Study: suicide rate higher among Protestants than Catholics


Religion can influence suicide rates, a new study shows. While data have long shown that Protestants are more likely to commit suicide than Catholics, the relationship remains little understood. The study by Professors Sascha Becker (University of Warwick, U.K.) and Ludger Woessmann (University of Munich, Germany) demonstrates a causal link between Protestantism and suicide.

Becker and Woessmann sought to find whether the higher suicide rate among Protestants was due to self-selection. There could be some factors that influence whether a person chooses Protestantism versus Catholicism which also influence the likelihood that they will commit suicide.

Protestants have higher suicide rates than Catholics, “but, whether that is because they act from a religious perspective is a different story,” Becker explained in a Monday interview with The Christian Post. “People might say that they become Protestants, not to commit suicide, of course, but they might elect to become Protestants for all kinds of reasons that happen to correlate with suicide behavior.”

In other words, Becker and Woessman wanted to understand whether the relationship between Protestantism and high rates of suicide was causal or coincidental, and found it was causal.

Becker and Woessman found suicide rates in the Protestant regions to be three times higher than in the Catholic regions. Their study concludes that Protestantism itself increases suicide rates compared to Catholicism.

Their study cannot answer why this is the case, but they offer three hypotheses.

The high rates of suicide among Protestants compared to Catholics was first noticed by Émile Durkheim, one of the fathers of sociology, in his classic text, Suicide (1897). Durkheim believed that the differences had to do with the fact that Protestants are more individualistic, or place greater emphasis upon individual autonomy, whereas Catholics are more communitarian, or place greater emphasis upon church communities.

“The way we came to work on this issue in the first place,” Becker explained, “is we read about Durkheim’s thesis where he made the point that Protestants more often have an individualistic religion than Catholics and Catholics more often rely upon the congregation as a group so that in times of trouble, Protestants are more on their own than Catholics.”

In addition to this hypothesis, Becker and Woessman also suggest that the different suicide rates may be due to different emphases in Catholic and Protestant understandings of grace. Catholics will more often emphasize the rewards that come with good works or the punishment that comes with sin. Protestants, on the other hand, will more often note that God’s grace cannot be earned through good deeds. As a result, it may be that Catholic teachings on suicide are stricter and those teachings become internalized among Catholics.

A third hypothesis has to do with Catholic confession, or the act of regularly confessing sins to a Catholic priest. Protestants do not recognize this sacrament. Since suicide is the only sin that could never be confessed to a priest, a Catholic who finds confession important to avoiding Hell may be less inclined to commit suicide.

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  1. When I saw this story I immediately picked up on the geographic connection. The study compares suicide rates not among individual Protestants and Catholics no matter where they live, but between traditionally Protestant and traditionally Catholic regions. I meant to check out the full study, but I wonder if the some of the difference might be attributed to geographic and cultural factors. Traditionally Protestant regions tend to have less sunlight, which is a common trigger for depression. And traditionally Catholic cultures tend to have more liberal approaches toward alcohol, music, art, food, festivals, etc–things that, in moderation, make life worth living. Not to generalize any more than the study already does, but these factors–in addition to, not in place of, the influence of religious attitudes toward suicide–could help account for the differences.

  2. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    A few thoughts:
    Those who did the study say they used an area where good records were kept of cause of death. But for Catholics suicide was a much greater disgrace for the family, so maybe Catholic suicides were better hidden from the statistics makers.
    On the other hand, Protestantism IS a much more individualistic religion while Catholicism IS more communitarian oriented (at least according to many in the social science fields). And psych experts claim that suicides most frequently occur among people who feel isolated, alone, abandoned, and failures as “rugged individualists.”
    In fact, there are fables and legends in Catholic culture about how St. Patrick wouldn’t go into heaven unless all the Irish were also allowed in. And there are the pious stories about how, if St. Peter dosn’t let Catholics in the front gate, Our Blessed Mother sneaks them in through the back door (especially helped are those who pray the rosary).
    With such heavenly protection it is hard to feel alone or abandoned.

