Why Doesn’t anyone Talk About Religion and Suicide?

Kriangkrai Namtongbai

Font Size:

The recent suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain sparked a long-needed conversation about suicide.

Suicide is now among the top 10 causes of death in the United States. Every year, more than 44,000 (!) Americans choose to put an end to their own lives, more than the number of those who die in car accidents. There is no price on human life, but suicide also costs us as a country about 70 billion dollars a year.

According to CDC data, suicide has gone up 1.2 percent this year alone and are still on the rise. In fact, America has reached the point where suicide is a greater domestic threat than homicide.

Much has been said about the need for more accessible mantle health counseling, helplines and other vital services that can and will reduce the suicide rate in America. Untreated depression, bipolar and other disorders can lead to suicide, and they must be treated. There is, however, another vital factor in the conversation about suicide that is not being discussed: religion.

Several studies, analysis and metanalysis, including those published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the British Journal of Psychiatry and more, have found that religion plays a statistically significant protective role against suicide.

Being religious has the potential to play a real role in giving people meaning, community and a reason to live. Staggeringly, the rate at which one attends a house of worship is a better predictor of suicide than any other measure, even more than employment. While scholars speculate what the exact reasons for these findings are, they remain undisputed.

A small correction to Karl Marx statement that religion is “opium for the masses,” would be that religion is more like penicillin for the masses, and everyone else as well.

So, what are the implications of this? “Would you like us to provide religion as a cure for people?” some might ask.

The answer to that is not a yes or a no. There is a consensus that preventive education is key to preventing suicide rates continuing to soar. As a society, we must not keep it a secret that religion is a friend of life. We must not keep it a secret that religion has many life-saving benefits to it.

A good example of this is Alcoholics Anonymous, a nationally recognized program that helps people overcome addiction. In this program, recognized by everyone from the U.S. government to the mental health professionals, participants are part of a 12-step program. Four of those steps require that participants acknowledge that they “came to believe that a power greater than [themselves] could restore [them] to sanity,” and other religious tenants.

Unfortunately, the current social climate we live in discourages people’s connection to organized religion, often sees religion as a hostile and damaging element and diminishes religious involvement even for those who would like to pursue it. This is especially true in the world of academia, culture and mental health. It is time for mental health services to recognize religion as a friend; not a competitor or adversary.

During my undergraduate studies in psychology, the mental health community has just gone from being at open war with religion — as Freud and other early academic hegemonies did — to an unspoken ceasefire. It is time for society to tolerate, or even actively encourage, religion as a friend and partner. No one should have to choose between religion and their social status.

Let us not forget how the science of sociology was born in the fist place. In 1897, Émile Durkheim published his groundbreaking book Le Suicide which established that there are sociological differences between different people who commit suicide. He studied it, and found that religion was a major factor in the study of suicide. He became the father of modern sociology.

Religion needs to stop being a taboo matter that people are embarrassed to turn to in public. Religion needs to be respected, if only for its power to build communities and families and to bring people better and more meaningful lives.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher, and bipartisanship activist. His recent TEDx talk The High Price of Political Polarization focused on the impact polarization has on society. He lives with his wife in New York City.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.