In 2006, I wrote a column called "The Health Benefits of Going to Church." In it, I reviewed two studies that examined whether attendance at religious services could be beneficial for overall health.
Now comes another study with an intriguing finding. An evaluation of data from the Nurses’ Health Study concluded: "In the cohort of U.S. women, frequent religious service attendance was associated with a significantly lower rate of suicide."
Catholic women who attended religious services once or more per week had a lower rate of suicide than churchgoers of other denominations among the study cohort. Catholic women who attended daily had no incidence of suicide at all.
The study, published in the medical journal "Psychiatry" in June 2016, is a meeting of two important aspects of the lead researcher’s life: faith and science.
Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chang School of Public Health, grew up in a Protestant family and was received into the Catholic Church four years ago.
"I’ve been a person of faith my entire life," says VanderWeele. "Professionally, the question: ‘Is there any intersection between faith, health and public health?’ comes naturally."
Far from relying on anecdotes to explore the issue, VanderWeele’s quantitative approach uses respected data from sources such as the Nurses’ Health Study to take an objective, scientific look at those aspects of religious belief and practice that are important to individuals’ health and to public health.
Colleagues have been "quite supportive of the research," says VanderWeele. "The methodology is rigorous. I haven’t really gotten pushback. There is interest, maybe a little surprise. The associations are as strong as what one would find with studies on gender, race and economics."
Further work might reveal the mechanisms that can be attributed to these strong associations. Attendance at religious services in general provides social support, a vital component in coping with one or more life challenges. But this alone might not be the only reason why religious attendance seems to have a powerful correlation with the low risk of suicide.
"I don’t think we know exactly what it is about the content of the service that has this effect. I do think that probably the social support one has at religious services has some role," says VanderWeele. "But there is also the moral belief that suicide is wrong, which could be another mechanism. Also, the feeling of being close to God and in communion with God.
"With regard to Catholicism in particular, the belief in respect for life from the moment of conception to natural death has an effect on the perception of what suicide is and that it is wrong. This is not an abstract belief, but it’s reinforced on a weekly basis."
VanderWeele hopes his work finds a use in clinical settings, such as psychological counseling.
"It’s understood that someone’s decisions are based on values, evidence, upbringing, relationships and so on. But for a patient who already identifies as religious, it’s reasonable to suggest: ‘Have you thought about attending a service that is reflective of your beliefs?’"
Our lives are witnesses to the power of faith, but sometimes we might be at a loss for words to explain the benefits of our faith to others. VanderWeele also hopes his work might help individuals and church communities make the case for religious attendance.
"There are increasing trends for people self-identifying as spiritual but not religious," he says. "This kind of study suggests they might be missing out on a very important spiritual experience. Churches could make use of this study to encourage people to come back to church."
Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service.