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RELIGIOUS FAITH AND THE INCIDENCE OF SUICIDE

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Religion and suicide:

Persons who attend religious services, on average, are generally believed to exhibit much lower rates of suicide. "Those who attend church frequently are four times less likely to commit suicide than those who never attend." 3,7 This affect is seen in various studies which compare church attendance and suicide rates:
bulletOver time: "...fluctuations in church attendance rates in the 1970s paralleled the suicide rates for different subgroups: whites, blacks, men, and women." 4
bulletAmong states in the U.S.: with varying attendance at religious services. 5 
bulletAmong countries worldwide. 6         

"In fact, the rate of church attendance predicts the suicide rate better than any other factor (including unemployment, traditionally regarded as the most powerful variable)." 3

What is not known is the degree to which the increased rate of religious attendance and lower rates of suicide are directly related as cause and effect. Other influences may be present, that are unrelated to church attendance:

bulletPersons who are depressed are among the most likely to commit suicide, and are less likely to attend church, synagogue, mosque, temple, circle, etc.
bulletHomosexuals have one of the highest suicide rates of any group in society, and are often disinclined to attend church because of the degree of rejection and homophobia there.
bulletAttendance at religious services potentially gives individuals access to a support network. Those without a support network are most likely to commit suicide.

Further complicating the matter is the unreliability of church attendance data. These data are derived from public opinion polls. In recent years, about 40% of adult Americans say that they regularly attend religious services. Actual nose counting shows that half are lying; only about 20% actually attend regularly.

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Elder suicide in various countries:

One might expect that suicide rates among the elderly would be lower in Catholic countries than in non-Catholic (including secular) societies because of:

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Very negative religious beliefs taught by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches about suicide.

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A tradition of extended families in these countries.

However, according to an article published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, elderly people in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian countries are more likely to commit suicide than those in either secular or Protestant countries. The researchers found that, for example, elderly suicide rates are higher in Italy, Spain and Portugal than in the United Kingdom or Scandinavian countries. Ireland is an exception. However, the low suicide rate recorded there country may be due to systematic under-reporting of actual suicides, motivated by a desire to spare relatives shame. 

Among the 35 countries studied, researchers found that the:

bullet

five countries with the highest elderly male suicide rates per million were:
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Hungary at 1,785 per million

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Slovenia at 1,225, 

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Austria at 1,168, 

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Bulgaria at 1,125 and 

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The Russian Federation at 1,093. 

bullet

five countries with the lowest elderly male rates were:
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New Zealand at 250, 

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England and Wales at 163, 

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Greece at 143, 

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Ireland at 139, 

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Scotland at 135.

Author Colin Pritchard argues that suicide among the elderly over the age of 75 is a sign of neglect and isolation. The extended family does provide a support system in Latin countries. However, he said, "if you don’t have children or you are unmarried then you are worse off than in Britain." He commented that "Our findings were completely unexpected. Suicide amongst elderly people is usually associated with ill health, social isolation and exclusion. With elderly people in Catholic and Orthodox countries tending to hold more traditional views on the family and religion, we might have assumed that this would be reflected in lower suicide rates, not higher...However, these results show that we need to rethink views on suicide, and continue to improve provision of services for elderly people and rid ourselves of ageist stereotypes. The majority of elderly suicides die because they are inadequately supported and/or have poor medical care"

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References

  1. Colin Pritchard & David Baldwin, "Effects of age and gender on elderly suicide rates in Catholic and Orthodox countries: an inadvertent neglect?" International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Volume 15, Issue 10, 2000-OCT, Pages 904-910. See: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/issuetoc?
  2. Donald MacLeod, "Elderly suicides: The religious divide," Guardian Unlimited, 2001-FEB-5. See: http://www.societyguardian.co.uk/health/story/
  3. P.F. Fagan, "Why religion matters: The impact of religious practice on social stability," at: http://www.heritage.org/library/categories/family/
  4. Steven Stack, "The Effect of Domestic-Religious Individualism on Suicide, 1954-1978," Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 47 (1985), pp. 431-447. (Cited in Ref. 3)
  5. Steven Stack: "The Effects of Religious Commitment on Suicide: A Cross-National Analysis," Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 24 (1983), pp. 362-374. (Cited in Ref. 3)
  6. Williams, Larson, Buckler, Heckman, and Pyle, "Religion and Psychological Distress in a Community Sample," pp. 1257-1262. (Cited in Ref. 3)
  7. William T. Martin, "Religiosity and United States Suicide Rates, 1972-1978," Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 40 (1984), pp. 1166-1169. (Cited in Ref. 3)

Copyright © 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-FEB-6
Latest update: 2001-FEB-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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