  3. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    Note–Joanne’s argument about Catholic culture is one of the big arguments put forward by the great English writer Hilaire Belloc. He frequently pointed out that Catholic lands were full of the “Joy of Life.”
    Good wine, ,music, art, food, fiestas, festivals, etc.
    He claimed that the boundary line between Catholic cultures and Protestant cultures was the line separating “Joy of Life” countries from dour, drab puritanical lands.
    From my knowledge of history and culture Joanne and Hilaire make sense to me.

  4. suicide is either a psychological issue, or a sin issue, maybe some of both. i don’t think much will be learned from this kind of demographic study.

  5. I have to wonder how much “once saved, always saved” plays into this disparity. If life is miserable and your preacher teaches that there is no way for you to lose salvation, it is hard to argue against getting on with it.

  6. Oh, isn’t this interesting coming right after the article below which talks about why Catholics leave? A number of folks opined that it’s because the Protestant churches were more communally oriented. This one says Protestants are more prone to commit suicide because Protestants are more individualistic!

    Yes, you can make numbers say whatever you want them to say! Nonetheless, there is something to be said about the different attitudes towards suicide, especially these days with the push towards assisted suicide and the whole culture of death thing.

    I find the last statement a little disturbing, “Since suicide is the only sin that could never be confessed to a priest, a Catholic who finds confession important to avoiding Hell may be less inclined to commit suicide.” This is true. But, it also doesn’t address God’s mercy for those who have committed suicide. I wish it would also have said something to the effect that suicidal ideation and failed attempts are to be confessed, for in the confession of these things there are great graces to be had! Even on a secular level, admitting one has a problem is the first step to getting well.

  7. I wonder about the persistence of traditional beliefs and ways of thought, especially among Protestants. How prevalent today are objections to alcohol, for example? how puritanical are Protestants, or people living in formerly-Protestant lands?

    I can definitely see the mental health benefits of belonging to a communitarian (versus individualistic) church—you always have a “home”, you are not on the journey alone. Certainly, confession is beneficial because, among other things, it engages you in discussion (and analysis, explanation, trouble-shooting, etc) with another human being who is experienced and trained in the practice. Catholics who make regular use of the confessional probably are less likely to kill themselves. But I wonder how many Catholics do so? I think Catholics are more likely these days to hear that most suicides are mentally ill rather than sinners, so I question if stricter teaching against it explains the different suicide rates between Catholics and Protestants.

    maybe Catholicism is better able to answer the difficult questions about suffering, evil, etc. because it has an older and—perhaps—richer and deeper theological/spiritual tradition that can be adapted to the understanding of all people, whether simple, average or highly sophisticated.

  8. Very good point Joanne. I had a similar thought. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that suicide rate is higher in Scandinavian countries, and therefore would skew (or not if it’s causal) the Protestant statistics. The statistical analysis here for this would be very complicated, and I wonder if the study performed it correctly. Still it’s very interesting.

  9. I encountered two interesting and troubling suicide stories during the past year. My secretary came to be greatly distressed one day, saying that she just had news from her hometown in Switzerland that her oldest brother had committed suicide at age 72, after fighting depression and dementia. I suggested that she organize a memorial mass for him at her parish, since so many of her friends had known this man when he was traveling here in good health, over the years, as well as to support her by attending. She approached the the Monsignor who in his “intake” discussion with her about this, asked her how he had died. When she told him “suicide”, he told her that this is a mortal sin, added that he “died in sin” and thus, no memorial mass at his parish! This made her inconsolable for a very long time. I might add that this priest is one of the episcopalians who jumped ship and became a Catholic priest several years ago. (As a group, people here in Washington do not find them to be very pastoral).
    I suggested that she speak to a priest at my parish, right next to hers. It turned out that the priest was full of compassion, and told her that his brother committed suicide as a teenager in high school, when he was trying to come to grips with understanding that he is gay, and that he had been terribly bullied at his Catholic high school.
    The lesson I gather from all of this is simply, “Love one another”, and that one never goes wrong erring on the side of compassion.
    I do not put a lot of stock in the conclusions of the survey, and I agree with the first commenter above that perhaps hours of sunlight per day may be the factor. (Do Catholics have more in-tact families, more family support for “black sheep”, do Protestants shun problem relatives more, etc. etc.?) Too many variables.Nonetheless, it is an interesting subject.

