Yes, people really are this stupid about mental illness and suicide

Sometimes, I find myself falling victim to the availability heuristic, and if you read this blog on a regular basis, I bet you do too.

For those of you unaware, the availability heuristic is defined as: “A mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled.”

Why am I mentioning this now? Well, if you read this blog, I’m guessing you have an interest in mental health and mental illness. It’s probably a subject you follow closely and in which you are are well educated. I bet you have more evolved views on the causes and symptoms of mental illness and understand it’s complexities. And, I’d bet that the vast majority of people you interact with feel the same way.

Ahhhh, dear reader, allow me to share portions of an Email I just received. Among it’s gems:

  • “People commit suicide because they lack hope. True hope comes from putting your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
  • “A troubled person who believes in evolution and does not know anything about the Bible, may turn to suicide as an escape.”
  • “If you want to reduce suicide, introduce the Bible back into school and stop teaching the fairy tale of evolution.”

First, a disclaimer, and let me make it crystal clear: The purpose of this entry is not to mock anyone’s faith or sincerely held beliefs. Rather, it’s to point out an absolutely ridiculous example of thinking. Faith absolutely assists some in the fight against depression and hopelessness. That’s wonderful. If that’s something which may work for an individual, I highly, highly encourage them to find a method of counseling which fits their views on religion, God and spirituality.

But the notion that prayer, Jesus or teaching creationism will cure depression and suicide for everyone is absurd.

Mental illness is highly complex. It often requires time, resources and multiple, simultaneous methods of treatment and lifestyle changes in order to fully address and treat. There is no one size fits all bullet. But what absolutely will not help is judgmental statements like the above, or the adherence to a one-sized fits all approach.

I’d also challenge anyone who makes a statement about reducing depression, mental illness and suicide to make sure that their comments are backed up by research. As I’ve noted in previous entries, there is a complex relationship between religion and mental illness, but as best I could find, there is ZERO relationship between teaching evolution and mental illness. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

We’ve made great strides in the area of mental illness of late, but we still have a long long way to go. And absolute statements like the ones made above will do nothing but drive people further into the shadows.

There are people this uneducated out there, and I hope this is something we can all remember.

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!