Field of Science

Suicide in American colleges - the importance of existential well being

In the past couple of posts I've taken a look at new studies that are exploring the complex relationship between religion and suicide. In general, religious people have lower suicide rates, and these are helping to shed light on why, and also why the relationship is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.

That's the case too, for this third and final recent study on this topic. It examined suicidal feelings among US college students - a critically important issue given that suicide is the second most common cause of death in this population. Around 1 in 12 US college students has, at some point, made a suicide plan, and there are around 24,000 suicide attempts by students annually.

Lindsay Taliaferro, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, surveyed over 400 of her fellow students. The response rate was high - around 90%. The good news is that, for the most part, they were not suicidal! On average, they scored 11 on a 70-point scale of suicidal thinking.

She found that, as expected, those who reported high levels of religious well being (e.g. that they find strength or support from God) or involvement in religious activities had fewer suicidal thoughts.

She also asked how hopeless or depressed the students felt, and how much social support they felt they got. When she took this into account, the effects of religion disappeared.

What this suggests is that religious well-being and involvement have whatever effects they have by reducing hopelessness and depression, and by increasing social support. No big surprises there.

But what is surprising is that she found a third factor that was even more important that religion and social support. That factor was "Existential Well-Being", which relates to things such as feeling fulfilled and satisfied with life, and finding meaning and purpose in life.

What was remarkable was that Existential Well-Being remained important even after taking into account hopelessness, depression and social support. In other words, even if you feel hopeless, depressed, and alone, existential well-being (unlike religious well-being) can ease suicidal thoughts.

Now, you have to take the results of any one study with a pinch of salt. But this does seem to fit in with other studies which have shown that spirituality does not reduce suicidal thoughts,and that feeling close to God is linked to a history of depression, whereas existential well being is linked to dramatically less depression.

But so what? None of these studies undermine the link between religion and decreased risk for suicide. What they do is begin to unpick how that effect operates.

More importantly for atheists, I think, is that they show how suicidal thoughts can be reduced without needing to believe in God. After all, for most atheists, simply telling them to believe in God and everything will be OK is not an option.

That's exactly the point that Taliaferro makes, and so I'll leave the concluding remarks to her:

Results from the present investigation indicate that many college students did not demonstrate high involvement in organized religion. Yet they reported high levels of spiritual well-being, especially existential well-being, and low levels of suicidal ideation. Furthermore, results highlighted existential well-being as an important factor associated with lower levels of suicidal ideation among college students.
Overall, these findings suggest that a strategy for reducing distress and preventing suicide among college students may involve exploring mechanisms that nurture a sense of meaning in life in individuals for whom organized religion remains unimportant. Health professionals may have more success in improving young people’s sense of meaning and purpose by methods other than an increase in faith, participation in organized religion, or other indicators of religiosity.

ResearchBlogging.orgTaliaferro LA, Rienzo BA, Pigg RM Jr, Miller MD, & Dodd VJ (2009). Spiritual well-being and suicidal ideation among college students. Journal of American college health : J of ACH, 58 (1), 83-90 PMID: 19592357

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. This may be a bit of a stretch, but this reminds me of the recent resurgence of interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelics - especially for depression.

    Is it maybe the case that psychedelic use - particularly in a therapeutic context - is improving patients' existential well-being?

    My thoughts went: existential well-being - college - psychedelics ;)

  2. What? How is religion not a factor. It provides social support, and leaves you feeling fulfilled and satisfied with life, and gives you meaning and purpose in life, i.e. every point listed here. Please get rid of your bias. You can't say that effects of religion disappear by saying that it no longer has one of its most important aspects.

  3. "[Religion] provides social support, and leaves you feeling fulfilled and satisfied with life, and gives you meaning and purpose in life, i.e. every point listed here."

    Religion can do these things. It can also do a lot of harm. I was brought up in a Christian household, and lived in constant terror that I was not good enough, that God hated me, that nothing I could do could save from the infinite and unjust punishment of Hell. Not surprisingly, I was miserable and deeply depressed for most of my life until I shook off religion.

    There are many other, and in my opinion better, ways to get social support and feel like you're doing something worthwhile with your life.

  4. Religion provides fear, enforced ignorance, extreme misogymism, mental torture, xenophobia, overpopulation, tax-dodging, terrorism, racketeering, laziness, infantilisation, infant rape, anti-semitism, racism, homophobia, retardation of science, state executions and induced insanity, to mention but a few of its best attributes.
    That is calms a random dying 90year old is no balance.

  5. This may be something of a stretch, but there is part of me that wonders whether a cognitive bias is playing a role here; perhaps something very much like the Kruger-Dunning Effect (see Wikipedia).

    This idea, in short, is that those most-prone to suicidal thoughts tend to be the same people who are among the most skilled, most thoughtful, and the most 'sober' (as it relates to religious delusion & ideas of a spiritual safety net, etc). As such, they have a tendency to assume everyone else is at least as good as they are (or better) and tend to UNDER-ESTIMATE their value whereas those that are least prone to suicidal thoughts are among the least intelligent, most disruptive (socially), and more indoctrinated by religion. This population tends to assume that they are better than most and OVER-ESTIMATE their personal value and contribution.

  6. Eric: Interesting idea, although research (as far as I know) generally finds that suicide is more common among those of lower socio-economic class. Although here's an interesting report about a study on suicide among the Danes. Though see the quotes at the bottom about suicide in the UK.

  7. Interesting study! It reminds me of a research conducted by Tan (2005) on psychological functioning in GLBT people who endorsed religious well-being and existential well-being. Only EWB contributed to positive adjustment (self-esteem, acceptance of homosexual orientation, low levels of alienation); religious identification and service attendance did not. Although this is not incredibly surprising among GLBT people, it still says something about how people can thrive in the absence of religious structures.

  8. Given that males are 4 times as likely as females to kill themselves, isn't looking at the role of religion in suicide splitting hairs?

    We need to look at how these men are pressured, oppressed, and marginalized in our societies and how to address their needs to prevent these horrible deaths.


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