Suicides linked to religious decline, new study says


THE fall off in Catholic religious practice is a factor in the dramatic rise in Irish suicide rates, according to a study.

The authors admit, however, this contention requires acceptance that the greatest change in religious practice - or the greatest sensitivity to that change - has occurred among young males, who account for the most substantial rise in suicides.

The paper, to be published in the international journal for suicide prevention, Crisis, says that Irish males between the ages of 15 and 24 are more than twice as likely to kill themselves now than they were 20 years ago. (The latest CSO figures, on which the accompanying graph is based, refer to 1991, but the authors of the paper believe the rise is continuing.)

In the same period, there has been no significant rise in suicide among females of the same age.

The authors, who include the secretary of the Cork based Suicide Research Foundation, Mr Michael Kelleher, argue that two conflicting beliefs have dominated the historical relationship between religious belief and suicide.

On one side of the debate was John Donne, who believed that suicide was praiseworthy if done for the glory of God - for example, to avoid forced idolatry. He argued there was a natural tendency towards suicide which was restrained by prohibition - especially in the Catholic tradition.

The opposing argument was that of the 19th century French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who all but dismissed individual factors in his monumental study of the subject. He acknowledged that suicide rates varied between different religious groups in Europe, but ascribed this to dynamic effects of different social lives rather than individual beliefs.

Studies, including those by Durkheim, showed that suicide rates were lower in Catholic areas of Europe. One possible explanation given was that the greater social antagonism to suicide led to under reporting of it, but the Crisis paper points out that Irish rates have been supported by figures among emigrants. These were more likely to commit suicide than the Irish at home, but less likely than most other groups in their host countries.

The authors accept there has been under reporting of Irish suicide, but they point out that figures for other forms of unnatural death, such as drowning, have not fallen to compensate for the rise in recorded suicides.

The Catholic Church's condemnation of suicide is one of the reasons for the lower rate of suicides in the past, the authors contend, but they speculate that one explanation for the effect on young males of the decline in religious belief is the consequent decline in the "great human, trinity of man, woman and child".

In the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions alike, they say, this had always placed man in a dominant position over woman, especially in the home. The 20th century empowerment of women had been associated with a decline in the importance of religion. One result was a rise in the importance of the mother child relationship at the expense of the man woman child relationship traditionally supported by the religions.

However, the authors acknowledge that suicide rates among young males are rising in many countries whose cultural history is strikingly different from Ireland's.

They also refer to a "national autopsy" in Finland, which seems to support the view that those who are religious are more likely to be mentally disturbed.

The figures suggest the devout are more likely to include people who are mentally ill and who have sought solace in religion. But it also suggests that religion can induce psychological illness "if too avidly practised".