Spirituality Is a Powerful Tool in Suicide Prevention
Because hope is something we can’t live without
When John presented to McLean Hospital, he raised almost every red flag in the book for suicide risk. As a Caucasian, middle-aged male with chronic depression, a history of substance dependence, ongoing marital struggles, multiple medical conditions, significant physical pain, and access to firearms, his clinical team was concerned. Worse, John, who requested that his last name not be included for privacy reasons, was not responding well to his current treatment. None of his psychiatric medications or therapists were hitting the mark.
So, we called for a spiritual care consult.
To the surprise of his clinical team, John started to improve after the consult. He was still depressed, but within weeks he became noticeably less edgy and he started to engage in therapy.
Why the change?
In a nutshell, John had become more hopeful for the future. By discussing his situation in spiritual terms, he had tapped into the (literally) age-old process of religious coping, which involves harnessing the divine to deal with emotional distress. In drawing upon spirituality to cope, John started to accept his medical and marital woes and envision that, overall, his life could somehow improve over time.
Weekly religious service attendance was associated with a fivefold lower rate of suicide compared to individuals who never attend.
Data from national studies suggests that John is not alone. One review of the literature determined that 100% of all published studies on spirituality/religion and suicide have found that the former protects against the latter.
A few years ago, one of my colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, published a study in JAMA Psychiatry, which found that weekly religious service attendance was associated with a fivefold lower rate of suicide compared to individuals who never attend.
Why might spirituality protect against suicide?
Greater social engagement is probably one factor, since spiritual activities are…