Episode 7: Youth Suicidality and the Church (Justin Dyer) MAY 2020
It’s not uncommon to hear popular narratives that link depression and suicide with the Church. Are those claims accurate? Dr. Justin Dyer finds the research suggests a different narrative. In this episode, professor Dyer shares his important studies about Latter-day Saint youth suicide, depression, LGBTQ members, and religiosity that can help us act in more informed and compassionate ways.
Overall, researchers found that members of the LDS Church are the most “prosocial” members of American society.
“Regardless of where they live, they are very generous with their time and money,” Cnaan, an expert in faith-based social services and the lead researcher, said. “Through a theology of obedience and sacrifice and a strong commitment to tithing and service, Latter-day Saints are model citizens.”
An average American Latter-day Saint provides almost 430 hours of volunteer labor annually. This equates to approximately 35 hours per month. In comparison, the average American volunteer provides about four hours of volunteering per month.
Latter-day Saints serve mostly within their wards. Much less time was spent serving in the community. But, even in Mormons only served outside their ward callings, they’d still equal the national average of all Americans.
The study also reports on tithing. Nobody takes tithing more seriously than Latter-day Saints. This was also interesting:
“The study shows 48 percent of the respondents reported donating money through secular giving. On average, a Latter-day Saint donates $1,171 annually to social causes outside the church. “
“A lot of research suggests that Mormons are the most pro–social group in America. Active Mormons report that they volunteer an average of 35.6 hours per month, including church callings but not missions. Even if you take out religious volunteering (callings and other church service), Mormons still volunteer as much as the national average. Also, Mormons donate more than twice as much (9.3%) of their income as the national average of people who give to charity (4%) and more than four times as much as the national average overall (2%). Excluding tithing, Mormons still contribute a large amount to charity: $2,024 annually.”
Researchers found higher self-esteem, lower anxiety, and lower behavior problems in kids that know their family’s stories. This could be because they develop a sense of identity that’s larger than just themselves. They’re embedded in a larger, intergenerational context. Knowing that your great-grandma was able to cross the plains after her husband died could give you a greater amount of grit and self-determination.”
3. Purpose and meaning
“There is a substantial relationship between an individual having purpose and meaning in life and their well-being. Mormon doctrine offers its members an explanation for the purpose of life. The belief that life is a temporary learning experience to help God’s children develop lasting joy may help Mormons have positive emotion, character development, resilience, grit, and meaning.”
4. Autonomy and agency
“The motivation that drives behavior has a significant impact on well-being. Behavior that is self-motivated results in more positive outcomes. Mormon doctrine holds that part of the purpose of life is to exercise agency and learn to choose between good and evil. Mormons are taught that compulsion is not God’s way, and Mormon doctrine emphasizes agency, autonomy, and free-will.”
5. Physical health
“There’s a lot of research, of course, on the negative consequences of smoking and drinking. The Word of Wisdom includes a range of healthy behaviors, and also supports the general idea that there’s a deep connection between our bodies and our minds. Positive psychology research calls this thesomatopsychic principle, that the body and mind are so inseparably connected that it’s misleading to regard them as two separate entities.
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.)
“It’s possible that Mormons are not self-medicating with alcohol and drugs like some people do to combat depression. In addition, Mormons are more likely to seek medical help, evidenced by the fact that Utah ranks high for people seeking prescriptions for other things like thyroid medication or anticonvulsants or anti-rheumatics. It’s not just for antidepressants.”
Dan Peterson shares the sad story of a young man who left the Church and later took his life. Dan points out positives associated with faith.
Peterson quotes Bertrand Russell’s dreary thoughts about the pointlessness of life.
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave;
that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
The best solution to lack of faith and despair is a return to faith and hope.
Among other things, Peterson shared research by Harvard scholars and compared C.S. Lewis’ life to Freud’s. They correlated better mental health with faith and church attendance.
Latter-day Saints do well, according to Pew Research data in 2013:
Youths who regularly attend religious services, pray or meditate may get a well-being boost that sticks around into young adulthood, according to a new Harvard study that joins a body of research showing benefits from religiosity.
Senior author and epidemiologist Tyler J. VanderWeele knows most people don’t make decisions about religion based on health, but rather on beliefs, values, experiences and relationships. “However, for parents and children who already hold religious beliefs, such religious and spiritual practices could be encouraged both for their own sake as well as to promote health and well-being,” said Vanderweele, a professor in Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The study, by VanderWeele and Harvard research scientist Ying Chen, is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Among the findings, youths who attended religious services at least weekly as children and adolescents were:
About 18 percent more apt to report higher happiness between ages 23-30 than those who didn’t
29 percent more likely to be volunteers
33 percent less likely to use illegal drugs
Those who prayed or meditated at least daily as kids were, as young adults:
16 percent more likely to report higher happiness
30 percent less likely to have sex at a young age
40 percent less likely to have a sexually transmitted disease
The researchers said while adult literature indicates worship service attendance has greater impact on health, compared to meditation and prayer, for youths the benefits are equal or perhaps even slightly less.
“One possible explanation is religious attendance patterns may be shaped by parents, but prayer and meditation may reflect their own beliefs, Chen said.
This article below points out that counties with higher percentages of LDS folks in ID and UT (Eastern ID, SLC, Provo, etc) tend to have lower percentages of suicides than counties in ID and UT (Carbon County, UT, for example) with lower percentages of LDS folks.
This is not scientific proof that some LDS youth don’t commit suicide because of LDS teachings. But it does demonstrate that certain variables (not completely identified) appear to lower the suicide rate in LDS-dense counties vs. less-LDS-dense counties.
This article was written in response to another in which Utah’s LDS population was linked to Utah’s suicide rate. A rate which is lower than in several surrounding states, all of which have lower LDS population composition.
“it becomes clear that many of the counties in Utah with the highest percentage of Latter-day Saints also exhibit some of the lowest rates of suicide in Utah.
Carbon County, one of the four counties with the lowest percentage of Latter-day Saints, has the highest rate. Idaho suicide data seems to run contrary to the story’s evident thesis, at least in part.
Public Health District 7, which includes eastern Idaho counties with the state’s highest proportion of Latter-day Saints, has Idaho’s lowest suicide rate….”
“Even one suicide is too many, and none of this information discounts what LGBT Latter-day Saints share. We acknowledge the unique challenge it often is for LGBT members to deal with these issues and that some people have been unkind. We should respond with care to our LGBT friends when dealing with complex religious and emotional matters.
We should also expect journalism organizations to avoid oversimplification.”
Consider a comprehensive, data-rich analysis on the topic of suicides in general:
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 — sadly, something all too 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.
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.”
“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:
“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.
“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.)