Religion as a cure for depression

Jaqueline Costa Ribeiro writes about the power of beliefs to help people cope with depression.

Fabrine Velloso Maselli is a 40-year-old Brazilian woman who is currently living in Dublin. Most who meet her may not realise it, but she has been in a constant struggle, since childhood, against depression and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

Ms Maselli is the only daughter of a regular family with two other sons. She began her relationship with illness at the age of four when her depressed mother declared her wish to die. “There is no other way. I want to die,” her mother used to repeat constantly.

Ms Maselli implored her mother not to leave her. This situation affected her emotionally, making her an insecure person, because she was very afraid of losing her mother. “I was very sensitive, everything shook me, everything was stronger and more intense. Since I was little I had the symptoms,” Ms Maselli said.

“One day I had a temperature of 40 degrees but when the doctors examined me, they could not find anything wrong with me. After constant hospital visits, they started calling me Feverine” (a combination of the word “fever” and part of her first name).

Ms Maselli has had panic attacks since the age of eight. At this stage of her childhood, she frequently had several episodes of anxiety disorder, such as going to school and immediately wanting to go home. These crises were often combined with crying, nausea, diarrhoea or even urinating in her clothes, showing the power of emotion in a complicated state.

“Art, religion and faith, for me, are the cure for any evil of the mind”

As a child, she was reserved and shy. She did not like to leave home and was always close to her mother. Her anxiety disorder and her depression have had several different forms and symptoms. She used to be afraid to go to sleep for fear that she would not wake up again. At other times she could not stay in the dark. On occasion, she has had to call in desperation to neighbours for help, when she was terrified that she might be dying. Constantly, every day, she has gone through different stages of anguish.

Ms Maselli was also afflicted with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), where she felt that she needed to clean her house constantly with alcohol to exterminate bacteria. As a teenager, she started dating, but every time she went on a date she had a panic attack, with a racing heartbeat and dizziness, which caused her to have a bad time. In her mind, she kept thinking that she was going to faint and die; she really did not understand what was going on.

At age 21, she consulted a cardiologist and the results were all clear. Afterwards, she decided to see a psychologist, which is when her treatment using antidepressant drugs began. Drugs of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class, such as Rivotril, Ocadium, Chloridate and Paroxetine, became a part of her life.

Her first indication that spirituality could be a support for depression and life’s difficulties was through her cousin. After complications in her life, she found that religion could be the pathway to change and happiness. At age 23, Ms Maselli, took a big step in moving away from her family and trying psychological treatment in Rio de Janeiro. There she also began to be more religious, while being away from her family.

After a number of years, Ms Maselli decided to stop taking medication and instead to continue talk-therapies and every Sunday go to Catholic Mass. “Art, religion and faith, for me, are the cure for any evil of the mind,” Ms Maselli stated. This later encouraged her to study photography in Rio de Janeiro.

“I did not have a life in my home city,” said Ms Maselli The art of photography was like a therapy for her and it greatly helped her. “Photography explores the sensitivity that we see through our eyes, giving us the freedom to subjectify and objectify our feelings, thoughts and emotions. It helps to create a relationship of deep intimacy between ourselves and the world.”

After her photography course, she returned to her home city. However, without art and religion, her problems returned and her life went on without purpose. So, she decided to visit local churches and explore different religions. In the end, she found that the Catholic religion suited her best and, to confirm her faith, she decided to undergo the sacrament of Confirmation.

Could it be that religion can relieve depression in people? A recent study from Columbia University suggests that this could be the case, especially among those genetically at risk. Thinner cortexes on the mesial wall of the left hemisphere in the human brain have for some time been associated with a hereditary predisposition to depression.

In this particular study of 103 participants, both with and without depression, researchers used MRI scans to take anatomical measurements of cortical thicknesses in the participants’ brains and found that “spiritual importance” had a strengthening effect in those who were at high risk of depression. This study adds to growing literature on the correlation between the ability of spirituality and meditation to increase cortical thickness.

Nowadays, Ms Maselli lives in Dublin, where she is an active member of St Mary of the Angels Catholic church. She declares that her depression is healed. She states that it is a constant struggle every day but she has found comfort and healing in religion. She participates in a rosary group called Catholics in Dublin on Tuesdays, she takes part in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursdays and she attends Mass on Sundays.

Religion as a cure for depression appears to be related to belief. For many people, spirituality and religion may have the power to act as supports to conquer life’s difficulties, including depression.

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