Study: Religious Practice Drastically Reduces ‘Deaths from Despair’

Faithful pray during a meeting with Pope Francis on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Neocatechumenal Way, one of the Catholic Church's biggest missionary movement, in Rome's Tor Vergata neighborhood, Saturday, May 5, 2018. Pope Francis is urging the missionary movement to respect different cultures and not try …
AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Frequent attendance at religious services dramatically reduces deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drugs, according to study by researchers from Harvard University.

The study, spearheaded by Dr. Ying Chen of the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, found that “attendance at religious services at least once per week” was associated with a 33 percent lower hazard among men and a remarkable 68 percent lower hazard of death from despair among women compared with never attendance.

The researchers embarked on their study because the increase in deaths related to drugs, alcohol, and suicide (referred to as “deaths from despair”) has been identified as a public health crisis and yet the antecedents associated with these deaths have “seldom been investigated empirically.”

As the most extensive study of its kind, the team followed a large cohort of more than 100,000 nurses and health care professionals in the United States over a 17-year period and finally published their results on May 6.

Employing a definition of “deaths from despair” as “deaths from suicide, unintentional poisoning by alcohol or drug overdose, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis,” the team followed 66,492 female participants, among whom 75 incident deaths from despair were identified, and 43,141 male participants, among whom there were 306 incident deaths from despair.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that “religious service attendance is associated with a lower risk of death from despair among health care professionals. These results may be important in understanding trends in deaths from despair in the general population.”

The Harvard study seems to corroborate the results of similar studies linking religious practice with mental health.

In a 2015 article in the Psychiatric Times, for instance, Drs. Rob Whitley and Eric Jarvis insisted that tapping into religious faith is important for assisting patients in their recovery.

“Religiosity has consistently been identified as a factor that can promote healing and facilitate recovery amongst those with various physical and mental illnesses,” the authors observed.

Whitley and Jarvis noted that the research in this area reveals that belonging to a religious community can furnish needed support during material, ethical, and emotional challenges in a person’s life.

The authors also noted that research indicates that religiously inclined patients engage in many activities that are beneficial to their mental health, including prayer, devotional readings, listening to spiritual music, and listening to sermons on TV, the internet, or the radio.

Such practices “can also involve public activities, which are more social in orientation, such as going to a place of worship or attending a sacred-text study group,” the authors noted. “All of these activities can foster a sense of coherence and social support that is health-promoting and may be encouraged.”

Given the vital ties between religious practice and good mental health, it may be considered surprising that during the coronavirus pandemic, many governments categorized church services as non-essential activities that could easily be set aside, whereas tobacconists, newspaper stands, and abortion clinics were allowed to remain open for regular business.


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