Suicide is a leading cause of death worldwide. An especially troubling fact is that the incidence of suicide among veterans of the US military services is significantly higher than that in the general population. Today on Easter Sunday as Christians worldwide celebrate the resurrection of the Christ and hope that this brings to all, we are wondering about the issue of devotion to religion and suicide risk. Are practicing Christians less or more likely to take their own lives and how is it with other religious faiths? And why is it that followers of a given religious faith may be less likely to commit suicide.
Religious Faith Protects Against Suicide
Intuitively one might expect those who practice a religious faith to be less likely to take their own lives. Afterall, suicide is considered a sin. Those who devotedly practice a religious faith would be expected to derive solace from that faith in times of peril and difficulties. We would hope that all who are devoutly religious would feel good about themselves, not be depressed, and be able to view life from a positive point of view. All of these things are protective in the case of suicidal ideation and attempts. Unfortunately, individuals brought up in strict religious homes often carry with them a sense of obligation that they can never satisfy throughout their lives and a sense of guilt that never goes away. In these cases we would expect to see a higher incidence of suicide. Which factors are more important? This issue has been studied.
Data Regarding Religion and Suicide
The Journal of Research in Health Sciences published a report in which the authors collected data from 63 articles involving more than 8 million participants relating to religion, suicide ideation and suicide attempts. The descriptions of methods and statistical analysis are pretty dense reading but the conclusions are pretty clear. Religion does play a protective role in suicide and suicidal ideation and behaviors. However, the degree to which religion modifies suicide risk varies from nation to nation, culture to culture, and religion to religion.
Effect of Religious Beliefs on Suicide
The bottom line results of this assessment of 63 different studies involving more than 8 million people was that people who professed a belief in a religion whether they were devout followers of a faith or once-a-year church goers as a group had less suicidal ideation, fewer suicide attempts, and significantly fewer suicides. Belief in a religion across all faiths and degrees of religious practice reduced the incidence of suicide by two-thirds!
Why Does Religion Protect Against Suicide?
As noted by the authors of the study, virtually all religions advocate against violence including self-violence. Virtually all view suicide as wrong or a sin and teach that to their followers. Something that fits what we know about social isolation and suicide risk is important here. Religious followers are typically part of a social network. This helps keep them centered and provides someone to go to, someone to talk to in times of trouble. That social network commonly includes concerned people who will check up on troubled members and even intervene when they believe someone is in trouble. These factors are all too often missing in socially isolated individuals, including veterans, who are predisposed to suicidal thinking, planning, attempts, and completed suicides.
Religion and Hope
A line from the book and movie, Hunger Games, comes to mind. The only thing stronger than fear is hope, according to the malevolent president of Panem who wants to control people by stamping out any hope. The last thing that often keeps a depressed person in terrible circumstances from ending their life is hope that things might change. When that hope is extinguished, they choose not to go on. Religion provides hope. On Easter Sunday we see that hope celebrated in churches across the globe as Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church has turned this celebration into one of its annual rituals to keep reminding its followers and to help them keep the faith. Meanwhile, this ritual and others like it in all religions across the world keep hope alive when any rational person would see nothing to believe or trust in. This is where we believe that all religions serve as a protection against suicidal ideation, planning, attempts, and completed suicide.