It’s a much debated connection. A recent systematic review of studies found that attending religious service is not especially protective against suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning suicide), but it does protect against suicide attempts, and possibly protects against suicide.
Other types of group activities may confer a similar sense of belonging. Volunteers with caregiving responsibility maintain a significantly reduced suicide risk, a 2019 study found. As a 1976 study put it, social support is anything that leads someone “to believe that he/she is cared for and loved, esteemed, and a member of a network of mutual obligations.”
Jonathan Lee Walton, dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, sees another angle to Black religiosity that could reduce suicide rates. “It’s in the Black theological tradition that in this life you will experience trouble and hardship,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is born of tragic experiences in this nation. This prepares one for paths of despair, for traveling the lonely road of heartbreak, perhaps in a way that white Americans don’t learn to the same degree or from a young and formative age.”
Single parenthood is another possible explanation. Black women are more likely to be single parents than white women, and they have the lowest suicide rates across any race/gender group. (Suicide is less common among women than men in general.)
“For single parents, being the sole financial, instrumental and/or emotional support provider for children can deter suicide, even in times of extreme distress,” Professor Mouzon said. Another way single parenthood may reduce suicide risk is through the coalescing of extended family and community support for the care of the child. It’s possible this support, once in place, also confers mental health benefits that reduce suicide risk for the mother.
Experts say some reasons for the relatively low suicide rate among Latinos — who also tend to be poorer and face discrimination — are close social and family networks, which can build and maintain resilience, as well as moral objection to suicide based on religion. A study published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggested that immigrant families can lose some of that protection when they assimilate and lose ties to Latino culture.
Though it’s impossible to predict who will attempt or complete suicide, the broad risk factors that contribute to suicide in all racial and ethnic groups are widely documented. They include mental health challenges and psychiatric disorders, exposure to suicide by others, being bullied, substance use, loneliness and social isolation, and exposure to stressful life events.