  10. Thanks be to God that the priest in your parish was full of compassion.

    We read in #2282 of the Catechism, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. And, in #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.”

    And, in the “Order of Christian Funerals” Prayers and Texts in Particular Circumstances #44, “One who died by suicide” the Church prays: “God, lover of souls, you hold dear what you have made and spare all things, for they are yours. Look gently on your servant [name], and by the blood of the cross forgive his/her sins and failings. Remember the faith of those who mourn and satisfy their longing for the day when all will be made new again in Christ, our risen Lord, who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever.” Also #45 “One who died by suicide”: “Almighty God and Father of all, you strengthen us by the mystery of the cross and with the sacrament of your Son’s resurrection. Have mercy on our brother/sister [name]. Forgive all his/her sins and grant him/her peace. May we who mourn this sudden death be comforted and consoled by your power and protection. We ask this through Christ our Lord.”

  11. Katie Angel says:

    I haven’t read the comments yet so this may already be covered but I would like to share my insights as someone who considered suicide in her twenties and again directly after the loss of her darling husband.

    In my twenties, I was involved in an abusive relationship the robbed me of my self-esteem and my will. My abuser convinced me that I had no worth to anyone except him (despite his claims to be a Christian) and that if I left him, I would have no one. I finally broke free and was so broken I seriously considered how to end my life and end the pain. Then 2 1/2 years ago, I lost my soul mate and best friend and once again considered suicide to free myself of the incredible pain of that loss. In both cases, one of the strongest reasons I did not go through with it was the Catholic Church’s position that suicide is murder – the murder of self – and my strong pro-life stand that only God has the right to end a life.

    Fast forward to last September when I joined a grief support group sponsored by a Protestant church. In one of the videos, the moderators addressed suicide – the concern of the grieving that a person who committed suicide would not be in Heaven – and assured the watchers that if the person was a Christian, they would indeed go to Heaven, despite taking their own life. The film stated that God understood that sometimes life is too much and we give into despair.

    It was after that session that I decided not to go back – there was just too big a gap in belief for me to make them an authorative source of information. So, I think a lot of it is due to our different views about grace and salvation. I can say with certainty that the Church’s teaching is one of the main things that saved my life – particularly the first time.

    God Bless

  12. pagansister says:

    Katie Angel: Glad you are still with us!! Part of the reason you attribute to the Church, and IMO. part of the reason is your inner strength! Stay strong—you have proven you can over come what a lot of us (including me) have never faced.

  13. I’m not convinced by this point. Suicide is often linked to depression and that is tied to lack of sunlight. Now, Ireland is a traditionally Catholic country with a similar lack of sunlight to Scandinavia and a similar link to depression and suicide. If the suicide rate in Scandinavia is significantly greater than the suicide rate in Ireland, that would be interesting. Not sure if this was part of this Anglo/German study.

  14. pagansister says:

    Interesting study—-whether I totally believe it or not is another story.

  15. Theophile says:

    If we consider the history of the protestant reformation in Foxes book of Martyrs** We find that being killed rather than practice superstition was considered suicide by those doing the killing. The rate of “Protestant suicide” to Catholic suicide, has gone down in fact quite a bit. Does anyone even remember?

  16. Bill Kelly says:

    Having lived through suicide attempts by others, in my life time I am aware of two over whelming factors about those that think about or actually commit suicide.
    The first is that Catholic’s are taught that living or dying is determined by God Himself, not the individual. Secondly, that if you commit suicide you may be condemning your soul to Hell. But please note that “studies” of suicides do not include those that have “actually” performed the act. I pray for those who have found life so intolerable that they think suicide is a “fix”.

  17. Thank you for that, Bill. I wish more folks truly believed living and dying were God’s decisions. I once heard a Catholic cleric of the dalmatic persuasion opine that God doesn’t determine when we die. He believes God knows how and when we are going to die but doesn’t believe God is the ultimate determiner. How unbelievable is that? God has the final say. God does not put us to death and doesn’t kill us. After all, He is the one who sent his Son to break the bonds of sin and death. But, ultimately he has the final say. Even when the most outrageous things happen, there is/are often the “miracle” case(s) that survive. Some people who are shot in the head survive, as do some who attempt suicide and some who are aborted. I’m guessing, part of it is to let us know God is in charge. God may say–yes, come with me; or no, it’s not your time yet! To be pro-life is to believe our lives are in God’s hands not our own.

