“[T]he findings … underscore the importance of obtaining a spiritual history as part of the overall psychiatric evaluation, which may identify patients who at one time were active in a faith community but have stopped for various reasons,” Harold G. Koenig, M.D., of Duke University Medical Center, wrote in a related editorial. “Exploring what those reasons were, particularly among the socially isolated, and perhaps supporting a return to such activity, if the patient desires, may help produce social connections that lower suicide risk.”
While previous studies have suggested an inverse association between religious participation and suicide, these studies have largely been limited to cross-sectional or ecologic data. To prospectively explore the effect of religious service attendance on suicide, Tyler J. VanderWeele, Ph.D., of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and colleagues analyzed data on 89,708 women aged 30 to 55 who had self-reported information on religious service participation in 1996, as a part of the Nurse’s Health Study. Follow-up for suicide began with the measure of religious service attendance in 1996 and continued until suicide, loss to follow-up, or the end of follow-up in June 2010.
A total of 36 suicides were identified in the population. Statistical analysis revealed that compared with women who never attended religious services, women who attended religious services once per week or more in 1996 had an approximately five-fold lower rate of suicide during the evaluated period.
While the authors acknowledged more research is needed to determine whether their findings are “generalizable to the general U.S. population, to men, to other races, to other countries, or to areas with limited religious freedom,” they concluded that the findings suggest “[r]eligion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that psychiatrists and clinicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate.”
“Our results do not imply that health care providers should prescribe attendance at religious services,” the authors wrote. “However, for patients who are already religious, service attendance might be encouraged as a form of meaningful social participation.”