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Selflessness Can Threaten Clergy Members' Health

TUESDAY, July 10 (HealthDay News) -- The tendency of clergy to put others' needs ahead of their own may take a toll on their health, according to a new study.

Researchers from Duke University said chronic diseases and depression are more prevalent among clergy than lay people. Encouraging them to seek medical care is difficult because they focus on helping others first, the study authors said.

"Clergy recognize the importance of caring for themselves, but doing so takes a back seat to fulfilling their vocational responsibilities, which are tantamount to caring for an entire community," said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School and assistant research professor at the Duke Global Health Institute.

The researchers examined focus-group data from 88 United Methodist clergy in North Carolina and found that clergy members have increased rates of obesity (40 percent compared to the average of 29 percent), as well as higher rates of diabetes, asthma, arthritis and hypertension.

The study also found that clergy members show signs of depression at nearly double the national average (10.5 percent versus 5.5 percent).

Despite greater prevalence of chronic diseases, clergy members also are more likely to say their health doesn't affect their ability to do their work, the study's authors said.

"Clergy perceive themselves to be much healthier than they actually are," Proeschold-Bell said in a university news release. "They don't always recognize that they need help. That makes it all the more important that we design health interventions that pastors are likely to accept."

Duke researchers said they are designing health programs that address the tendency of clergy to set their own health needs aside.

"Many pastors equate self-care with selfishness," said Proeschold-Bell. "They feel they need permission to take the time to attend to their health. A health intervention aimed at clergy must address this tendency head-on."

To be successful, health intervention programs for the clergy must find solutions to many barriers to care, including cost, unpredictable work schedules and fear of the stigma associated with mental-health issues. The researchers said a program designed for pastors also must show a link between physical and mental health and spiritual health.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, doesn't prove that ministering to others causes chronic disease. It merely noted an association between clergy members and poor health.

More information

Duke Divinity School provides more information on creating health interventions for clergy.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: Duke University, news release, June 28, 2012

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