Children of religious parents have a reduced risk of suicidal behavior, study finds

Children face a lower risk of suicidal behavior if their parents are religious, according to new research published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The study found that parents’ belief in the importance of religion was associated with a lower risk for suicidal behavior by their children, regardless of a child’s own beliefs.

“Approximately 12% of adolescents in the United States report having thoughts about attempting suicide,” said study authors Connie Svob and Priya Wickramaratne of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

“Moreover, suicide is a primary cause of death among females 15 to 19 years of age. In an attempt to gain more insight into this problem and its potential solutions, we wanted to investigate whether a parent’s religiosity might be associated with a lower risk for suicidal ideation/attempts in their children.”

The researchers examined data from 214 children (aged 6 to 18 years) from 112 nuclear families who are participating in an ongoing 3-generation study.

They found that religiosity in children was negatively related to suicidal behavior in girls but not boys. Religiosity in parents, on the other hand, was negatively related to suicidal behavior among both their male and female offspring.

“We found that a parent’s belief in the high importance of religion was associated with an approximately 80% decrease in risk in suicidal thoughts and behaviors in their children compared with parents who reported religion as unimportant,” Svob and Wickramaratne told PsyPost.

“This finding was independent of a child’s own belief (or lack of belief) in the importance of religion and independent of other potent parental risk factors (e.g., parental depression, history or suicidal behavior, divorce).

“Furthermore, that parents’ belief in religious importance was a stronger predictor than parents’ religious service attendance makes one wonder whether religious importance might be more strongly associated with teaching and beliefs about suicide within the home than is service attendance, or whether some other mechanism might be responsible,” the researchers said.

“Taken together, the findings suggest that, among potential protective factors for suicidal behavior in children, parental religious beliefs should not be overlooked.”

But the study, like all research, includes limitations.

“Since the current sample of parents and children had regional limitations regarding religious denominations represented (the majority were Christian) and all participants were Caucasian, future research should be conducted on samples with diverse religious denominations and ethnicities for generalizability of results,” Svob and Wickramaratne explained.

“As religiosity is often overlooked in clinical practice, we suggest in our paper that clinicians consider conducting a brief spiritual history with parents of children being brought in for psychiatric consultations, as well as assessing the children’s own religious beliefs and practices.”

The study, “Association of Parent and Offspring Religiosity With Offspring Suicide Ideation and Attempts“, was authored by Connie Svob,Priya J. Wickramaratne, Linda Reich, Ruixin Zhao, MS Ardesheer Talati, Marc J. Gameroff, Rehan Saeed, and Myrna M.Weissman.