Suicide and Religion

Suicide is not a popular topic that most people are anxious to read about. However, it is a serious problem, is commonly associated with depression, and often occurs when depression treatments fail. Since the last two columns dealt with depression and its treatment, this column focuses on this most feared consequence of depression (although often not feared by the person overwhelmed with hopelessness). The atheist Nietzsche, known for his famous quote “God is dead,” wrote that “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets successfully through many a bad night.” The pain of depression and a meaningless life is sometimes so great that the only hope of ever escaping the horrible feelings lies in the possibility of ending life itself, and for those like Nietzsche, the thought of ceasing to exist is more bearable than continuing on in this emotional state. How is religious involvement related to suicide or feelings about suicide?

Before answering that question, however, I’d like to provide the reader with a little background on suicide. Every year in the United States about 35,000 people die from suicide. This is probably an underestimate since people kill themselves in many ways not reported as suicide, such as car accidents or simply failing to take life-saving medication. Even though underreported, suicide is still the 4th leading cause of death for those aged 18 to 65 in the U.S. The yearly suicide rate in this country is 11 per 100,000, which is the same as it was in 1902 despite the emergence of modern treatments. Each day nearly 2,300 persons attempt suicide and 90 of those individuals are successful. The rate of suicide is highest in adults over age 75, probably due to difficulty coping with the loss of loved ones, health, and independence associated with advancing age.

Depression is the most common cause of suicide, but there are other factors that also play a role: anger, need for control, and impulsiveness; social isolation; alcohol and drug abuse; and certain medications, including antidepressants in adolescents or young adults and narcotic pain killers in middle-aged and older adults. Chronic medical illness increases the risk of suicide, especially in diseases associated with moderate or severe pain, urinary incontinence, seizure disorder, or severe physical disability. Genetic factors may also play a role, as the latest research is beginning to discover.

Cultural risk factors for suicide include the stigma associated with seeking help, barriers to getting adequate mental health care, media exposure to suicide, and believing that suicide over personal problems is acceptable. In Asian families and other groups, factors influencing suicide include attitudes towards a woman’s role in marriage, dominance of extended family systems, and family loyalty overriding individual concerns. Although all major religions condemn suicide for emotional or personal reasons, they are not all equal in this regard. Religions with strong prohibitions against suicide are Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (especially Catholics and conservative Protestants). While the Eastern religions Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Hinduism generally oppose suicide, they are more accepting of it than Western religions. In Buddhism, for example, while suicide is discouraged for those who are unenlightened, once enlightenment has been achieved, it may be permissible under certain circumstances. Likewise, although Hinduism condemns suicide in general as an escape from life and cause for bad karma, self-willed death may be allowed through fasting in terminal disease or severe disability (called “prayopavesa”).

Religious beliefs and practices may influence suicide risk not only because they forbid it, but also because of their relationship to psychological, social, behavioral, and physical factors that lead to suicide. Since religious involvement is associated with better school performance, greater conscientiousness, improved coping with stressful life events, less depression, faster recovery from depression, and is a source of hope and meaning, it could reduce suicide through these pathways. Furthermore, loneliness and lack of support are strong predictors of suicide particularly among women, and involvement in a faith community may help to increase social support and neutralize social isolation. Likewise, since alcohol and drug abuse are frequently involved in suicide attempts and completed suicide and religious involvement is related to less alcohol and drug use, this is another way that suicide may be prevented. Finally, one of the strongest risk factors for suicide is poor health and physical disability. If religious persons drink less alcohol, use fewer drugs, smoke fewer cigarettes, and engage in healthier behaviors, then physical health may also better and diseases that increase suicide risk fewer. (Go to Page 2)

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Harold G. Koenig, MD


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 of the world's top experts on religion and health.

