Religion helps protect teens against alcoholism and addiction

A religious childhood can offer teens protection against becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, a new study shows.

Religious practice helps reduce alcohol use and other "risk behaviours" says the paper, in a special "religion and addiction" edition of the academic Religions journal.

Researchers found that religion and spirituality are resources "that can lessen risk behaviors and enhance positive outcomes".

The paper, by Michelle Porche and others, was published at the recovery conference this week, run by Chester University's Higher Power project.

A heroin addict in Kenya.Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The US-based researchers found that devotional practices within a community, regular church attendance and even partial belief in a set of religious doctrines or values helped guard teens against the temptations of drug and alcohol abuse.

"Religiosity may be particularly protective during the transition period from adolescence to emerging adulthood," they write. If teens make a "personal choice" to engage in religious or spiritual activities, they are more likely to take healthy behavior and decision-making into adulthood, the paper says.

Alcohol and drug abuse exact a massive public health cost on society.

The World Health Organisation estimates there are 3.3 million deaths a year from alcohol abuse, nearly 6 per cent of all deaths.

Research has found that children who have their first drink at 14 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence compared with those who have their first drink at 20 or older.

Early alcohol use is linked to greater likelihood of alcohol and drug dependence, the paper says, as well as with academic failure, dropping out of school and unemployment.

Over half of those they surveyed tried alcohol for the first time at age 15 or younger, despite the legal drinking age of 21 in the US. Although girls were as likely as boys to experiment, boys were more likely to start drinking regularly and young men were at greater risk for alcohol use disorders.

An important finding in particular was that that high levels of religiosity were associated with reduced risk of alcohol abuse and dependence in women.

"Our study supports that higher religiosity in childhood and emerging adulthood as defined as more church attendance in these periods of life may be protective against early onset alcohol use and later development of alcohol problems. Religiosity is one of many factors that can influence alcohol use but the fact that it is associated with decreased risk in emerging adulthood is noteworthy for development of potential interventions," the paper says. "Evidence of potential protective factors of religiosity can be used to consider how programming related to risk can be integrated into church youth programs and in pastoral care settings. Mental health care might also consider how to be more inclusive of religiosity and spirituality (in addition to/beyond 12 step) in treatment settings, if clients indicate a desire to integrate these beliefs and practices into their care."