Home » News » Regular Religious Service Attendance Tied to Fewer ‘Deaths of Despair’
Preventable Deaths Among Ex-Prisoners

Regular Religious Service Attendance Tied to Fewer ‘Deaths of Despair’

A new study finds that people who attend religious services at least once a week are significantly less likely to die from “deaths of despair,” including those related to suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning.

The research team led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also showed that the link between service attendance and lower risk of deaths from despair was somewhat stronger for women in the study than for men.

“Despair is something that can confront anyone dealing with severe difficulties or loss,” said Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology at the Chan school. 

“While the term ‘deaths of despair’ was originally coined in the context of working-class Americans struggling with unemployment, it is a phenomenon that is relevant more broadly, such as to the health care professionals in our study who may be struggling with excessive demands and burnout, or to anyone facing loss. As such, we need to look for important community resources that can protect against it.”

VanderWeele is also director of the Human Flourishing Program and co-director of the Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality at Harvard University.

Religion has been considered a social determinant of health, and previous research has shown that attending religious services may be linked to a reduced risk of various factors associated with despair, including heavy drinking, substance misuse and suicidality.

For the study, the research team looked at data from the Nurses’ Health Study II involving 66,492 women as well as data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study on 43,141 men. 

Among the women, there were 75 deaths from despair: 43 suicides, 20 deaths from poisoning, and 12 deaths from liver disease and cirrhosis. Among the men there were 306 deaths from despair: 197 suicides, 6 deaths from poisoning, and 103 deaths from liver diseases and cirrhosis.

After adjusting for a number of variables, the researchers found that women who attended services at least once per week had a 68% lower risk of death from despair compared to those never attending services. Men who attended services at least once per week had 33% lower risk of death from despair.

The study authors noted that religious participation may serve as an important antidote to despair and a positive practice for keeping a sense of hope and meaning. They also say that religion may be linked to strengthened psychosocial resilience by fostering a sense of peace and positive outlook, and promoting social connectedness.

“These results are perhaps especially striking amidst the present COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Ying Chen, research associate and data scientist at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and first author of the paper. 

“They are striking in part because clinicians are facing such extreme work demands and difficult conditions, and in part because many religious services have been suspended. We need to think what might be done to extend help to those at risk for despair.”

Other authors from Harvard Chan School include Drs. Howard Koh and Ichiro Kawachi. Dr. Michael Botticelli of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center was also a co-author.

The findings are published online in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health


Regular Religious Service Attendance Tied to Fewer ‘Deaths of Despair’

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Regular Religious Service Attendance Tied to Fewer ‘Deaths of Despair’. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 May 2020 (Originally: 10 May 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 May 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.