Church Attendance Linked to Reduced Suicide Risk, Especially Among Catholic Women

Women who attend religious services, especially Catholic women, are much less likely to commit suicide, says a new study. (Mario Tama / AFP/Getty Images)
Women who attend religious services, especially Catholic women, are much less likely to commit suicide, says a new study. (Mario Tama / AFP/Getty Images)

Against a grim backdrop of rising suicide rates among American women, new research has revealed a blinding shaft of light: One group of women — practicing Catholics — appears to have bucked the national trend toward despair and self-harm.

Compared with women who never participated in religious services, women who attended any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide between 1996 and 2010, says a study published Wednesday by JAMA Psychiatry.

It’s not clear how widely the findings can be applied to a diverse population of American women. In a study population made up of nurses and dominated by women who identified themselves as either Catholic or Protestant, the suicide rate observed was about half that for U.S. women as a whole. Of 89,708 participants aged 30 to 55, 36 committed suicide at some point over 15 years.

The women’s church attendance was not the only factor; which church they attended mattered as well.  Protestant women who worshiped weekly at church were far less likely to take their own lives than were women who seldom or never attended services. But these same Protestant women were still seven times more likely to die by their own hand than were their devout Catholic sisters.

Among especially devout Catholic women — those in the pews more than once a week — suicides were a vanishing phenomenon.  Among the 6,999 Catholic women who said they attended mass more than once a week, there was not a single suicide.

The suicide-prevention effect of religion was clearly not a simple matter of group identity: Self-identified Catholics who never attended mass committed suicide nearly as often as did women of any religion who were not active worshipers.

Instead, the authors suggested that attendance at religious services is “a form of meaningful social participation” that buffers women against loneliness and isolation — both factors that are strongly implicated in depression and suicide. “Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that psychiatrists and clinicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate,” wrote a team of researchers led by Tyler J. VanderWeele of Harvard’s  T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The new study comes just two months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented a steep rise in suicides in the United States between 1994 and 2014. Suicide rates climbed among men and women and in all age groups between 10 and 74. Although women remain much less likely than men to commit suicide, the CDC found that gap closing. Among women between 45 and 64 — the ages at which women are most likely to kill themselves — the rate of suicide in 2014 vaulted 80% over 1999’s rates.

The Catholic Church teaches that suicide is a mortal sin. It has long warned that those who killed themselves would go to hell, and denied those who killed themselves a Catholic burial.

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SOURCE: The Los Angeles Times
Melissa Healy

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