Although the above logic seems rational, what does objective, systematic research find with regard to the relationship between religion and suicide? Among studies that have compared different denominations, more studies find that Catholics are at lower risk for suicide than studies that find Protestants at lower risk, although may of those studies were done prior to the year 1990. Jews have a suicide risk neither greater nor less than Christians or other groups. Studies on Muslims have found a lower suicide risk compared to other groups, although reporting bias may have been an issue. Overall, then, Catholics have a slight advantage over other denominations within Christianity, although denomination tells us very little about a person’s risk for suicide.
What about the relationship between suicide and religiousness or religiosity? Does the intensity or degree of religious belief/practice make a difference? In our systematic review of the research published in the Handbook of Religion and Health, Second Edition (Jan/Feb 2012 forthcoming), we identified 141 studies that measured religiousness and correlated it with suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and completed suicide. Three-quarters (106 of 141) found less suicidal thoughts and behaviors among those who were more religious. Furthermore, there is every reason to think that religious interventions in religious patients at risk for suicide may help to lower the risk; however, since no clinical trials have examined this possibility, these interventions should be administered with caution (and should not replace traditional psychiatric care). Furthermore, while religious beliefs and practice may help to prevent suicide in laypersons, it may be a different story in clergy. When clergy become severely depressed or hopeless, suicide risk may be quite high and the need for professional treatment urgent.
Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one ofthe world’s top experts on religion and health.
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