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A recent report from Blue Cross Blue Shield Health of America confirms that major depression is on the rise among Americans. It found a 33 percent jump in diagnoses of major depression from 2013 to 2016.

As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back in June, the rate of death by suicide in the United States has risen by roughly 25 percent in the last couple of decades. Suicide among young people is now a growing public health crisis, as the suicide rate for teenage girls in the United States is at a 40-year high.

Researchers have proposed everything from the role of technology and social isolation to a decline in empathy as possible prevailing reasons for this disturbing trend. But it remains unclear why these rates continue to rise. Even if you know nothing about these statistics, my guess is that we all share the feeling that things are not quite right in the world.

Another sign of the times, associations with traditional religions are on the decline in America. According to a Pew Research study, the share of Americans who identify as atheists has roughly doubled in the past several years. A recent ABC News poll put the percentage of Americans who say they go to religious services at least once a week at 38 percent – among 18- to 30-year-olds, 28 percent.

This slide has happened even though scientific studies have found again and again that those with spiritual practices or who follow religious beliefs tend to be happier than those who do not. Studies find religious people to be less depressed and less anxious than those who do not follow religious practices.

As an example, a 2015 survey by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that, of the social activities identified in the study, participating in a religious organization was the only one associated with sustained happiness.

Now comes even more proof, provided by the folks at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

A study released this month and published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology has now put numbers to the health benefits of being part of a religious group. The study found that, in general, having a religious upbringing is linked to better health and well-being during early adulthood. According to a Harvard news release reporting the study’s findings, participating in spiritual practices during childhood and adolescence may also be a protective factor in one’s health and well-being in early adulthood.

The researchers at Harvard found that people who attended weekly religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation in their youth reported greater life satisfaction and positivity in their 20s. They were also less likely to later have depressive symptoms or to smoke or use illicit drugs than people raised with a less regular spiritual way of life.

The results showed that people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately 18 percent more likely to report higher happiness as young adults (ages 23 to 30) than those who never attended services. They were also 29 percent more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33 percent less likely to use illicit drugs.

The authors of the report do not suggest they know exactly why being active in a religious group works, but they do know that practicing one’s beliefs with other people is a major factor. Scientists have long known that having strong social ties is one of the greatest guarantors of happiness. A sense of community is seen as one of the strongest protective social qualities of religion. Conversely, many surveys have shown it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and often socially withdrawn and brooding.

Postdoctoral fellow Ying Chen, the lead author of the report, said, “Many children are raised religiously, and our study shows that this can powerfully affect their health behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.”

As English evangelist and philanthropist George Muller once said long ago, “The only way to learn strong faith is to endure great trials.” Maybe that best encapsulates where we are today and the challenges we currently face.

Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.

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