Religion and suicide

About two weeks ago, I was able to participate in a Jewish Federation event on mental health and stigma. The participants included myself, a psychologist, the head of our local NAMI Chapter and a Rabbi. Much of the information I heard during this presentation was things that I had heard before, but the newest perspective actually came from the Rabbi, who discussed what happens with Jews who do die by suicide.

Apparently, in Judaism (like many other religions), a strict interpretation of suicide views the action as a major sin, and those Jews should not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Thankfully, this Rabbi believes (like many others) that those who do die by suicide are clearly ill at the time of their death; thus, they should not be “punished” for that action and should be allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

This entire conversation had me thinking about suicide and religion. Are there differences in suicide rates by religion? What about those with no religion – do they have higher or lower suicide rates? How can religion help or hurt someone’s mental health?

The relationship, as best I can tell, is complicated. According to a 2016 study on the subject:

We found that past suicide attempts were more common among depressed patients with a religious affiliation (OR 2.25, p=.007). Suicide ideation was greater among depressed patients who considered religion more important (Coeff. 1.18, p=.026), and those who attended services more frequently (Coeff. 1.99, p=.001). We conclude that the relationship between religion and suicide risk factors is complex, and can vary among different patient populations.

This study would obviously suggest that religion and suicide are positively correlated. But, as a 2017 article from the American Sociological Association notes, the real relationship is more complicated – and that largely depends on where in the world you are discussing:

A Michigan State University sociologist reports in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior that religious participation affects suicide rates differently around the world, and in Latin America particularly, high religious involvement is associated with low suicide rates.

In contrast, in East Asia, where residents are reportedly more secular, higher levels of religious involvement are connected to higher suicide rates. A one percent increase in religious participation is associated with a one percent increase in suicide rates in East Asia.

Statistics for the United States generally follow with the statistics for Latin America, although the link between religious participation and low suicide rates is not as pronounced in the United States.

An interesting 2017 article from the Huffington Post makes a similar argument but from a reverse perspective: That it is atheists, not religiously affiliated people, who have a “suicide problem.”

When I started this entry, I was curious to see what religions have higher or lower rates of suicide. I now see that it’s not that simple. Religion and suicide are related, and that makes sense, of course. On one hand, religion can give people additional joy, purpose and value. Fear of divine punishment can also serve as a powerful motivator to keep people from killing themselves. However, religion can also alter perspectives and force negative value judgments.

My conclusion: The relationship between religion and suicide is complicated and depends on a variety of factors.

As always, let us know what you have to say in the comments below!

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