High Religious Commitment Linked to Less Suicide

NEW YORK, USA - Young Mormon men living in Utah who closely adhere to the dictates of their faith are less likely to commit suicide than their peers who are less active in the church, study findings show.

The Mormon Church is known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

For more than 10 years, 15- to 34-year-old males in Utah have had suicide rates markedly higher than those seen nationally. In fact, in the early to mid-1990s, suicide was the number one cause of death among 25- to 44-year-old men in the state and the second-leading cause of death among men aged 15 to 24.

"These results provide evidence that a low level of religious commitment is a potential risk factor for suicide," Dr. Sterling C. Hilton of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and his colleagues write in the March 1st issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

"If the observed association is real, then it gives us another piece of information that helps us understand suicide...which might help efforts to reduce it," Hilton told Reuters Health.

Hilton and his colleagues investigated the relationship between suicide and religiosity in an analysis of 1991-1995 state death records from the Utah State Department of Health, as well as data from the LDS church and the US Census Bureau.

Roughly 27,740 male deaths occurred during the study period, including 551 suicides among 15 to 34 year olds, the investigators report. About 6 in 10 of these suicides were committed by male members of the LDS church.

Suicide rates in each of the four age categories studied--15 to 19 years, 20 to 24 years, 25 to 29 years, and 30 to 34 years--were lower among active members of the LDS church than among less active LDS church members, nonmembers and males in the general US population, the report indicates.

For example, the suicide rate among less active LDS church members aged 25 to 29 was seven times higher than among their active church peers. Nationally, the suicide rate among 20- to 34-year old males was 2.5 to 3 times higher than among active LDS church members of the same age. Suicide risk was also 3 to 6 times higher among nonmembers in comparison to active members of the LDS church.

In addition, the risk of suicide among males aged 15 to 19 was three times higher among the less active church members than among their active peers, but the rate among the active youth was comparable to the national suicide rate.

One potential reason for the association between lower suicide risk and high levels of religiosity may be the fact that some religions forbid substance abuse or other harmful behaviors that may be associated with suicide, the researchers speculate.

In addition, they suggest, the social structure and support provided by many religions may reduce feelings of isolation and help individuals who are suffering bouts of depression, thereby acting as a suicide prevention measure.

Lastly, the high value placed on life by many religions may also be an indirect method of suicide prevention, since individuals who are strongly committed to their faith may have a greater desire to live.

"Since the possible explanations (given)...for the observed association are not unique to the LDS church, I believe that these findings are most likely generalizable to other religions," Hilton said.

SOURCE: American Journal of Epidemiology 2002;155:413-419.