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  • Annamarie53

    As a Catholic woman, when my husband decided he wanted a divorce so that he could be “happy” after 32 years of marriage, I became so depressed that I wanted to die.  However, I knew my faith would not allow any such thing and this in some small way helped me decide to go on.  For another thing, my first husband had killed himself and nearly destroyed his parents’ lives and the lives of several others.  And when my sons were in high school (parochial, no less!) one of their best friends committed suicide and devastated an entire class of friends, and ripped his parents’ marriage apart.  Many of those same kids are no longer practicing their faith as a result of this poor boy’s despair.

    My overall point boils down to this:  suicide is the most selfish thing a human being can do.  It is a permanent “solution” to a temporary problem and leaves destruction and misery in its wake for all the survivors who try to figure out why, and their own role in that person’s action.  In all of the cases I mentioned, the one committing suicide believed they were getting back at someone in their lives in the cruelest manner they could conceive.  While the deceased may (or may not) be beyond this world’s woes, the real victims, the survivors, will, in most cases, never fully recover from this horrible slap in the face.  And don’t forget, it is contagious!  I was assured that in the case of the young man in high school, the only reason we didn’t lose any more precious children that summer was the enlistment of the help of several priests and suicide counselors from our local Crisis Center.

    Everyone should learn the warning signs of lethal depression and not be afraid to take immediate action to intervene with anyone showing such signs.  Never let a fear of embarrassment stop you because the consequences of NOT acting are so much worse!

  • maria

    One of my friends, a father of three children committed a suicide because of a loss of his job three hours before a different company called him with an attractive job offer. He was a wonderful dad and a great specialist in his field of expertise. Everyone who knew him was shaken and changed forever. We all wished we knew how terribly he felt.

  • Annamarie53

     I know y’all must feel awful in the extreme, and my heart breaks for you.  I sincerely hate being presented with things that back up a sad and maddening position that I have taken after years of living through horrible and sad events myself.
    I only wish this distraught gentlemen had had just enough faith to have gotten him through three little hours more.  I know his family is now being torn to pieces between anger at him and grief at his death.  I know only because I have lived through this one, too.
    May God send His angels to spread healing wings around you all.  Peace be with you at this awful time.

  • gtreichel

    From:              Catechism of the Catholic Church


    2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who
    has given it to him. 
    It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. 
    We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the
    salvation of our souls. 
    We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. 
    It is not ours to dispose of.

    2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the
    human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. 
    It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. 
    It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of
    solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue
    to have obligations. 
    Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

    2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting
    an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal.
    Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law. 
    Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship,
    suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing

    2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of
    persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the
    opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who
    have taken their own lives.


    I am there. I may not be here much longer. There is nowhere for help and everytime there appears to be hope god pulls it out from me. My faith was strong but I feel that it would be better not to be here. The longer I am here the more pain I suffer and the more I drive the world away. I can’t take it and know I deserve but I don’t know why. My family, freinds will all be better off. It’s funny when you go through these tough times people actually run away. At christmas with all the drinks “I love you, be there for you any time, got your back” are all lies or “cheer”. I am calm about it, not angry anymore just there. If they do care which I doubt now, you will see I was asking for help. I forgive everyone and I hope I am forgiven for my sins.

  • jbronze

    God Loves you And So Do I! 🙂

  • Mike

    Man I feel you. I’m tired of it to. Been tired of it actually for a long time. I’m kinda where you’re at now. Been depressed forever, that turned to anger, and now I’m just kind of numb. The antidepressants don’t really help. They do some, but am on a high mg so they make me tired, so I’m still just laying in bed all day. I’m tired of pain and other crap I have had going on for some time. My whole family has money, but nobody will help me to save my life…literally. I love my little brother and sister, but they can tell I’m not happy. I can barely even play with them any more. To the first person. I don’t think it’s the most selfish. It is somewhat, but not if you’ve never really been happy, have always had social anxiety, weird in public, mom that didn’t want you on meds, people making fun of you for things you can’t help, etc. I look at it as I’m bout to set myself free now. Hopefully I don’t have to, but am looking forward to it, honestly, if things don’t change. My faith is strong though still.