By Dr John Barry
“Where is God? At the end of your tether”. (Source unknown)
One of the most unexpected findings of the Harry’s Masculinity Report of 2000 men in the British Isles was that religious observance was one of the significant predictors of having mental positivity (Barry & Daubney, 2017). This was surprising to me because I had formed the assumption that men in the UK don’t got to church very much any more. This assumption was based on my own observations that churchgoing was mainly done by people who are (a) older (b) female (c) not from Britain. However when I discussed this with a pastor in a London Hospital, I was surprised to find that men in other faiths were still regularly observed their religion, partly because it was more firmly rooted in their community life.
This made me wonder whether non-practicing Christian men in the UK are missing out on an important source of psychological support, one that might help them through crises, and might even reduce the risk of them taking their own lives.
A brief look at the research literature suggests that religious belief does indeed have a protective effect when it comes to suicide. For example, a US study of around 1500 people found that suicide rates were strongly correlated (r = -.85) with church attendance in the 1970s regardless of the sex or the churchgoer, or whether they were black or white (Martin, 1984). A US study of 1,098 black and white adolescents found that commitment to beliefs was correlated with lower scores on measures of depression and suicidality (Greening & Stoppelbein, 2011). In a cross-cultural study, Sisak et al (2010) found that people who attempted suicide (n = 2819) were less likely to be religious than non-attempters (n = 5484). This was a significant effect in Estonia, Brazil, Iran, Sri Lanka, and South Africa, though not in India or Vietnam. These findings don’t seem to suggest that people are put off taking their lives because they think it’s immoral, it seems to be more that people often find resilience in a set of beliefs and a sense of community.
The idea that religion is protective against suicide isn’t new – Durkheim had written about this in his classic 1897 book – so why do we hear so little about the mental health benefits of religion in the UK? I am going to engage in some speculation during the rest of this article, and welcome feedback from any readers who have answers, comments or suggestions.
Perhaps in the UK there is not a strong tradition of religious observance compared to other European countries, which means that religion is simply not a salient option to British people who are distressed. I would have thought that scandals since the 1980s over sexual abuse by Catholic priests has had an impact into how willing people are to accept orthodox religion, but the decline of religion in the UK since the 1980s has impacted the Church of England (down from 40% to 15%) rather than the Catholic church (down from 10% to 9%).
I wonder if part of the problem could be that traditional Christianity in the UK is, for many people, a relatively passive experience: you go to church for baptisms, weddings and funerals, where you might go through the motions of saying prayers or perhaps singing hymns… and that’s about it. No real discussion about what it all means to you, no putting the teachings into any tangible action, no real connection with other churchgoers. Some churches have clearly taken this on board, and engage more in community mental health or do practical social outreach activities (e.g. with homeless people). Given that when dealing with stress men tend to look for practical solutions rather than talking about their feelings, compared to women, it isn’t a stretch to guess that distressed men might find action-orientated activities a welcome adjunct to traditional prayer.
In any case, I’d like to suggest that in the UK today the church is a lost opportunity for many distressed men, and that perhaps churches can look at ways that they might make themselves more appealing to younger people, especially men.
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About the author
Dr John Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network and Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is one of the editors of, and contributors to, The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1