Changes in Mental Health Follows Christian Conversion in China

Researchers from the department of psychological sciences at the University of Hong Kong conducted a 3-year prospective study of 455 Chinese college students (average age 24 years, 59% women) to examine the effects of Christian conversion on psychological well-being (operationalized as depressed mood, anxiety, and stress level).

During the 3-year follow-up from 2009- 2010 (T1) to 2012-2013 (T2), six waves of the survey were conducted during which 46 reported being a Christian at T2 who had not reported being a Christian on the previous two waves (described as “converts”). In addition, 92 participants were selected as the “non-convert” group based on responses during all six waves of the study indicating they were not Christian. In addition,92 Christian participants were chosen who indicated they were Christian on all six waves (continuous Christians). The three groups were matched on gender, age, education, and household income. Emotional symptoms were compared between the three groups, and sessed by depressed mood, anxiety and stress using the 21-item Depression Anxiety Stress Scale.

Results: When examining predictors of religious conversion, few psychological characteristics (personality, social axioms, personal values, psychological symptoms) distinguished converts from nonconverts; in fact, only one characteristic -- believing that there is only one true religion -- was predictive of Christian conversion. With regard to the consequences of religious conversion, analyzing the data using mixed-design repeated-measure ANOVAs, all three indicators of poor psychological well-being decreased during the three-year follow-up more so among Christian converts than in either non-converts or continuous Christians. For depression the interaction term was marginally significant, whereas the interaction was significant for anxiety and especially for perceived stress level.

Researchers concluded that the findings were consistent with other researchers’ observation that religious conversion “predicted subsequent improvement in intrapsychic functioning such as life satisfaction, self-esteem, and vitality,” and that their own findings “may also account for the often-observed difference between religious people and the nonreligious on well-being measures.”

To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the effects of Christian conversion on mental health over time in a largely atheistic country such as China. It is also interesting that Christian converts experienced improvements in mental health that exceeded those in long-term Christians (although previous benefits may already have stabilized in that group prior to follow-up).

Hui, C. H., Cheung, S. H., Lam, J., Lau, E. Y. Y., Yuliawati, L., & Cheung, S. F. (2017). In search of the psychological antecedents and consequences of Christian conversion: A three-year prospective study. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9(2):220-230