Depression, Mental Illness, and Suicide in the Mormon Corridor

Early this year, I heard a vlogger decry the many suicides in Utah that happen as a direct result of LDS church policies, teachings, and doctrines. I was curious to know if this was true or not, so I did some research. I didn’t actually find anything to concretely tie the suicides directly to the church, but I did discover some interesting statistics. 

In an article from the LA Times, a study was shared in which Utah was found to be the state with the most antidepressant use in America. The author states, “Antidepressant drugs are prescribed in Utah more often than in any other state, at a rate nearly twice the national average.” To be fair, this study was conducted in 2002 and things may have improved since then, but there doesn’t seem to have been any follow up study.

In 2020, Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the mental health of Americans, posted several interesting charts on its website ranking the 50 states and Washington DC with regard to the incidence of mental illness and the access of these people to adequate care. If you look at these charts, you can see a greater rate of mental illness in the intermountain west than in most other parts of America. 

Also in 2020, the National Center for Health Statistics, a federal agency in America, posted a chart showing suicide rates by state in America. The states in and around the Rocky Mountains show a much higher suicide rate than the rest of the country.

I tried to find studies that could reliably link these issues to a cause, but I was unsuccessful. All I know is that there is at least a correlation between states with a high LDS population and antidepressant use, mental illness, and high rates of suicide. One other study that I found tried to link the suicide rate in the Rocky Mountains to elevation. I was curious to see if this idea had any merit, so I began to look at the suicide rates of other countries that also have high elevation. If there is a link between elevation and suicide rate, I would expect to see a higher suicide rate in other mountainous countries as well.

To start with, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, Utah has a suicide rate of 22.2 (deaths per 100,000 per year) and an average elevation of 6100 feet or 1859 meters. Based on Utah’s current population, this is around 700 successful suicides each year. There are certainly many times more failed attempts. Other LDS states include Idaho (23.9/1524 meters), Wyoming (25.2/2042 meters), Arizona (19.2/1219 meters), and Nevada (21.4/1676 meters). For reference, the suicide rate for America as a whole is 13 per 100,000, much lower than any of the LDS states.

When looking for other countries to compare to Utah and other LDS states, I looked at the ones with at least an average elevation of 1200 meters or greater and where the bulk of the population was inland, not along any coast. I also removed any countries from my list where there was likely to be significant underreporting due to the stigma attached to suicide in that country. Most of this information comes from Google or Wikipedia, so feel free to fact check any of this information if you want. 

Country NameElevationSuicide rate per 100,000
Tajikistan3186 m3.3
Kyrgyzstan2988 m9.1
Lesotho2161 m28.9
Andorra1996 m7.91
Chile1871 m9.7
Utah1859 m22.2
China1840 m8
Armenia1792 m5.7
Rwanda1598 m11
Peru1555 m5.1
Mongolia1528 m13.3
Burundi1504 m15
Georgia1432 m6.7
Switzerland1350 m11.3
Ethiopia1330 m11.4

Anyway, there may be more to it, but it seems pretty clear that Utah and other LDS states have a problem, and it’s not having a high elevation. Is it related to religion? It seems pretty likely, but that idea comes from personal experience more than anything else.

I shared some of this information with an active member a month ago, and they came back with this line, “Utah is actually one of the happiest states according to some polls.” So, I looked that idea up too and found that a significant number of people do seem to carry that opinion.

So why is there such a disconnect between the facts and statistics, and what the people are saying in public polls? If Utahns are so happy, why are they taking more antidepressants, have more mental illness, and commit more suicides than most of the world?

My opinion is that there is a stigma attached to admitting unhappiness in the church. Whether doctrinal or not, it is commonly believed and taught in church that if you are a faithful, active member of the church and being obedient, you will be happy. From the very beginning of Primary and in every General Conference, members are taught about the “Plan of Happiness.” 

But what if you’re doing your best and still not happy? This was always my issue. I did my best but still wished to die. I always smiled on the outside and had a cheerful demeanor. I would certainly not have felt comfortable acknowledging my unhappiness to others. Fortunately, I’m in a much better place now. My smiles are more genuine and I don’t feel so bad about being sad from time to time. It’s okay to not be okay all the time. I’m happier overall, outside the church. Now, if only all the others that are not happy in the church could find their way out. Let those that are truly happy in the church stay where they are if they want, but I don’t believe it’s for everyone.

3 comments

  1. Something I’ve realized myself in my exodus from the lds church is how much it was hurting me to believe that all of my feelings could be impressions from the Spirit. I’ve been in therapy and leaning more about my psychology, and a common root of anxiety and depression is being unable to dismiss your thoughts and feelings add just thoughts and feelings — things worth noticing, but not taking as fact or messages from infallible beings. This alone has been one of the greatest strides I’ve made in my personal journey for mental health

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    • I really appreciate the perspective you are sharing here. I think there are probably a lot of different reasons that people can feel unhappy in the church, and this is one I hadn’t really thought of. Thank you for your contribution.

      Like

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