Homeless people who go to church better resist addiction, B.C. study finds
Homeless people who regularly attend church or other religious ceremonies are less likely to consume alcohol, cocaine and opioids, suggests a new B.C. study that argues religious practice should be better incorporated into substance-abuse treatment.
The research contributes to a growing détente between science-based medicine and more spiritual programs like Alcoholics Anonymous over how to treat addiction, after years of mutual suspicion, some experts say.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia surveyed hundreds of homeless people in three B.C. communities, noting that such individuals tend to have particularly acute substance-abuse problems.
Among those who said they believed in some kind of higher power, the men and women who showed up at religious services at least once a week were significantly less apt than others to imbibe the intoxicants, they reported.
“Religion may have a protective effect on substance-use behaviours,” said the paper spearheaded by Dr. Iris Torchalla and Prof. Michael Krausz, of the UBC School of Population and Public Health. “Indeed, several of our participants indicated … that their faith ‘keeps them clean.’ ”
The study does show an association between less substance use and religious attendance, but that does not prove a cause-effect relationship, said Dr. Lisa Lefebvre, head of addiction medicine at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.
Still, addiction professionals who generally rely on scientific evidence to guide their treatments now try to encourage spiritual counseling among interested patients, she said.
Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs that emphasize faith in God as part of their strategy also seem more sympathetic to what physicians do, said Dr. Lefebvre. AA once appeared to discourage members from using prescription medication to curb their addictions, she said, but official AA documentation now indicates that use of such drugs is a matter between physician and patient.
The two worlds of substance-abuse therapy are at “the beginning” of greater understanding of each other, said Dr. Lefebvre.
“I think the medical community is pretty supportive [of spiritualism as part of treatment],” she said. “We just want the client to have what they need.”
The UBC study looked not at spiritually influenced treatment programs, though, but actual attendance at church or other religious services.
Of 380 homeless adults surveyed in Vancouver, Victoria and Prince George who professed some kind of religious faith, 60 reported that they attended services at least once a week, the authors reported in the Community Mental Health Journal.
Those 60 were a third to a half as likely to consume alcohol, cocaine and opioids as the homeless who had spottier attendance at services, the study concluded. They were also less likely to be dependent on the substances and had fewer lifetime suicide attempts — but those differences were not considered statistically significant.
The researchers admit that their findings do not prove religion is a curb on addiction. It might be possible that regular religious attendance is simply a sign of self-discipline that keeps church-goers substance-free, too, or that religious people who become addicted stop attending services, the paper said.
The findings make “total sense,” however, to Shawn Lucas, who heads the spiritual care department at CAMH. He and his colleagues provide non-denominational spiritual counseling at the facility to people with addiction and psychiatric problems.
“When people are homeless or suffering from a mental illness, there is often a stigma, or a feeling of not belonging, “ said Mr. Lucas. “Usually when people attend a religious organization, there is a sense of belonging.”
Interestingly, the study found no difference in marijuana use between regular and infrequent attenders of religious services.
“Religious homeless people may view the use of cannabis but not other substances as compatible with (or even beneficial for) their faith or relationship with God,” the researchers suggest.
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