Study shows link between teen suicide and Mormon populations

A new study shows that teen suicide is higher in states with substantial Mormon populations -- in Utah, it's twice as high. What does this mean?

teen suicide depressionEarlier this week, the Rational Faiths blog ran a fascinating — and disturbing — post from political science professor Benjamin Knoll, analyzing in considerable detail the alleged link between Mormonism and teen suicide.

You’ve probably seen in the news over the last few months that in the wake of the LDS Church’s policy changes regarding gay Mormons in same-sex marriages (and their children), some in the LGBT community have noted a terrifying increase in the number of suicides and calls to suicide hotlines among LGBT Mormon youth and young adults. (If you haven’t seen anything on this, here’s coverage in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Huffington Post, and the Deseret News.)

But these claims, however important, have been based in primarily anecdotal evidence, not social science research. Knoll’s piece, “Youth Suicide Rates and Mormon Religious Context: An Additional Empirical Analysis,” is based in data.

Of particular note is that that his research takes the conversation much wider than the low-hanging fruit of Utah to encompass suicide statistics in the entire United States from 2009 to 2014 — something I haven’t seen anyone do before when investigating these claims. He matches up suicide data state by state with Pew’s research into the percentage of Mormons in each state. Here are several key points.

  1. Youth in the 15-19 age group who live in states with heavy Mormon populations are at higher risk for suicide. As Knoll put it, “These are objectively small numbers, but it means that (again, controlling for other factors) youth suicides are twice as high in states with the highest levels of Mormon residents compared to states with the lowest levels of Mormon residents.”
  2. This association did not exist in any statistically significant way in 2009. Take a look at the second of the charts in Knoll’s post, which shows the greater frequency of teen suicide in 2014 versus 2009 in Mormon-heavy states such as Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, and Alaska. In those states, teen suicide is increasing at higher rates than it is in many (not all) other states; in Utah the rate has actually doubled since 2009.
  3. It is impossible to tell from this data whether there is a link to LGBT teens. The Center for Disease Control, which tracks suicides and other causes of death, does not include sexual orientation as a factor in its records. We simply don’t know whether there is an LGBT connection, though the indirect and anecdotal evidence recounted here certainly suggests it.
  4. We don’t know the religion of the teens committing suicide. This study only shows definitively that all youth who live in areas with higher Mormon populations are at a greater risk for suicide, not that it’s Mormon teens in those states who are killing themselves. Knoll explains it is “impossible to definitely know from this data” whether a) a higher concentration of Mormons in a community drives more Mormon youth suicides; b) that same higher concentration actually causes more non-Mormon kids to commit suicide; or c) some combination of A and B.
  5. This finding does not have anything to do with the LDS Church’s LGBT policy change in November 2015. Remember that this study only tracks suicide rates through 2014, which is the last year for which national stats are available. Knoll says that further research would need to be done to investigate any possible link there.

Knoll concludes his summary by saying that the research “is not intended to condemn. Rather, it is presented to contribute to the conversation on this important topic that literally has life-and-death implications. It is clear that there is a problem. The more information we have available to us the sooner we can craft an effective solution.”





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