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Does a new study show a link between teen suicide and Mormon populations? (COMMENTARY)

teen-depression-suicide(RNS) The Rational Faiths blog ran a fascinating -- and disturbing -- post recently from political science professor Benjamin Knoll, analyzing in considerable detail the alleged link between Mormonism and teen suicide.

You’ve probably seen this in the news over the last few months: 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.

But these claims, however important, have been based on anecdotal evidence, not social science research.

Knoll’s piece, “Youth Suicide Rates and Mormon Religious Context: An Additional Empirical Analysis,” is based on data.


RELATED STORY: LDS Church responds to alleged spike in LGBT youth suicides 


His research takes the conversation far beyond Utah to encompass suicide statistics in the entire United States from 2009 to 2014 -- something I haven’t seen anyone do before. He matches up suicide data state by state with data from the Pew Research Center on the percentage of Mormons in each state. Here are several key points:

Youth aged 15-19 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.”

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.

It is impossible to tell from this data whether there is a link to LGBT teens.

The Centers 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 in a Feb. 25 Rational Faiths post, “The LGBT Mormon Crisis: Responding to the Empirical Research on Suicide,” certainly suggests it.

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 Mormon teens in those states 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 the two.

This finding does not have anything to do with the November 2015 LDS church’s LGBT policy change.

Remember that this study only tracks suicide rates through 2014, which is the last year for which statistics are available. Knoll says further research would need to be done to investigate any possible link.

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.”

(Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of "The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less . . . Now with 68% More Humor!" She writes the Flunking Sainthood blog for RNS)