The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that "Utah health officials are grappling with a rising youth suicide rate that's nearly tripled since 2007 and is now the leading cause of death among 10- to 17-year-olds in Utah." While these tragic statistics have been known for some time, clear cause-and-effect explanations have been harder to determine. As the article goes on to report: "officials don't know why Utah's child suicide rate is more than double the national rate and climbing."
Possible explanations, according to Utah health officials, include Utah's higher level of residential mobility (which might result in fewer supportive community networks), the effects of lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes, a "rugged mentality of self-reliance" that prevents people with mental illness from seeking out help, and higher rates of gun ownership.
While these are all plausible explanations, they do not account for the rapid rise in youth suicides over the last decade. Residential mobility, oxygen levels, political culture, and gun ownership rates have all remained fairly steady while youth suicides have tripled. This strongly suggests that something else is going on.
A more likely explanation is the clear elephant in the room: religious context. Specifically, many have identified Mormon church rhetoric on LGBT issues in the years following California Proposition 8 in 2008 and especially in the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling as a potential cause of the uptick in youth suicides in Utah compared to the rest of the country. (See here, here, and here, e.g.). Many anecdotes have linked the tragic suicides of LGBT Mormon youth to their perception that there is no place for them in their community.
Anecdotes are plentiful, but more rigorous and systematic evidence on the potential link between Mormon religious context and youth suicides is not. My coauthors Daniel Parkinson, Michael Barker, and I have attempted to address this dearth of evidence in two forthcoming articles in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. (Earlier versions of the forthcoming articles can be found here and here.)
Some of our findings include:
- In 2014 (the year the most recent data is available), the % Mormon in a U.S. state is associated with a higher level of youth suicides in that state. This relationship holds even after statistically controlling for other potential causal factors of suicide such as elevation (altitude), rates of gun ownership, rates of serious mental illness, rural vs. urban, state spending on mental health, and a variety of demographic and socioeconomic factors.
While "correlation is not causation," analysts have yet to identify any other plausible factor that simultaneously 1) causes youth suicides, 2) substantially increased over the last five years, and 3) happened in predominantly Mormon communities. In the absence of a compelling alternative explanation, we argue that the link between Mormon religious context and the rise of youth LGBT suicides over the last several years is the most likely causal explanation. While this link has not yet been conclusively proven, a quickly-growing body of direct, indirect, and anecdotal evidence is all pointing to the same conclusion.
We therefore urge health officials, religious leaders, concerned citizens, and especially friends and family of LGBT youth not to overlook or discount the obvious effect of religious context on the rise of youth suicides in Utah and other states with large Mormon communities. Until we are willing to acknowledge and confront the underlying causes, we will not succeed in crafting an effective solution.