- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Scientists and researchers often point to the positive aspects of religion in creating a sense of community and providing a purpose for life. But research shows it can have a protective effect on children against suicide, even if they are not religious.

Researchers from Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that children whose parents believe in religion are less likely to have suicidal thoughts and fewer of them commit suicide.

Their study, one of the first to look at how religious beliefs influence offspring, was published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.

“Previous research has examined a number of risk factors of child and adolescent suicide, but one that has received little attention is religious/spiritual belief,” the authors said in the introduction of their report. “This is surprising given that religious beliefs and practices have been associated with lower rates of suicide.”

Suicide is among the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2016, 45,000 people died by suicide, and more than half of those didn’t have a known mental health condition.

While adolescent boys have higher suicide rates than girls ages 15 to 19, suicide is the leading cause of death for teenage girls. The rate peaked in 2015 at 5.1 suicides per 100,000 girls — doubling since 2007, when the rate was 2.4. For boys, there were 14.2 suicides per 100,000.

The suicides of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this year shocked the nation because they seemingly had successful careers and an adoring public.

Their deaths raised awareness of the private battle of depression and mental health but also stoked fears of “suicide contagion” — that attention to these types of death can push people with suicidal ideas over the edge.

The researchers looked at more than 30 years of data on families over three generations — grandparents, parents and children — and their history of depression.

The study focused on 214 offspring ages 6 to 18 whose parents were majority Christian — 59 percent Catholic and 26 percent Protestant.

Research participants answered survey questions about how often they attended religious services and the importance of religion or spirituality.
Parents who put higher importance on religion or spirituality were associated with a 40 percent decrease in the risk of suicidal behavior in their children.

Compared with parents who indicated religion wasn’t important, parents who said it was “highly important” — the strongest indicator of belief — were associated with an 80 percent decrease in risk of suicidal behavior among their children.

However, frequency of religious attendance wasn’t associated with influencing the risk of suicidal behavior, the researchers wrote.

“Our findings suggest a parent’s religiosity may be associated with lower suicide ideation and attempts in offspring independent of the offspring’s religiosity and other risk factors,” the researchers concluded. “Our data suggest there may be alternative and additional ways to help children and adolescents at highest risk for suicidal behavior.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside and author of “The How of Happiness,” said the study’s premise is interesting. She wasn’t involved in the research.

“If certain religions prohibit suicide, then it makes sense,” Ms. Lyubomirsky said. “If parents have strong religious beliefs, they would impart those beliefs on their children.”

She said the study appeared to be well-conducted but noted that its sample size was relatively small and some of its associations were not entirely robust.

Ms. Lyubomirsky took issue with findings that religious importance and religious attendance by a parent was associated with a lower risk for suicidal behavior in girls but not in boys.

“I think we need to be cautious in interpreting the gender differences because most of the interactions were not significant,” she said.

The marriage of religion and psychiatry is traditionally ignored, said G. Eric Jarvis, associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal and director of cultural consultation service at Jewish General Hospital.

Dr. Jarvis, who wasn’t involved in the study, works frequently with immigrants and refugees on how mental health factors are affected amid the culture clash of living in a secular, Western nation.

“I’m very pleased to see a study like this come out in JAMA. … Overall, it’s still a neglected field in psychiatry and mental health — the role of religion and religious factors in solidifying mental health in all generations,” he said.

The study highlights an important fact in how parents and the family environment convey their beliefs and values on their offspring, Dr. Jarvis said, but it’s unclear how parents pass on their beliefs and values to children.

“I think this study would benefit greatly from a more in-depth analysis of a subpopulation, maybe open-ended interviews with some of these participants to have a better understanding of what they believe about their parents and about their religious background,” he said. “That might be a very helpful way to give direction for future research and hypothesis testing.”

Rob Whitley, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University, said the practice of psychotherapy and psychiatry has been moving away from social dynamics and focusing on biology.

“A discussion like this has been missing in the field,” he said of the study.


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