Psychiatrists rarely examine their patients' religion objectively, tending to assume it only indicates problems, a new study says. But it finds the negative assumptions don't hold up when tested.

"Patients with major depression and anxiety disorders contained the lowest percentage of believers in God," the study says."At the very least, we can say that depression is not correlated with greater religiousness."The researchers urge more even-handed studies in this area, citing evidence of the importance of religion to most people, and pointing out that psychiatry generally has not considered the religious factor.

Psychiatrist Jerome Kroll of the University of Minnesota said, "But things are beginning to change, not to a great degree, but slowly."

Kroll and an associate psychiatrist, William Sheehan, recently completed the study which pinpoints the relative disregard of religion by mental health specialists compared to patients and people generally.

"We've been overlooking an important factor," Kroll said in a telephone interview. "A lot of our patients believe in God and are interested in the church, but they aren't even asked about it. It's often a source of strength and help to them."

In the American Journal of Psychiatry, Kroll and Sheehan cite surveys finding that 95 percent of the general public profess belief in God, compared to 55 percent of psychiatrists and 43 percent of psychologists.

The report adds:

"Belief in God and in the teachings of the Bible, the sense of an afterlife, and social and personal involvement within a church community are relevant dimensions of our patients' lives that certainly deserve more consideration."

Kroll said that while psychiatrists generally have ignored religion as a relevant factor in their patients' condition, they often automatically blame it for excessive guilt.

In psychiatry, "it has long been thought and believed that religion brings out unhealthy aspects in people and contributed to depression and other mental illness," he said. "Our indications say this is not so."

He and Sheehan, in their study, examined religious beliefs, practices and involvement of 52 psychiatric patients at the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic.

Their rate of belief in major tenets of faith was found to be high, but "patients with major depression and anxiety disorders contained the lowest percentage of believers in God," the report says.