In the past couple of posts I’ve taken a look at new studies that are exploring the complex relationship between religion and suicide. In general, religious people have lower suicide rates, and these are helping to shed light on why, and also why the relationship is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.
That’s the case too, for this third and final recent study on this topic. It examined suicidal feelings among US college students – a critically important issue given that suicide is the second most common cause of death in this population. Around 1 in 12 US college students has, at some point, made a suicide plan, and there are around 24,000 suicide attempts by students annually.
Lindsay Taliaferro, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, surveyed over 400 of her fellow students. The response rate was high – around 90%. The good news is that, for the most part, they were not suicidal! On average, they scored 11 on a 70-point scale of suicidal thinking.
She found that, as expected, those who reported high levels of religious well being (e.g. that they find strength or support from God) or involvement in religious activities had fewer suicidal thoughts.
She also asked how hopeless or depressed the students felt, and how much social support they felt they got. When she took this into account, the effects of religion disappeared.
What this suggests is that religious well-being and involvement have whatever effects they have by reducing hopelessness and depression, and by increasing social support. No big surprises there.
But what is surprising is that she found a third factor that was even more important that religion and social support. That factor was “Existential Well-Being”, which relates to things such as feeling fulfilled and satisfied with life, and finding meaning and purpose in life.
What was remarkable was that Existential Well-Being remained important even after taking into account hopelessness, depression and social support. In other words, even if you feel hopeless, depressed, and alone, existential well-being (unlike religious well-being) can ease suicidal thoughts.
Now, you have to take the results of any one study with a pinch of salt. But this does seem to fit in with other studies which have shown that spirituality does not reduce suicidal thoughts,and that feeling close to God is linked to a history of depression, whereas existential well being is linked to dramatically less depression.
But so what? None of these studies undermine the link between religion and decreased risk for suicide. What they do is begin to unpick how that effect operates.
More importantly for atheists, I think, is that they show how suicidal thoughts can be reduced without needing to believe in God. After all, for most atheists, simply telling them to believe in God and everything will be OK is not an option.
That’s exactly the point that Taliaferro makes, and so I’ll leave the concluding remarks to her:
Results from the present investigation indicate that many college students did not demonstrate high involvement in organized religion. Yet they reported high levels of spiritual well-being, especially existential well-being, and low levels of suicidal ideation. Furthermore, results highlighted existential well-being as an important factor associated with lower levels of suicidal ideation among college students.
Overall, these findings suggest that a strategy for reducing distress and preventing suicide among college students may involve exploring mechanisms that nurture a sense of meaning in life in individuals for whom organized religion remains unimportant. Health professionals may have more success in improving young people’s sense of meaning and purpose by methods other than an increase in faith, participation in organized religion, or other indicators of religiosity.
Taliaferro LA, Rienzo BA, Pigg RM Jr, Miller MD, & Dodd VJ (2009). Spiritual well-being and suicidal ideation among college students. Journal of American college health : J of ACH, 58 (1), 83-90 PMID: 19592357