People with HIV who freely exercise their deeply held spiritual beliefs by attending religious services regularly have a higher quality of life compared with other HIV-positive individuals, especially compared with those who are religious but do not attend services.

Publishing their findings in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, a research team recruited 223 people with HIV and their families to a clinical trial based on family-centered advance-care planning.

Fifty-six percent of the HIV-positive participants were men, and 86% were Black. The average age was 51 years old. Seventy-five percent were Christian.

The study authors divided the participants into three classes of religious beliefs. The first class, which included 35% of the participants, consisted of those most likely to attend weekly religious services, pray daily, “feel God’s presence” and identify as religious and spiritual. The second class, which included 47% of the participants, consisted of people who were religious but preferred to practice their faith privately at home and did not attend regular services. And the third class, which included 18% of the participants, consisted of those who identified as spiritual but were not involved with organized religion.

Compared with the other two classes, the first class of religion was associated with a higher quality of life, better mental health and a greater health status.

"These findings are significant because they point to the untapped potential of encouraging patients living with HIV who are already religious to attend religious services regularly,” Maureen E. Lyon, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, and the study’s senior author, said in a press release. “Scientific evidence suggests that religions that present God as all-powerful, personal, responsive, loving, just and forgiving make a difference in health-related quality of life. By contrast, belief systems and religions that see God as punishing, angry, vengeful and distant and isolate members from their families and the larger community do not have health benefits or contribute to health-related quality of life.”

The investigators encouraged health care providers to appoint a team member tasked with assessing people with HIV for their religiousness and spirituality and to provide referrals to religious groups that would be welcoming. There is a particular need for such assistance among Black men who have sex with men living with HIV due to the high level of stigma they may face from religious groups in their communities—stigma that may force them to practice their faith only in private.

"In general, patients living with HIV have reported that they wished their health care providers acknowledged their religious beliefs and spiritual struggles,” said Lyon. “Additional research is needed to gauge whether developing faith-based interventions or routine referrals to faith-based programs that welcome racial and sexual minorities improve satisfaction with treatment and health outcomes.”


To read a press release about the study, click here.