Life Wellbeing Attending religious services protects against deaths of despair, study finds
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Attending religious services protects against deaths of despair, study finds

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There's a strong body of evidence linking faith with emotional resilience. Photo: Getty
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People who attend religious services at least once a week are significantly less likely to die from “deaths of despair”, a large population study has found.

Deaths of despair were defined specifically as deaths from suicide, unintentional poisoning by alcohol or drug overdose, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.

According to a statement from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the study showed that the association between service attendance and lower risk of deaths from despair “was somewhat stronger for women in the study than for men.”

Overall the new findings are supported by a large body of research that has found a positive link between religious faith or spiritual belief and emotional wellbeing.

How was the research carried out?

For this study, researchers analysed 2001-2017 data from the Nurses’ Health Study II on 66,492 women.They also looked at 1998-2014 data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study on 43,141 men.

Among the women, there were 75 deaths from despair: 43 suicides, 20 deaths from poisoning, and 12 deaths from liver disease and cirrhosis.

Among the men there were 306 deaths from despair: 197 suicides, 6 deaths from poisoning, and 103 deaths from liver diseases and cirrhosis.

After adjusting for numerous variables, the study showed that women who attended religious services at least once per week had a 68per cent lower risk of death from despair compared to those never attending services. Men who attended services at least once per week had 33 per cent lower risk of death from despair.

Relevance in the age of social distancing

The study authors suggest that religious participation may serve “as an important antidote to despair and an asset for sustaining a sense of hope and meaning.”

They also wrote that “religion may be associated with strengthened psychosocial resilience by fostering a sense of peace and positive outlook, and promoting social connectedness.”

“These results are perhaps especially striking amidst the present COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr Ying Chen, research associate and data scientist at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and first author of the paper.

“They are striking in part because clinicians are facing such extreme work demands and difficult conditions, and in part because many religious services have been suspended. We need to think what might be done to extend help to those at risk for despair.”

Previous research to consider

A 2016 study found that fear of confronting the tensions and conflicts brought on by existential concerns — the “big questions” of life — is linked with poorer mental health, including higher levels of depression, anxiety and difficulty regulating emotions.

“Religious and spiritual struggles — conflicts with God or religious people, tough questions about faith, morality, and the meaning of life — these are often taboo topics, and the temptation to push them away is strong,” said Dr Julie Exline, professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve and co-author of the research, in a prepared statement.

“When people avoid these struggles, anxiety and depression tend to be more intense than if they faced these struggles head-on.

A 2014 study from Oregon State University found that religion and spirituality have distinct but complementary influences on health.

“Religion helps regulate behaviour and health habits, while spirituality regulates your emotions, how you feel,” the authors wrote.

A 2104 study found that a thickening of the brain cortex associated with regular meditation or other spiritual or religious practice could be the reason those activities guard against depression, particularly in people who are predisposed to the disease.