Religion and suicidality with Dr. Michael Norko
Michael A. Norko, MD, professor of psychiatry at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., spoke with Lorenzo Norris, MD, MDedge Psychiatry editor in chief, about incorporating patients’ spiritual and religious histories into psychiatric evaluations.
Evidence, questions to consider about religion and spirituality
- Various spiritual and religious factors are linked to decreased rates of suicide behaviors and attempts, including weekly attendance to worship services, personal beliefs about the preciousness of life, and commitment to a faith practice. Which specific parts of religious and spirituality are protective? Are the protective factors the social connection or the spiritual connection alone?
- Those who attend worship services weekly are at lower risk of suicide. It’s unclear whether weekly attendance is a proxy for the social connectedness or for the level of internalization of the religious beliefs.
- Commitment to a faith is measured by a consistent and strong belief in the faith tradition. Just because someone says they belong to a faith tradition does not automatically mean a person is at lower risk of suicide.
- Strong alignment with the faith also is protective. Alignment is different from commitment, because if patients are doubting or their personal beliefs conflict with long-held religious traditions, this can increase patients’ suicide risk.
Questions to ask about spirituality and religion in clinical practice
- A spiritual and religious history is essential to a psychiatric evaluation, because asking about religion lets the patient know that this is a welcome topic. Examples of questions a clinician can ask include: “Is there any faith tradition that you belong to? How important is your faith or beliefs? Is there anything about your religious beliefs you think are important to your mental health treatment?”
Difficult areas to navigate with religion and spirituality
- Lack of expertise or personal experience with religion can be a barrier. It is important to remember that patients usually welcome curiosity about their religious beliefs and emotional lives. Clinicians need not be experts in religion, but they can be alert to the salient values and notice whether the person is struggling with certain beliefs. Clinicians also can encourage patients to talk to their clergy.
- When someone asks a clinician, “What is your faith practice?” this can be approached as an informed consent question. The clinician can ask how talking about their own beliefs or faith practices will deepen and help the therapeutic work of the patient.
- If a person is feeling let down by a certain failing of their religious community, therapy is a good place to explore what strengths and succor they had received from their religion. Therapy also can be used to guide patients toward additional places, or even substitutes, to meet their needs.
- Understanding patients’ faith background and beliefs can help clinicians reframe certain crises, especially if the psychiatrist and therapist have talked discussed those crises with patients over time. It’s more useful to understand patients’ faith before the crisis, because grasping for a spiritual or religious answer at the last moment can feel inauthentic.
Norko et al. Can religion protect against suicide? J Nerv Ment Dis. 2017. Jan;205(1):9-14.
Kruizinga R et al. Toward a fully-fledged integration of spiritual care and medical care. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2018 Mar;55(3):1035-40.
Thomas LP et al. Meaning-centered psychotherapy: A form of psychotherapy for patients with cancer. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2014 Oct;16(10):488.
Lawrence RE et al. Religion and suicide risk: A systematic review. Arch Suicide Res. 2016;20(1):1-21.
D’Souza R, George K. Spirituality, religion and psychiatry: its application to clinical practice. Australas Psychiatry. 2006 Dec;14(4):408-12.
FICA Spiritual History Tool: https://smhs.gwu.edu/gwish/clinical/fica/spiritual-history-tool, which is based on Puchalski C and Romer AL. Taking a spiritual history allows clinicians to understand patients more fully. J Palliat Med. 2000 Spring;3(1):129-37.
George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health (GWISH): https://smhs.gwu.edu/gwish/