Despite major improvements and advances made in the treatment of mental illness, suicide is still a pervasive health problem. In fact, this may be due to clinicians’ lack of effective diagnostic tools and methods to diagnose those at risk of suicide — prevention methods haven’t improved in the past 50 years. Now, new research published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests attending a religious service could help prevent suicide, at least in women.

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 90,000 middle-aged female participants in the Nurses' Health Study, most of whom reported being practicing Catholics or Protestants. Researchers used this information to look at associations between religious service attendance and suicide from 1996 to June 2010. There were 36 suicides during this time. Among the findings, women who attended religious services at least once a week had a fivefold lower risk of committing suicide compared to those who never attended services. Researchers also found that women who attended religious services were less likely to use antidepressants. The study also revealed that they were less likely be current smokers and more likely to be married.

"Our results do not imply that health care providers should prescribe attendance at religious services. However, for patients who are already religious, service attendance might be encouraged as a form of meaningful social participation,” researchers wrote in the study.

Attending a religious service could help prevent suicide, study finds. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Among the cohort, 17,028 attended religious services more than once per week, 36,488 attended once per week, 14,548 attended less than once per week, and 21,644 never attended based on self-reports at the study's 1996 baseline. Authors identified 36 suicides during follow-up. The study also revealed that suicide incidence declined with increasing religious service attendance.

Researchers believe this may be the effect of major world religions having traditions that prohibit suicide, which can deter people from taking their own life. Some religious reasons given to explain why suicide is bad include life being a gift from God and suicide being against the natural order or causing injury to the community, researchers wrote in the study,

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the suicide rate in the U.S. — 13 per 100,000 people — is similar to the rate in 1905 (13.5 per 100,000 people), despite improvements in mental health.

This isn’t the first study to link religious participation to a reduced suicide risk. Gallup polls from 2005 and 2006 have shown that countries with populations that are more religious tend to have lower suicide rates. A 2015 study also found that going to church can help improve mental health and serve as a coping mechanism during times of illness. However, the study does note that it’s unknown whether this has to do with “religion per se” or the sense of belonging to community, Medical Daily previously reported.

Researchers concluded religion and spirituality may be an “underappreciated resource” that psychiatrists and clinicians could explore with their patients as suicide prevention.

Source: VanderWeele T, Li S, Tsai A, Kawachi I. Association Between Religious Service Attendance and Lower Suicide Rates Among US Women. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016.