaviors like taking drugs or drinking and driving. He became more convinced of his theory as a student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the University of Washington in Seattle, the secular institutions where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in the science of nursing.

“As I went on to college, I began to get more exposure to the bigger world out there, and the differences became more distinct,” he says. “Certain people were more willing to engage in what we call ‘risky behaviors,’ and others were not.”

As a result, Berry says his more risk-averse religious friends enjoyed better mental and physical health than his non-religious friends. It is an observation he says is borne out by numerous studies that suggest that religious faith and practice can help young adults cope with stress, a main cause of depression, and avoid behaviors that endanger their health, and even their lives. Car accidents, many of which are caused by reckless behavior like drunk driving, and suicide, often caused by depression, are two of the leading killers of young adults, Berry notes.

Now an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Cincinnati, Berry says he wants to know why active participation in religion protects its adherents. He won a $350,000 grant last year from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program to help him answer the question. The goal of the program is to develop the next generation of national leaders in academic nursing through career development awards.

During the three-year grant period, which concludes in 2011, Berry will spend 15–18 months tracking the behaviors and moods of Christian, Jewish and Muslim students of varying degrees of faith as they transition from high school to college. He ultimately hopes to be able to identify the “active ingredient” in religion that gives followers an edge in mental and physical health. He also hopes to determine whether that ingredient operates in a similar fashion across the world’s major monotheistic religions.

“Is it the fact that you bowl with people from church on Friday night and go to church with them on Sunday morning” that helps religious people stay healthier than their secular peers, he wonders. Or is it the “intrinsic value of religion”—the individual’s commitment to an omniscient and omnipotent supreme being—that helps them avoid risk and cope with stress.

The answer to that question, he believes, will come in handy on high school and college campuses, where religious and spiritual groups play an important role in helping students transition into adulthood. Armed with data from his study, religious students will be better able to help their peers cope with the stresses of young adulthood, whether they’ve failed an exam or are experiencing their first breakup. The study is especially valuable because it is among the first to examine the interplay of religion and health not only among Christians but also in Muslim and Jewish populations.

“For a lot of these students, they’re just simply doing what they saw in their youth groups or at church,” Berry says. “There’s no empirical understanding” of what works and what doesn’t. Religion’s active ingredient, in other words, could be its tradition of one-on-one counseling, it could come from its vast support networks, or it could come from liturgy and doctrinal teaching. A better understanding of the effect of religion on health will help religious young adults decide whether to encourage troubled peers to spend more time in a religious community or to explore their personal beliefs.

Berry, a devout Christian and a lay pastor in his local church, occasionally runs into questions about whether his own faith colors his research. But Berry says his goals are for the common good: “As a mental health nurse and as a researcher, I see in my day-to-day life an incredibly powerful agent that changes who people are, how they live, and how they think. What I want to do is learn how best to harness that power for the health and for the good of those I serve as a scientist and as a nurse.”

It’s a question that’s been in the back of Berry’s mind since he was a teenager, and he now has the chance to get some real answers.

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