It often takes tragedy, especially that involving celebrities, to draw our collective attention to a societal problem.
The recent suicides of fashioner designer Kate Spade and chef and writer Anthony Bourdain have cast in stark relief the scourge of depression in modern times, the decline of emotional health, and the reality that suicide and suicidal attempts are dramatically rising.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that suicide rates for middle-aged women (45-64) increased nearly 60 percent between 2000 and 2016. For men of the same age the suicide rate rose almost 37 percent.
Suicide rates in this cohort are the current focus, but no age group appears to be spared from the pandemic. The youth suicide rate is up, and is the second leading a cause of death for young people, according to the CDC.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that between 2008 and 2015, the proportion of young people treated at 31 U.S. children's hospitals for suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled. The increase was most prominent for girls.
In an effort to understand what is behind this seemingly ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, observers and experts have posited all kinds of theories.
The increased atomization of society is one probable culprit. Technology, through social media and Internet, has enabled us to be more connected than ever before, yet the evidence suggests that we are increasingly isolated from meaningful personal connections and community.
Civic life — participation in community organizations, religious and social groups — has been in decline for some time.
Depression has made manifest in other ways, like the opioid crisis, which has been linked to suicide among young and old Americans alike.
Most experts acknowledge that there is no one catalyst of suicide or the despair and depression that often precede it; they are often the result of multiple factors that are difficult to identify and even harder to combat.
Prevention then should be impossible. A 2016 study suggests it isn't.
One group of women has apparently bucked the trend against self-harm by employing a powerful prophylactic — faith.
A group of researchers followed 89,708 U.S. women aged 30-55 for 15 years and found that those who regularly attended religious services had almost no risk of suicide.
Using longitudinal data and controlling for depressive symptoms as well as other aspects of social integration, the researchers further found that it wasn't merely self-identifying as a person of faith but "religious service attendance itself that seemed most prominent" means of reducing suicide rates.
"Compared with women who had never attended religious services, women who attended religious services once or more per week had a more than 5-fold lower risk of suicide," explained the study, published in JAMA Psychiatry in August of 2016.
In fact, religious service attendance had larger impact on suicide risk than any other single component of the social integration, which included: marital status, other group participation, number of close friends, number of close relatives, number of close friends seen at least once per month, and number of close relatives seen at least once per month.
And while the research showed significantly lower rates of suicide across religions (most study participants were Christian), the association between service attendance and reduced suicide rates was higher for Catholic women. Indeed, among the 6,999 Catholic women who said they attended Mass more than once a week, there was not a single suicide.
There is nothing exceptional about the finding that religious devotion is a talisman against depression and self-harm; as the study authors showed, their results were consistent with other research on faith and suicide.
But at a time when faith is frequently belittled, organized religion is out of fashion and service attendance is in sharp decline, it's quite remarkable to see — in raw numbers — how religious devotion can shield its practitioners from the isolation that is enveloping huge swaths of our society.
Indeed, there is no treatment, program or hotline that even purports to offer similar results.
Religion provides meaning and comfort to the lives of faithful that cannot be found elsewhere. It guides and enriches their lives and as this study suggests, is more likely to even save them, too.