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Jane Fruehwirth is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics with a curiosity about the choices individuals, especially children and adolescents, make, the role of their social context, such as classmates or schoolmates, and the effects on inequality. This has led her to study the economics of education, such as how the characteristics of classmates serve to reinforce achievement gaps and the effects of school desegregation. Now she’s researching a more contentious choice – the choice of adolescents to attend religious institutions and to believe in a higher power. Her research question is a simple one: “Do adolescents that exhibit more religious behavior than their peers have fewer symptoms of depression?” You may find her conclusions surprising!

Professor Fruehwirth joined the faculty here in Chapel Hill in 2015. She graduated from the College of William and Mary, has a doctorate in Economics from Duke University, and has served on the faculties of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and of Cambridge University in the UK. She teaches labor economics at the graduate level, and economics of education at the undergraduate level. She appreciates the large number of kindred spirits on our faculty in applied microeconomics—this group (including specialties in labor, education, health, industrial organization and econometrics) is both collaborative and constructively critical in equal measure. She is also excited to be affiliated with the Carolina Population Center and to be a part of the Education Inequality seminar group on campus, where she is meeting researchers in other disciplines, with similar interests in inequality, education, religion, and mental health.

Her research technique is relentlessly empirical. She begins from a simple theory of how people should behave, and then uses evidence from surveys to test how closely observed behavior tracks that prediction.

Why have you chosen to study the question of depression among adolescents?

On the personal side, my husband was studying counseling in England when I began working on this topic, so his studies certainly piqued my interests! But, as I began to read the literature, I also found that depression is a topic that is vastly understudied by economists. This became more surprising when I found that there were some great measures of depression out there that had been validated in clinical trials, based on individual self-reports to questions indicative of depression. I was hooked!

But, you may still ask, why you should care? Depression is a critical issue among adolescents worldwide. The World Health Organization highlights adolescence as a key period that needs to be addressed to combat depression, given the evidence of high probabilities of repeat incidences in adulthood. In the US, 11 percent of adolescents suffer a major depressive episode over a 12-month period. Mental health care has also become increasingly costly over the past decade, rising to the third largest source of medical spending.

What link do you believe ties the choice of a more religious lifestyle to depression?

First, it is easy to under-estimate the continued importance religion plays in the daily lives of young people in our increasingly secular world. Sixty-five percent of Americans of all ages say religion plays an important part in their daily lives. Among adolescents, 31 percent of twelfth graders attend church on a weekly basis.

A contentious literature dating back to Freud in the early 1900s debates the role of religion in mental health and has been highly influential in the treatment of mental health problems. Considerable scientific evidence suggests that religiosity is positively correlated with mental health. It is unclear whether this correlation reflects a positive effect of religiosity or whether the correlation simply reflects underlying unobservables, such as a stable home environment, which may be correlated with both religiosity (positively) and depression (negatively). And, there are many hypotheses out there for why religiosity might matter, ranging from improved psychological resources, reduced exposure to stressors (like divorce), and social support provided by religious institutions and networks.

Our research—I work on this with my co-authors Sriya Iyer and Anwen Zhang—uses variation in the social context within schools to determine whether the link between religiosity and depression is causal, using a nationally representative sample of adolescents in the US. Interestingly, the data we use, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, were collected by (and follow up surveys continue to be conducted by) researchers at UNC!! The research stemming from these data is vast and has had a huge effect on our understanding of adolescent behavior.

What do you find in your empirical analysis?

We measure religiosity through adolescent reports of church and youth activity attendance, the importance of religion in their lives and frequency of prayer. We find that religiosity has sizeable effects on depression in adolescence. For example, a one standard deviation increase in religiosity decreases the probability that an adolescent is depressed by 11 percent. By comparison, increasing mother’s education from no high school degree to a high school degree or more only decreases the probability of being depressed by about 5 percent. We further find that more depressed individuals benefit significantly more from religiosity than the least depressed. This offers a startling contrast to evidence on the effectiveness of cognitive based therapy, one of the most recommended forms of treatment, which is generally less effective for the most depressed individuals.

Is there any other evidence that religious participation has positive social or mental-health effects?

We find that the benefits of religiosity do not derive from a more religious social context in the school. Religiosity helps to buffer against stressors, such as worse physical health or the suicide of someone close. Furthermore, individuals who have fewer support structures in place at home and in school experience more benefits from religiosity. We also find evidence that part of the effect of religiosity derives through improved self-esteem and coping skills.

Couldn’t this just be the positive aspect of repeated social interaction with peers? Could joining the chess club at school have the same effect?

We do not find any substitution effect of school club or athletic participation for religiosity. This suggests that the social support or sense of meaning provided by club and athletic participation does not substitute for religiosity in its effects on self-esteem or symptoms of depression.

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