Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The one factor missing from Utah’s suicide puzzle

Those mountains can kill ya.
Those mountains can kill ya.

Those mountains can kill ya.

Suicide has long been an alarming phenomenon in Utah.

But a new theory abandons the cultural rationales that have been offered in the past — such as that Mormonism, the dominant religion in the state, is so dysfunctional that it drives people to end their painful lives — in favor of science.

One key finding is that Utah’s residents aren’t the only ones at a heightened risk for suicide — as much as a 30% higher risk. It’s a regional problem throughout the West.

  • In 2007 the CDC ranked Utah 15th, but also noted that 8 of the top 10 worst suicide rates were in Western states, the lone non-Western anomalies being West Virginia (#7) and Kentucky (#10).
  • In 2010, the CDC again highlighted the region of the American West as a suicide belt, with Utah coming in at #10.
  • For 2012, the CDC listed Utah at #5, and found that all ten of the worst offending states were in the West: Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Oklahoma.

What is going on here?

Last week a Mic article unveiled new research that proposes that the culprit is not Mormonism, or poor access to mental health care, or even the greater availability of guns in western states — all of which have been cited at one time or another to explain Utah’s stubborn presence in stories about high suicide rates.

Instead, blame the mountains.

Dr. Perry Renshaw, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, says that altitude definitely affects mental health, and not in a good way:

In a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, a group of researchers, including Renshaw, analyzed state suicide rates with respect to gun ownership, population density, poverty, health insurance quality and availability of psychiatric care. Of all the factors, altitude had the strongest link to suicide — even the group of states with the least available psychiatric care had fewer suicides than the highest-altitude states, where psychiatric care was easier to find.

Particularly interesting to Renshaw was the research into healthy people who did not develop suicidal tendencies until they moved to the mountains. When air contains low levels of oxygen, the theory goes, it affects neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which in some people may trigger suicidal ideation.

The research may also explain why antidepressant usage is double the national average for women in Utah — almost a quarter of middle-aged women in the state are on antidepressants.

This research is still in the early phases, but it’s certainly interesting. And it may come as a relief to Mormons on the Wasatch Front who feel guilty about any depression they feel.

Depression is not caused by a flaw in their own attitude; it’s their altitude.



About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • The study found that the correlation was between mean county altitude and suicide. So low elevation cities such as Portland, Boise and St. George should show lower suicide rates, while cities such as Flagstaff (7200′) should show a high rate even though not in one of the top ten states.

    Maybe we’re just oxygen-deprived and exercise poor judgement.

  • On the other hand, perhaps Bhutanese have had a much longer time period (much longer than, say, 200 years or so) in which to become adapted to the Himalayas.

  • Some basic facts of statistics need to be remembered when discussing things like this:

    This article (and associated study) finds a strong correlation between altitude and suicide. This certainly doesn’t mean that it is the only factor, so replying with “exceptions” or counter-examples doesn’t mean much. Not all tall people are good at basketball, but that doesn’t negate the fact that most basketball greats are (much) taller than average.

    Far too many “statistics” about Mormons are derived from statistics about the state of Utah. While there’s an obvious correlation between the two, one should be careful about drawing conclusions, especially when the “conclusion” involves a very small subset of the population, such as suicides.

    Finally “Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.” -xkcd

  • Why doesn’t somebody correlate the fact that Mormons can’t self medicate with alcohol as the rest of the world does and that would explain the high antidepressant use?

  • It is truly refreshing to find someone commenting who knows something about statistics and seems able to apply logical reasoning to the data. Not long ago someone “proved” chocolate consumption caused weight loss through actual statistical data. While the data were “correct” the prank was a deliberate experiment to see who would accept the bogus manipulation of scientific data. Many news outlets reported this new “finding” immediately and without any criticism of the methodology.

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