Religious participation protects against the risk of suicide in many parts of the world, including the United States and Russia, but it is linked to higher rates of suicide in Southern and Western Europe and East Asia, according to a new study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Suicide is in the top 20 causes of death worldwide. The study, which analyzed data on suicide and religious participation from 1981 to 2007 in 42 countries in seven regions, is one of the first to examine that relationship outside Western industrialized countries.
The researchers measured religious participation based on the percentage of people attending religious services at least once a month. Their findings show that religion protects against suicide in many countries in English-speaking regions — Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States — as well as in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Northern Europe.
However, the study found that religious participation is related to higher suicide rates in:
- Southern Europe, which includes Croatia, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain;
- Western Europe, which includes Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and Netherlands;
- East Asia, which includes China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.
“Secularization and the individual pursuit of spirituality are two important factors that weaken the strength of local religious communities, and this reduces the protective nature of religious participation against suicide,” said researcher Dr. Ning Hsieh, a sociologist at Michigan State University.
In Catholic-dominant Western and Southern Europe, for example, residents seem to be placing less importance on God and religion and less confidence in religious institutions. While in East Asia, traditional faiths such as Buddhism and Confucianism focus on individual spirituality rather than collective spirituality, which typically involves stronger social support and moral guidance.
Hsieh said the United States and other Western countries outside Europe, including Australia and Canada, have also experienced secularization, but much more slowly than Western and Southern Europe. The U.S. in particular remains more religious than most Western societies, she said, in part due to immigration and more decentralized political and educational systems that are inclusive of religious views.
Although suicide is a global health concern, Hsieh noted, suicide prevention should consider regional and local norms, values, and religious institutional circumstances.
“Without a careful consideration of context, a policy that is effective in one country or region may aggravate suicide risk in another,” she said.
The regions in the study were classified by geography except for English-speaking countries, which were grouped based on shared cultural values. Those countries are Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Source: Michigan State University