Another strategy to cope with life’s dark times

News briefs

Published: August, 2020

The United States is reporting increasing numbers of "deaths from despair" (suicide, drug overdose, or alcohol poisoning). Antidepressants and psychotherapy are often used to help people who are having a hard time coping with extremely difficult times and who are at risk for dying because of it. A recent Harvard study found that another strategy may also play a part in countering despair: attending religious services. The study, published online May 6, 2020, by JAMA Psychiatry, evaluated self-reported religious service attendance among 110,000 white, middle-aged men and women who were followed for about 30 years. Compared with never attending religious services, going at least once per week was associated with a much lower risk of death from despair: 68% lower for women and 37% lower for men. Researchers say that religious participation — regardless of affiliation — may serve as an antidote to despair and provide a sustained sense of hope, meaning, peace, and positive outlook. Also, faith-based organizations promote social engagement and connectedness and preach against self-injury and substance use. The study was observational and does not prove that regularly going to a religious service prevents death from despair. However, we know from other Harvard research that using religion to cope is associated with improved outcomes for people with severe psychiatric illness. Due to the pandemic, it may be difficult to attend your usual place of worship. Consider attending services via teleconference. If you attend in-person services, wear a mask and try to stay six feet away from others.

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