How to Reduce Deaths of Despair?

After decades of increasing life expectancy, recent years have seen a higher death rate among some groups of Americans, attributed to increases in suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.  The causes of these so-called “deaths of despair” are still debated, but may include job loss, economic downgrading, and lack of safety net programs, such as job retraining.

A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry looks at deaths of despair among health workers, a relatively highly educated and well-paid group of professions.  One clear finding is that people who reported that they attend a “religious service or meeting” at least once a week may have a lower chance of dying of suicide, drug overdose or cirrhosis of the liver.

“Religious participation may promote health and well-being through strengthening social integration, encouraging healthy behaviors, and providing a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose in life” the authors write.  This population-based cohort study used data extracted from self-reported questionnaires and medical records of 66492 female registered nurses who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHSII) from 2001 through 2017 and 43141 male health care professionals (eg, dentist, pharmacist, optometrist, osteopath, podiatrist, and veterinarian) who participated in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS) from 1988 through 2014.

Overall, they found that compared with those who never attended religious services, those who attended on a weekly basis had a 68% lower hazard of death from despair in the NHSII group, and a 33% lower hazard of death from despair in HPFS.  The authors note that these results may be of importance in understanding the overall picture of deaths from despair in the general population.


Reference: Chen Y, Koh HK, Kawachi I, Botticelli M, VanderWeele TJ. Religious Service Attendance and Deaths Related to Drugs, Alcohol, and Suicide Among US Health Care Professionals [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 6]. JAMA Psychiatry. 2020;e200175. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0175