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Reducing Suicide: A National Imperative
Religion and Religiosity
In general, participation in religious activities is a protective factor for suicide. In the United States, areas with higher percentages of individuals without religious affiliation report correspondingly higher suicide rates (Pescosolido and Georgianna, 1989). Annual variation in the suicide rate tends to correlate with annual variation in church attendance (Martin, 1984). Furthermore, older adults (50 or more years of age) who are involved with organized religion are less likely to complete suicide (Nisbet et al., 2000). Similarly, areas in the former Soviet Union with a strong tradition of religion had lower suicide rates from 1965 to 1984 (e.g., the Caucasus and Central Asia; Varnik and Wasserman, 1992).
The protection afforded by religion may have several components. Involvement with religion may provide a social support system through active social networks (see Stack, 1992; Stack and Wasserman, 1992). Suicide may be reduced with religious affiliation because of the proscription against the act (e.g., Ellis and Smith, 1991). Belief structures and spiritualism may also be protective at an individual level as a coping resource (e.g., Conway, 1985-1986; Koenig et al., 1992) and via creating a sense of purpose and hope (see Chapter 3 on these protective factors) (e.g., Herth, 1989; Werner, 1992; 1996).
Historically, studies of Western Europe indicated that those countries or regions within countries that were Catholic as opposed to those that were Protestant had lower suicide rates; this has been proposed to be related to increased social contact and affiliation in practiced Catholicism (Durkheim, 1897/1951; Masaryk, 1970). In the United States, this classic hypothesis also has received empirical support (Breault, 1986; Lester, 2000b). However, unlike much of Europe, the United States has experienced intensive and widespread denominationalism among Protestant groups. While religion continues to be correlated differentially with suicide, it appears that areas with both a greater presence of Catholics and evangelical or conservative types of Protestantism (e.g., Southern Baptist) report lower suicide rates compared to those with higher representation of mainline or institutional Protestantism (e.g., Episcopalian, Unitarian). The presence of Jewish adherents results in a small but inconsistent effect on reducing suicide rates (Pescosolido and Georgianna, 1989). However, the proportion of Islamic adherents does not appear to be related to suicide rates (Lester, 2000a).
This research points to the social ties formed (by volition and obligation) across these different religious groups rather than differences in