  18. Mark Greta says:

    Suicide growth is simply another part of the bad fruit of a society that has gone astray. When we first devalue life in all its forms from conception to natural death, it changes everything in that society. Life is not our most precious gift from God and can only be dealt with in God’s way and in God’s time. A few of the frogs that bought into this lie about our ability to pick and choose who we can kill and who we cannot are finally starting to see the light from all the signs around them and jumping out of the boiling water just in time. But far too many frogs think this is all fine and that birth control through abortion and suicide have no connection at all and seem content to boil away.

    Suicide is the product of our society and cheap grace never helps solve anything. It is only the Costly grace demanded by Christ to all those who say they want to follow that bears good fruit. It is in our understanding that if we play God with others lives or our own that we face eternal damnation as promised by Christ that we can gather our courage in the depths of the evil ones temptation and say no. Christ said the road to hell is wide and paved and easy to travel all the way to damnation for eternity and that many are on this road. But those few who follow Him and give up all for Christ will be led to the only path to heaven, the narrow gate. If we are hearing that there is an easy path, the song is coming from somewhere other than from Christ. Don’t buy into cheap grace. Many want the Catholic Church to change to the cheap grace song offered by the protestant megachurches filled to the rafters and each of us cry out for our sin to be made normal. I pray the Catholic Church, the one founded by Christ and the one He promised to be with until the end of time never buys into cheap grace for this is the end of Christianity. Never doubt that in the depths of despair, the evil ones is offering an easy way out and that Christ is waiting for us with love if we but take up the Cross prepared for us by God.

  19. Katie Angel says:

    Christ’s narrow gate had more to do with how we treat others than about pro-life issues. He spent the majority of His time on earth preaching against selfishness, greed, judgementalism, sanctimonious behavior and legalism – all of which are much more tempting to the majority of people than issues of abortion, contraception and suicide. Perhaps we as Christians need to take a hard look at the road that we are on and pay attention to what Christ thought was worth preaching about. One of my religion professors pointed out that the sins that we are most vocal about are the ones that we are personally less likely to commit. Perhaps that is why the hue and cry about sexual sins and the relative silence about sins of pride, greed and sloth?

  20. There are two factors I can think of that have not been considered.
    Since Presbyterians and many other protestant groups believe in pre-destination, i.e. those who are chosen have already been selected by God, so those who are severely depressed may consider themselves unredeemable.
    Another is that many evangelicals consider joyousness to be an attribute of a truly saved Christian; I remember seeing an evangelical publication once saying that “… a Christian is always happy and joyous, never sad or depressed”. So a depressed individual may either consider themselves not in God’s grace, or alternately may deny serious emotional issues until they become overwhelming.

  21. Mark Greta says:

    Katie, I think all sin comes into play when we look at surrender to God. You mention pride, greed, and sloth, but there are also lust, envy, gluttony, and wrath. Many of these lead us to the attack on life itself which is our most precious gift from God. Without life, lost in abortion and contraception, none of the 7 deadly sins come into play. If one looks at the reasons for preventing God from creating life or allowing it to continue to live, you will find the sins of all types at work. The courts and government that appoints judges have thrust some issues in society today right under our noses demanding that they be accepted such as abortion and special rights to be given to the grave sin of the homosexual act. Had the courts decided it was now going to be legal for the poor to rob those with more, we would be talking about that much more as well. The same is true of government telling religious organizations what they have to agree to supply. All these attacks come out of the same source of evil.

    If we fail to take God’s word out into society, we are like the man who has his light under the basket as if hiding the truth is somehow some form of tolerance. Many think we are not to discuss sin but this is usually the case if I am pointing to the woman caught in the act and stoning her while I am in sin myself. I doubt Jesus would say those who preach for marriage and against adultery are being judgmental, only passing on the teaching of Christ and His Church.

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