Americans had strong need for spiritual support following 9/11 attacks

09/23/04

Americans had a strong need for spiritual support and a positive outlook in coping with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, according to a new study conducted by University of Washington and University of Michigan researchers.

The study found that there appears to be a potential spiritual-psychological pathway linking the so-called faith factor with post-crisis (in this case 9/11) mental health, according to psychologist Amy Ai, University of Washington associate professor of social work and lead author of the study.

Ai said the study also indicates that spiritual support may be a resource that people can draw upon in times of crisis or stress that is similar to social support, a well-established protective factor in health and well-being. Her collaborators were theologian Terrence Tice, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Michigan; Christopher Peterson, a professor of psychology at Michigan; and Bu Huang, a UW research assistant professor of social work.

The findings were somewhat unexpected because the study used college students, a group that is normally considered to be less religious than the overall U.S. population. The study showed that 62 percent of the students, undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in mental health classes at the UW, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had relied on prayer to handle stress-related difficulties. The sample was predominantly female, 83 percent.

A surprising finding was that distance from the terrorist attacks, had no effect on the levels of post 9/11 distress experienced by these students.

"We thought distance would have an effect on anxiety or depression because it did in an earlier study that looked at the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995," said Ai.

The researchers defined spiritual support as a person's belief system in a higher power in one's faith, or some supreme entity. Ai said that it is something that gives a people "a spiritual relationship or makes life profoundly meaningful." Spiritual support can also come from members who share an organized religion, friends, or a community that shares similar values or belief systems, she said. Such support became more important to Americans after 9/11 when people all experienced the same severe threat.

For the study, the students filled out a battery of questionnaires that, among other things, asked about their religious and spiritual beliefs, if they had previously relied on faith or prayer to deal with crisis, how positive their outlook on life was, and what they experienced in the month following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and to what extent they experienced it.

Ai said 58 percent of the students said they were Christian, but people who used spiritual coping appeared to be unified, regardless their religious affiliation or lack of one.

"They prayed to different gods or things, but they had a sense of connectedness," she said. "We found this sense of connection no matter who people were or where they were in the country. This may be because they had a strong new identity of being Americans at a spiritual level."

Ai, Peterson and Tice are among a group of researchers who are exploring links between positive psychology and faith.

"Positive attitudes are a big key to spiritual support and people need connections to others," said Ai. "If you have more resources, a greater sense of spiritual connections, you will have a more positive outlook."

The 9/11 study confirms similar findings made by the researchers who previously examined the role of prayer and a positive outlook on cardiac surgery patients and war refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo.

In the cardiac study, they found that patients who used prayer had a better psychological adjustment a year following surgery, after controlling for the initial depression that often accompanies major heart surgery. In the refugee study, they found that Kosovars and Bosnians, mostly Muslims, who had resettled in the United States used similar forms of prayer and positive religious coping to deal with stress as did American cardiac patients, primarily Christians and Jews. But these war refugees also used another form of coping, praying that their enemies "pay for what they have done." Those who relied on positive religious coping prayer had higher levels of optimism while those who used negative religious coping had reduced levels of hope.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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