A comprehensive, data-rich place to start:
LDS critics often charge that our faith and its policies precipitate and trigger suicide.
To credibly make claims on this topic, one should review the subject comprehensively. I link many articles and studies below that will better inform readers of the many associated and complicating variables.
Engaging in this complex issue with unsupported allegations — often done by LDS critics — is highly irresponsible.
I’ll open the conversation broadly before answering the critics.
The USA has far too many suicides, but some other countries are worse:
Russian and Eastern Europe have extremely high suicide rates.
Older people, white and American Indian/Alaskan Native men are much more likely to commit suicide than others in the US population.
In connection with suicides, it’s true Utah has a high rate. In fact, it often ranks between #3 and #10. But there is a lot of other information on the subject that, in my view, demonstrates that LDS policies and members are not the primary cause of suicides in Utah.
This entire blog on this subject, written on 1/31/16, is worth reading. It highlights the problems with recent claims that 32 (some reports were as high as 40) young Latter-day Saints recently committed suicide, as a result of Church LGBTQ+ policy.
“None other than the Salt Lake Tribune, always anxious to find ways to criticize the Church, went looking for information to corroborate the claim of “32 suicides.”
But, in a strange twist, actual journalism took place at the Tribune, and they were forced to report that there is no evidence of that many of suicides:
Trouble is, the number (32 claimed suicides) far exceeds the suicide figures collected by the Utah Department of Health.
Preliminary figures for November and December show 10 suicides in the Beehive State for people ages 14 to 20, with two more cases “undetermined.”
In fact, the department reports, the overall number of Utah deaths for that age group in those months was 25, including the 10 suicides and two “undetermined” cases, along with 11 in accidents, one by natural causes and one homicide.
“We monitor the numbers [of youth suicides] very closely. We review them every month,” says Teresa Brechlin, who works in the department’s violence- and injury-prevention program. “If we had seen such a huge spike, we would have been investigating it.”
Had there been any mention of the LDS Church’s policy on gays, her department “would have noted that,” Brechlin adds. “We have not seen that at all.”
Another post — There are no known cases of suicide, or even a plausible claim of such a case, as a result of the November 2015 policy — that demonstrates the utter lack of evidence that the November 2015 policy led to any suicides.
Other paragraphs make the point that depression and suicide are extremely complex. No one factor triggers suicide.
Various factors play a role in suicide:
“People with depression tend to have less efficient energy utilization in certain parts of their brain, like the prefrontal cortex,” said Brent Kious, a U. psychiatry professor and the review’s lead author. This energy roadblock, he said, means people have a tougher time overcoming negative emotions.
It turns out other mountainous states have similarly high suicide rates, with Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico also in the top five and Alaska ranked second, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This trend has earned the Intermountain West a morbid nickname: the suicide belt.
The U. researchers reviewed several U.S. studies that found suicide rates increased with altitude. One that examined nearly 9,000 suicide deaths in 2006 across 15 states found the suicide rate at high altitudes was three times higher than for those living near sea level. Another study noted a “threshold effect,” where suicide rates increased dramatically between 2,000 and 3,000 feet. Salt Lake City’s altitude is 4,265 feet.
Scientists in other countries have discovered similar associations, the U. review found. Suicide rates in Andalusia, a mountainous region of Spain, were higher than the country’s average, a finding correlated with high altitude. In Saudi Arabia, the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among depressed patients at a high-elevation psychiatric hospital was more than five times higher than at a sea level one.
These studies have piled up in recent years, Kious said, including several conducted by researchers at the U. One 2015 study showed how exposure to altitude led to more depression-like behavior in female rats. After a week of thin air, the rats were less likely to struggle in a swim test.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control, youth suicide is in the midst of a precipitous and frightening rise. Between 2006 and 2016, suicides by white children between ages 10 and 17 skyrocketed 70%; while black children are less likely than white children to kill themselves, their suicide rate also jumped 77%.
And as The Blaze points out, CNN reported last year that “the suicide rate among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 rose to a 40-year high in 2015.”
Male and female rates are rises, but women’s rates are rising more as a percentage.
A few years back, the trendy explanation was economic volatility — the market crash of 2007-2008 had supposedly created a culture of despair, cured only by suicide. But the economy is booming, and has been growing steadily since 2009.
