While much attention is being paid to the growing death toll from COVID-19, another cause of death is growing as a byproduct of the measures to contain the spread of the virus. Deaths of despair are on the rise but a new report shows that number could be curbed through spiritual pursuits. Researchers from T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University found people who attend religious services at least once per week are significantly less likely to die from deaths of despair. And the risk is less for women than men.
Deaths of despair are defined as deaths related to suicide, drug overdose and alcohol poisoning. A report co-authored by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care estimates the conditions resulting from COVID-19 such as excessive unemployment, isolation and future uncertainty could lead to 75,000 deaths of despair in the U.S.
"Despair is something that can confront anyone dealing with severe difficulties or loss,” said Harvard’s Tyler VanderWeele. “While the term 'deaths of despair' was originally coined in the context of working class Americans struggling with unemployment, it is a phenomenon that is relevant more broadly, such as to the health care professionals in our study who may be struggling with excessive demands and burnout, or to anyone facing loss. As such, we need to look for important community resources that can protect against it."
Analyzing data from two studies consisting of 66,492 female nurses and 43,141 male health professionals they found 75 deaths of despair among the women and 306 from the men. The report showed women who attended religious services at least once per week were 68 percent less likely to die a death from despair than those who did not attend services. Men who regularly attended services had a 33 percent lower risk of death from despair.
The authors of the study published in JAMA Psychiatry suggested participation in religious services could be an antidote to despair and help someone sustain a sense of hope and meaning. They also stated religion may encourage a sense of peace and a positive outlook while promoting social connectedness and strengthened psychological resilience.
"These results are perhaps especially striking amidst the present COVID-19 pandemic," said Ying Chen, research associate and first author of the paper. "They are striking in part because clinicians are facing such extreme work demands and difficult conditions, and in part because many religious services have been suspended. We need to think what might be done to extend help to those at risk for despair."