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Suicide and religion

June 21, 2008

Early this week I went to a university-sponsored suicide-prevention seminar.  The idea is that students, faculty, and staff can learn how to recognize the signs of potentially fatal depression, persuade sufferers to get the help that is available, and make the right referral.  It’s called QPR, or Question, Persuade, Refer.  It was OK, certainly no worse than most institutional attempts to help with serious problems and better than many.  At the end there was a question-and-answer period.

One of the attendees stood up in back, and said something like;

“This approach is fine, it’s OK, but as a Christian I just want to say that you shouldn’t forget the power of God to help them, the power of belief.  When someone’s hurting, let them know God loves them and Jesus cares,  I just have to say that, as a Christian.  That God is important.  I’m a Christian so this is what I believe.”

The group was breaking up and, and the presenter mumbled something like “yes, when it’s appropriate” but none of the other attendees responded. I’m sure the religion-touter had good intentions but you know the old saying.  And (being slow-witted and averse to confrontation) I didn’t think of a response until much later:

Christianity starts with the premise that we’re all unworthy sinners, who deserve to burn in hell unless we’re redeemed by the sacrificial blood of Jesus.  That’s a recipe for depression, not a cure.  You can’t tout salvation from guilt manufactured by your religion itself and then try to claim the high road.

When there are a lot of different approaches to a problem, it’s a sign that none of them works very well. Most people who are depressed eventually get better on their own, and if it happens to coincide with a religious conversion, religion gets the credit. But, never the blame when it makes things worse later. The basic Christian meme is self-justifying, creating the need for itself in mythic guilt. 

I don’t propose a simple solution to depression because it isn’t a simple problem.  It might help for the depressed person to know that changing moods are part of the human condition.  It might help to have the society of friends and loved ones who have been through it and verify that the Earth is still turning even when it seems like morning will never come.  The best we can do is be there for one another, try to prevent tragedy, and try not make things worse. 

“Lisa, I apologize to you, I was wrong, I take it all back.  Always be yourself.  If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you.  And when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there.  From now on, let me do the smiling for both of us.’‘
- Marge Simpson to Lisa in episode #6, Moaning Lisa

  • I found a number of studies which claim to demonstrate a lower suicide rate for people who regularly attend religious services.  Unanswered by these studies are the role of the community effect (you see other people in a common activity at church) or if religious prohibitions against suicide prevent the act without addressing the condition.

  • I also found studies that showed a higher suicide rate in some secular societies, where there are no laws against assisting the act.  The studies did not seem to distinguish between depression or terminal illness as a trigger, or if the lack of prohibition meant that more deaths were likely to be counted as suicides than in countries where legal and financial consequences follow.
  • I found no studies that suggested depression itself is less common or less severe among religious people.  Indeed the bible itself contains considerable evidence to the contrary, as do the writings of nearly every prominent religious leader who has ever lived.  Depression does seem to correlate with creativity; neither religious or secular history books are populated with upbeat, sunny personalities.
Categories: Religion
  1. Lucas
    June 21, 2008 at 13:11 | #1

    I think that bringing “God loves you” up to someone who is severely depressed is likely to be counterproductive.  If you’re feeling like there is no purpose in life, and everything is going wrong, then being reminded that there is an all-mighty being who is not fixing the situation might make you feel even more abandoned. 

    Don’t forget The Simpsons’ other solution to depression.

  2. June 22, 2008 at 22:35 | #2

    Ditto Lucas. When I was depressed at a younger age I looked to God and got no response. I figured out at a young age that some things you just have to do yourself.

  3. June 23, 2008 at 04:23 | #3

    George, this was fantastic.  I think a lot more people need to see this, and ask those tough questions at the end.  Religion’s just assumed to always be the right thing – and it’s often not.

    Turning to God never helped my mother get over suicidal depression.  The right medications did that.

    Like Webs05, I once reached for God in my darkest hour, and found nothing but an echo chamber.  No comfort.  No help.  What helped was finding out that there’s a biological basis, that it’s not my fault if I’m down in a deep black pit and can’t climb out.  Oddly enough, just knowing that gave me the strength to start climbing.

    I don’t think anyone addresses the fact that depression can be worsened by religion – because when you pray and nothing changes, that becomes your fault.  God doesn’t love you enough.  You don’t believe strongly enough.  You don’t have enough faith.

    That’s horribly destructive to someone who’s already fragile enough.

  4. Ted
    June 23, 2008 at 10:20 | #4

    There is some linkage between depression and religiosity. I don’t know how strong the linkage is, but casual reading seems to indicate that it does help.

    In my own experience, a secularized view of the world can lead to some depression, but then the secularized view of the world also created affordable SSRIs.

    A huge part of the US population is medicated on anti-depressants (I’d estimate that it’s over 100M at this point). That leads us into various troubles, because we become happy, shiny people that really don’t care to think much about depressing things in our lives—like torture, etc, but we are troubled by things that touch us directly like the price of gas or food.

  5. June 23, 2008 at 10:34 | #5

    Let’s assemble the pieces of this puzzle in another way.  Believing in an afterlife where all injustices will be righted is indeed a happy thought.  It relieves us of responsibility to set things right ourselves.  So maybe it isn’t so much that a secularized view ‘leads to depression’ as that faith leads to unwarranted optimism.

    I’m not so sure that SSRI’s make people happy or shiny.  For a severely depressed person, they can help, but happiness takes more.  Our consumer culture seems depression-o-genic.  Personally I find it almost impossible to walk through a shopping mall without thinking “what’s the point?

  6. Ted
    June 23, 2008 at 11:17 | #6

      Personally I find it almost impossible to walk through a shopping mall without thinking “what’s the point?”

    You think that’s what leads to mall shootings?

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