There are those who blame the rise in drugs as well, particularly opioids — but according to a study from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, drinking, smoking and drug use may be at the lowest levels “seen in decades,” as the Los Angeles Times reports.
There seems to be a crisis of meaning taking place in America. And that crisis of meaning is heavily linked to a decline in religious observance. As The Atlantic observed in 2014, citing a study in Psychological Science:
The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning.
They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.
#3: In addition, population density plays a role. Rural areas are associated with more suicide.
Note: north central UT is where nearly all Utah residents live. The highest rates in UT are all in Utah’s south, east along the CO border, or near Coalville and the SW corner of Wyoming.
Note the locations of highest suicide rates in Alaska, the state with the highest suicide rate in the USA. These are rural areas with lots of guns.
Note the population density of Alaska. Suicides occur most in very rural areas. Similar to Utah and other states.
Focus in on Utah in the map below. Note where Utah’s highest rates are located. It’s not along the Wasatch Front.
Highest rates are close to the corner with Wyoming and in the eastern and southern parts of the states. All very rural.
A look at Utah’s population density:
Nearly everyone in Utah lives between North Ogden and Nephi.
Utah elevation. The cities in Utah are located in the valleys just west of the mountains. No surprise the rate of suicide is lower from Brigham City to Nephi.
#4: Gun availability is a factor in every state, including Utah:
Utah doesn’t have the highest gun-ownership percentage. But those states that rank in the top 1/3 tend to have many more suicides than those states with fewer gun owners.
Correlation isn’t causation, but the trend is obvious:
Americans commit suicide with a firearm about 1/2 the time. People in other countries almost never kill themselves with a gun.
Roughly 1/2 of suicides are committed by firearms:
Homicides are dropping, suicides are rising, and gun availability has consistently grown:
Kids commonly use a parent’s gun:
Suicide has significantly contributed to the total of firearm fatalities in recent years:
#5: Race, age, and gender play a role in suicide:
White men — in pure numerical terms — common suicide much more.
Alaska Natives have a high rate of suicide attempts.
Compared to Canadians, the Nunavut Inuit have much, much higher suicide rates.
Native Alaska males and non-native males are highest:
Peaks among the young and older:
Across the USA by age:
When teens are in prison they are at much higher risk than the adults in the same prison:
White males are at much higher risk.
Young people hang themselves much more commonly as a percentage than older people.
Rich young people are more common than rich older people. Suicide is less common in the poor countries of the world.
Suicide compared to other causes of death:
Education makes a difference:
#6: Different professions and job environment are associated with higher suicide rates:
Young people are committing suicide at alarming and growing rates. However, more than young people are dying.
“It’s not just young people. According to Tom Simon, a CDC report author, “We know that overall in the US, we’re seeing increases in suicide rates across all age groups.” As of 2016, suicide levels were at 30-year highs.
Area of employment is also associated with risk factors.
Those in the military facing combat had higher suicide rates:
Working outside and installing/repairing things is stressful.
We’ll focus more specifically on Utah below.
Other Rocky Mountains states and Alaska have higher rates than Utah. Not all studies find the same results, but they are similar. Utah is #5 in the U of Utah study below:
#5 in this study:
Utah Department of Health reported Utah is ranked #7:
This link to 2017 CDC data ranks Utah #6.
2/3 of adolescents who committed suicide were involved with the criminal justice system. And 90% had mental illness.
In conclusion, suicide is complex. Please understand the data before wading into the debate.
Additional and applicable thoughts:
This study — 5 Reasons why Mormons are Happier — shares this about suicides:
“I then asked Hunter about conflicting research that shows that even though Mormons in general rank as very happy, Utah (which is nearly 70% Mormon) has a high suicide rate and a lot of women on antidepressants.
How do those two facts square with Utah as one of the happiest places in the USA? “Research shows that some of the happiest places in the world also have the highest suicide rates,” Hunter explains.
“Some people think that this paradox is explained by relative comparisons of utility. People compare their happiness to other people’s. It may feel particularly painful to be unhappy when everyone around you is happy.
There’s also a lot of research that talks about elevation and suicide.” (See here for a brief discussion of the role of altitude and mountains in suicide rates.)