On Campuses, Secularism Breeds Suicide
It’s no coincidence that mental illness among America’s younger generation is at an all-time high, while their religious practice is at an all-time low.
Last month (Oct. 12), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled classes for a day for its 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students, who were urged to consider it a “wellness day” in the wake of two on-campus suicides and an attempted suicide.
Colleges and universities are in the midst of a full-blown mental health crisis. UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said as much during his announcement.
In a 2019 survey, an unbelievable 45 percent of undergraduate and graduate students “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” at least once during the previous 12 months, according to the American College Health Association. Sixty-six percent of students “felt overwhelming anxiety” and 43 percent “felt overwhelming anger.” More than one in ten students -- 13 percent -- seriously considered suicide.
All those numbers were up substantially from several years earlier. And post-COVID, the situation is even worse. In a Jed Foundation survey, 63 percent of students said their mental health has declined since the start of the pandemic.
Pandemic-induced social isolation, of course, has contributed to the rise in depression and anxiety. On college campuses, another factor has got to be intense academic demands, negatively impacting sleep time. The proliferation of electronic communications, which discourage face-to-face interaction, also harms wellness.
But a prominent factor is the decline in religious practice. From 2009 through 2019, religiously unaffiliated young people skyrocketed from 27 percent of that population to 40 percent, according to Pew Research.
Tyler VanderWeele is with the departments of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In 2016, he along with Harvard colleagues Shanshan Li and Ichiro Kawachi juxtaposed Center for Disease Control statistics depicting a sharp rise in suicides during the preceding decade and a half, and Gallup polling data showing a sharp decline in weekly church attendance. The scholars extrapolated that nearly 40 percent of the increase in the suicide rate stems from the drop-off in religious attendance.
It’s ironic that among organizations, publications, and counseling centers that cater to suicidal students, there’s nary a mention of church. That’s unfortunate because literally thousands of peer-reviewed studies have determined that regularly going to church, synagogue, mosque, or temple improves mental and/or physical health. In fact, one of the pioneers in this field, Baylor’s Jeff Levin, started conducting these studies at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the late 1980s. If only UNC’s mental health counselors would refer to their own university’s ground-breaking research.
Another pioneer in the field, Harold Koenig of Duke, conducted a systematic review of 141 studies on the relationship between religion and suicide; 106 of them concluded that religious practice is associated with fewer suicides or suicide attempts, less suicide ideation, and/or negative attitudes towards suicide.
It’s weekly attendance that’s key. Most studies have found that private religious activity without churchgoing isn’t associated with better mental health. Why? The scholars say it’s the communal, face-to-face interaction that does much to enhance wellness. Other explanations include having a keen sense of meaning and purpose thanks to one’s faith and putting others before self such as through church-sponsored voluntary and charitable activities.
Those going to church at least two-dozen times a year are less than half as likely to take their own lives than those going less often, according to George Mason University’s Evan Kleinman and Brown University’s Richard Liu. They write, “Frequent attendance at religious services may be an indicator of consistent exposure to others who provide social support… The current findings are consistent with (Thomas) Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide, which posits that having a sense of belonging is negatively associated with suicidal desire.”
Francie Hart Broghammer is the chief psychiatry resident at UC Irvine Medical Center. She writes that religion can instill meaning and purpose, and give meaning to suffering. “I have seen this first-hand, time and time again,” she recounted, “with many of my patients reporting they would have attempted suicide long ago if they did not have faith, which provided them with hope in otherwise hopeless circumstances.”
College is where you go to gain the world and lose your soul. Professors push their anti-religion ideology upon impressionable young minds. To atheists, we’re just bodies and no soul. As the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins bleakly remarked, “You are for nothing. You are here to propagate your selfish genes. There is no higher purpose in life.” Or as another observer put it, we’re nothing more than “the forward edge of the sludge of evolution.” With that in mind, why go on living?
College students are taking that to heart -- by permanently halting the beat of their own.
Patrick Chisholm is a senior fellow with the Catholic Apologetics Institute of North America and author of Holy Health: How Church Makes You Healthier and Happier.
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