While we agree with several of the points raised by Yates & Arya, further discussion of several issues is needed. First, we agree that caution is needed when interpreting prediction of a low base-rate occurrence such as suicide. As we note in the paper, although suicide is an infrequently occurring event, the number of suicides in the data-set matches what would be expected from the population during the study period.Reference Kleiman and Liu1 Considerable effort was taken by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to guarantee high accuracy of the cause of death data. The authors also noted that ‘the absolute numbers occurring in the two groups (frequent v. less frequent service attendees) were not specified.’ This information is available in Table 1 in the paper. Of the 25 people who died by suicide, 8 (32%) attended religious services frequently and the other 17 did not.
Second, our outcome variable (death by suicide) was time-varying (i.e. our analyses examined religious service attendance not only as a predictor of death by suicide but also time to this event, which would differ from decedent to decedent). We agree that intermediate data in between the time an individual reported on their religious service attendance and the end of the study or their death would be desirable. It is important, however, to consider the feasibility of conducting such a multi-wave study with a large enough sample for meaningful analysis of a low-base-rate event, such as death by suicide, as the outcome of interest. Additionally, we believe it is particularly telling that our measure of religious service attendance was able to predict suicide deaths in some cases several years later, despite any intermediate life changes. This might be because of the fact that a large number of participants (42%) in the data-set were over 50: frequency of religious service attendance tends to be relatively stable in that age group.Reference Schwadel2 Thus, religious service attendance might not have varied much over the course of the study.
Third, as suggested by Yates & Arya, collecting data on individual (v. population level) time-varying prospective predictors of suicide might be ideal. Such a study, however, would be extremely expensive and resource intensive. Indeed, over 20 000 people were needed for a data-set that had 25 suicides and data-sets such as this are rare. The number of participants needed to test the hypotheses in a fashion suggested by Yates & Arya would be quite substantially more, and the related resources needed to conduct such a study would be magnified with each follow-up assessment.
Fourth, Yates & Arya stated that using suicide deaths as an outcome variable might not be an advantage relative to using attempted suicide, in part because of the greater relevance of the latter to clinical settings. We caution against this view for several reasons. First, both deaths by suicide and suicide attempts are important public health concerns. Although a prior history of suicidal behaviour is indeed a strong predictor of future suicidal behaviour, a very large proportion of suicide deaths occur with the first attempt. Second, as cited in our manuscript, research finds that although suicide attempters and suicide decedents are overlapping groups, there is still a considerable lack of overlap between the two groups.Reference DeJong, Overholser and Stockmeier3 Over 90% of people who attempt suicide do not go on to die by suicide.Reference Owens, Horrocks and House4 Moreover, several studies have assessed religion as a predictor of suicide attemptsReference Dervic, Oquendo, Grunebaum, Ellis, Burke and Mann5 and thus our focus on death by suicide builds upon this literature.