How Early Spirituality Deters Alcohol Abuse

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Teens who have an active spiritual life are half as likely to have an alcohol or substance use disorder or even try illegal drugs than those who have no religious beliefs or training, research has found.

Previous studies have indicated that being spiritual or religious may help persons recovering from substance abuse overcome their addictions later in life, but this new study suggests that adolescents are much less likely to ever develop those problems if they have a spiritual foundation when they are young.

"Alcoholism, in addition to being a biological disorder, is a spiritual disorder," lead author Dr. Lisa Miller told Reuters Health. "Adolescents who claim to have a personal relationship with the Divine are only half as likely to become alcoholics or drug addicts, or for that matter even to try contraband drugs (marijuana and cocaine). This is particularly important because the onset of alcoholism and drug addiction usually occurs in adolescents."

Strong Protection Against Alcoholism

To determine the relationship between their religiosity and substance use of 676 adolescents aged 15 to 19, Miller and colleagues at Columbia University conducted a study using survey data. This is the first study to show that personal spirituality strongly protects against ever developing alcoholism or drug abuse.

The study shows that teens with a higher degree of personal devotion, personal conservatism, and institutional conservatism were less likely to engage in alcohol consumption and less likely to engage in marijuana or cocaine use.

More recent studies have also found that religiosity and spirituality are negatively related to alcohol, tobacco, and illicit substance use across the U.S., perhaps due in part to prohibitions against alcohol and other substance use inherent in some religions.

Confirmed by Later Studies

Another study at Brigham Young University of 4,983 adolescents found that those who were involved in religious activities were significantly less likely to become involved with substance abuse or have friends who are involved.

A previous study at Brigham Young found that teens who were religious were less than half as likely to begin smoking marijuana—by far the most popular drug among adolescents.

Spiritual, Not Religious

"The findings show that a personal sense of spirituality helps adolescents avoid alcohol and drug use and abuse," Miller told Reuters. "Unlike adults in (Alcoholics Anonymous), adolescents in this study were shown not to be helped by a rigid or forced adherence to religion."

"Religion" forced upon adolescents by their parents or others has little effect, but if teens have made a personal choice to pursue a spiritual life, they are much less likely to drink and use drug.

Without Religion, Teens Will 'Go Shopping'

"Spirituality, whether within or without of religion, is the most central bearing in an adolescent's life," Miller emphasized. "It cannot be ignored by parents, or the adolescent will go 'shopping' for meaning, communion, and transcendence," she said.

The study authors concluded that adolescents at high risk might be protected from substance dependence or abuse if they engage with a Higher Power or become involved in a religious community.

The survey questioned teens about their personal devotion, personal conservatism, and institutional conservatism defined as "representing an active personal relationship with the Divine, representing a personal choice to teach and adhere closely to creed, in some cases initiated through a 'born-again' experience, and as the degree of fundamentalism in a religious denomination."

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  1. Park CL, Masters KS, Salsman JM, et al. Advancing our understanding of religion and spirituality in the context of behavioral medicineJ Behav Med. 2017;40(1):39-51. doi:10.1007/s10865-016-9755-5

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