The impact of faith on COVID-related distress

Tuesday 30 January 2024


Research by a St Catharine's Fellow suggests that the psychological distress caused by lockdowns (UK) and experience of infection (US) was reduced among those of faith compared to non-religious people. Professor Sriya Iyer (2000) has published with colleagues:

  • A new study released as a working paper showing that people of religious faith may have experienced lower levels of unhappiness and stress than secular people during the UK’s COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021; and
  • Recent Cambridge-led research looking at the US population during early 2021 suggesting that worsening mental health after experiencing COVID infection – either personally or in those close to you – was also somewhat ameliorated by religious belief.

With other economists from the University of Cambridge, she argues that these studies show how religion may act as a bulwark against increased distress and reduced wellbeing during times of crisis, such as a global public health emergency. 

In the latest study, she worked with Professor Shaun Larcom and Dr Po-Wen She to analyse survey data collected from 3,884 people in the UK during the first two national lockdowns, and compared it to three waves of data prior to the pandemic.

Professor Larcom, who is based at Cambridge’s Department of Land Economy, explained:

“Selection biases make the wellbeing effects of religion difficult to study. People may become religious due to family backgrounds, innate traits, or to cope with new or existing struggles. However, the Covid-19 pandemic was an extraordinary event affecting everyone at around the same time, so we could gauge the impact of a negative shock to wellbeing right across society. This provided a unique opportunity to measure whether religion was important for how some people deal with a crisis.”

They found that while lockdowns were associated with a universal uptick in unhappiness, the average increase in feeling miserable was 29% lower for people who described themselves as belonging to a religion.*

The researchers also analysed the data by “religiosity”: the extent of an individual’s commitment to religious beliefs, and how central it is to their life. Those for whom religion makes “some or a great difference” in their lives experienced around half the increase in unhappiness seen in those for whom religion makes little or no difference.**

Those self-identifying as religious in the UK are more likely to have certain characteristics, such as being older and female. The research team “controlled” for these statistically to try and isolate the effects caused by faith alone, and still found that the probability of religious people having an increase in depression was around 20% lower than non-religious people.

There was little overall difference between Christians, Muslims and Hindus – followers of the three biggest religions in the UK. However, the team did find that wellbeing among some religious groups appeared to suffer more than others when places of worship were closed during the first lockdown.

For the earlier study with colleagues from Australia and India, Professor Iyer used online surveys to investigate COVID-19 infections among respondents or their immediate family and friends, as well as religious beliefs, and mental health. The study was conducted during February and March 2021, and involved 5,178 people right across the United States, with findings published in the journal European Economic Review in November 2023.

Researchers found that almost half those who reported a COVID-19 infection either in themselves or their immediate social network experienced an associated reduction in wellbeing. Where mental health declined, it was around 60% worse on average for the non-religious compared to people of faith with typical levels of “religiosity”.***

Interestingly, the positive effects of religion were not found in areas with strictest lockdowns, suggesting access to places of worship might be even more important in a US context. The study also found significant uptake of online religious services, and a 40% lower association between COVID-19 and mental health for those who used them.****

Professor Iyer commented, “Religious beliefs may be used by some as psychological resources that can shore up self-esteem and add coping skills, combined with practices that provide social support. The pandemic presented an opportunity to glean further evidence of this in both the United Kingdom and the United States, two nations characterised by enormous religious diversity.”

Professor Larcom added, “These studies show a relationship between religion and lower levels of distress during a global crisis. It may be that religious faith builds resilience, and helps people cope with adversity by providing hope, consolation and meaning in tumultuous times.”  


* The increase in the mean measure for unhappiness was 6.1 percent for people who do not identify with a religion during the lockdown, compared to an increase of 4.3 percent for those who do belong to a religion – a difference of 29%.

**For those that religion makes little or no difference, the increase was 6.3 percent.  For those for whom religion makes some or a great difference, the increase was around half that, at 3 percent and 3.5 percent respectively.

*** This was after controlling for various demographic and environmental traits, including age, race, income, and average mental health rates prior to the pandemic.

**** The interpretation is from Column 1 of Table 5: Determinants of mental health, online access to religion. Where the coefficients of COVID {Not accessed online service} is 2.265 and COVID {Accessed online service} is 1.344. Hence the difference is 2.265-1.344 = 0.921 which is 40% of 2.265.