Want to prevent suicide? Try some of that good, old-time religion

By Janis Siegel, Jewish Sound Correspondent

As Jews worldwide welcome the New Year with prayers to be entered in the “eternal” Book of Life, Israeli scientists at Tel Aviv University found that religious observance in the lives of teens may play a significant role in preventing suicide in those who are depressed.

In a first-of-its-kind 2014 research study by the Sackler School of Medicine and the Clalit Health Service’s Geha Mental Health Center, the team is now the only group to date, according to Drs. Ben Amit and Gal Shoval, to study suicide in Jewish adolescents ages 14 to 17.

Published in late June in the journal “European Psychiatry,” TAU doctors found that adolescent religious involvement lowered suicidal behavior, including suicide attempts, by 45 percent, as compared to their non-religious peers.

The researchers associated the significantly higher numbers with the Jewish prohibition against suicide and its emphasis on community involvement.

“We have no data regarding past diagnoses, family history or psychiatric treatment, nor substance use,” Amit told The Jewish Sound when asked if the study screened for these common risk factors for adolescent suicide. “It is an important limitation which we discussed. However, we did assess current depression.”

September was Mental Health and Suicide Prevention month in the U.S. Professionals want to increase education by making the concern over mental health as important as physical health. They also want to caution that mental health and mental illnesses are conditions that may not be generally understood by the public.

In the U.S., suicide takes nearly 30,000 lives a year. That is just over 1 percent of deaths, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

However, NAMI reported, over 90 percent of all suicides in the United States had been diagnosed with mental illness. Many, it said, reported drug use, previous mental health therapy, mental illness or depression, or a family history of mental illness or suicide.

But religious practices, according the the TAU study, are shown to be a deterrent in suicide worldwide. This might be a factor in Israel’s history of suicide.

“Israel’s suicide rate…is consistently among the lowest in the developed world,” wrote Amit in the study.

“For many of these teens, suicide is simply about losing hope,” Shoval told TAU staff. “We know from working with suicide survivors that even when they were 99 percent sure they were going to kill themselves, they still sought help.”

In this research, the team recruited 620 Jewish subjects distilled from the original subject group of 957 multi-religious 14- to 17-year-old adolescents interviewed in the 2010 Israeli Survey of Mental Health Among Adolescents study from the Israeli Health Ministry.

The 620 teens were interviewed separately, but at the same time as their mothers were interviewed, in the subjects’ homes. All reported their religious status as Jewish.

Due to low ultra-Orthodox participation in the original study, this group was included in the religious category. One other group, the non-religious category, was identified for the study. In the two groups, 373 identified as religious and 247 identified as non-religious.

The subjects were evaluated for “self-injurious thoughts and behaviors” and depression using standardized survey research tools.

In addition to not considering the range of mental health diagnoses in the study survey, however, it also did not ask subjects about previous suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, which are strongly associated with completed suicide.

In the U.S., the National Alliance of Mental Illness reported that nearly 1 million Americans are treated for suicidal thoughts, behaviors or attempts at suicide, and that they are the most common psychiatric emergency requiring immediate intervention.

TAU researchers also admitted to several other areas in the study that were not addressed, such as not having a breakout for male and female responses, a small sample size, and having no articulated definition for religious or non-religious.

The team found, however, that Israeli youth did not identify depression to be strongly associated with suicidal thoughts, whereas previous studies showed that a majority of Christian adolescents did.

Still, Amit concurs that community involvement and religious organizations may play a significant role in decreasing the suicide risk.

“Religiosity may exert its effect directly, by suggesting an alternative ‘way out’ of distress or by the religious objection to suicide, or… by increased social support by religious community and establishments,” concluded Amit.

This study is the first of many more, he hopes, that will confirm religion’s protective mental health effect on adolescent youth.

“Religiousness and spirituality are associated with a warm interpersonal style, gratitude, compassion and emphasis on positive relationships with others,” he said.


Longtime Jewish Sound correspondent and freelance journalist Janis Siegel has covered international health research for SELF magazine and campaigns for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.