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

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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)

About the author

Jana Riess

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


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  • @Jana, If Mormonism is the cause of youth suicides, we should do something about it. However, I’m surprised that the research did not build upon other past research that showed the altitude connection. The data on Wyoming is particularly questionable (since there were no suicides in 2009) and would have had a significant impact on the statistical significance of the research. The author, and you, have a clear agenda in connecting Mormonism to youth suicides. To suggest otherwise is naive or dishonest. And that’s fine. I think you can have those agenda and still conduct research but at least state your personal view before sharing research. And I want to be clear, I think we should do a massive study on the connection between Mormonism and suicide…this study is not it. Just looking at the nature of the data suggests there may be something else going on here.

  • @Jana, One last thing. I believe there should be more resources for Mormon LGBTQ youth. We all have a responsibility to care for and support these youth whether or not they decide to stay in the church. However, the strategy employed by many Mormon progressives has been to “blame the church” (albeit through indirect conjecture – “we’re not saying that correlation = causation…but we are saying that”). Rather than adopt this approach, why not reach out to the church for support in a more collaborative manner. It seems as though the current approach, which is an aggressive condemnation by groups like Mama Dragons, just leads to the church (and more conservative members) becoming defensive. There has got to be a better way.

  • Your church makes 8 BILLION a year tax free and hasn’t done a study itself? Do they still use electric shock while attempting Gay Conversion Therapy? Homosexuality isn’t the only reason Mormon youth commit suicide, being born Mormon may just be enough reason.

  • Richard, you are way out to lunch and badly misinformed about this whole subject. Your unfounded bias is showing with unmitigated hatred. Mormons have never done “gay conversion therapy” and never electric shock. Don’t be obtuse.

    Looking at Jana’s resume, it looks as if she is highly motivated by sensationalism with little substance or truth.

  • Notice that this isn’t peer reviewed, and on its face, it’s quite a stretch. Significance in statewide statistics is supposed to attach to a very small numbers of Mormons in most of the states, 5% or less.

    It’s a disservice to the facts and the people affected to treat this as though it were a well-designed, strongly supported study.

  • This part of that same article documents the electroshock therapy:

    “John Cameron said he was a naive and devout Mormon who felt “out of sync” with the world, when he volunteered to be part of a study of “electric aversion therapy” in 1976 at Utah’s Brigham Young University.

    Twice a week for six months, he jolted himself with painful shocks to the penis to rid himself of his attraction to men.”

  • “Several church members have been involved in the therapy for people with homosexual inclinations. A. Dean Byrd has published several articles in professional magazines and in the Ensign on the subject of homosexuality. Beckstead and Morrow analyzed the experience of 50 Mormon men undergoing conversion therapy.[108]

    Jeff Robinson interviewed seven heterosexually married Mormon men who had been through conversion therapy and previously identified as gay. The seven men believe they had a spiritual transformation and that their orientation was changed. They were no longer troubled by emotional attraction to men, sexual attraction to men, feeling bad about same-sex desires, social isolation, or compulsive sexual thoughts and behaviors. Robinson found that their change came from a new understanding that prior same-sex attractions did not require them to “be” gay.[109]”

  • “Evergreen International, Inc. was a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose stated mission was to assist “people who want to diminish same-sex attractions and overcome homosexual behavior”. It adhered to Christian and particularly LDS teaching and was endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). The organization stated this task could be accomplished with the help of the Lord and, in some cases, psychological counseling. Evergreen was founded in 1989 as a grassroots organization by men who were seeking to deal with their homosexual feelings in ways congruent to the teachings of the LDS Church.”

  • “The author of a controversial 2001 study claiming that gays can do so has now disavowed his conclusions, but a Utah organization for Mormons plans to continue using so-called reparative therapy in its efforts to help or “cure” those with same-sex attraction.

    “In fact, Evergreen International tells The Salt Lake Tribune it has no plans to remove the research from its website.

    Even so, Robert L. Spitzer is backing away from his study.

    “I believe I owe the gay community an apology,” Spitzer wrote in a letter to a psychiatric journal, according to a New York Times story last week.”

  • “Justin Utley was 25 when he began going to Evergreen, a support group in Salt Lake City, Utah, that helped people “diminish same-sex attractions and overcome homosexual behavior.” After returning from his mission trip as a young Mormon, he’d approached his bishop and told him he might be gay—which led him to seek help using a church-recommended practice.

    But what was supposed to be the road to a celestial kingdom became a two-year struggle to change his identity, and he left the program to pursue a relationship with another man. Utley, now 35, describes Evergreen as a “conversion therapy support group” that treated homosexuality as a curable addiction.

    “The belief was that you’re only gay if you do something that is gay,” Utley said.”

  • Its OK for Gary Jacobson to think that the Church never engaged in Conversion therapy even though we did.

    Because it is part of our culture, our doctrine and our MO to take parts of our history we are not fans of and pretend they did not exist.. and to spin them to pretend that they are related to attacks from others.

  • This comment sounds very reasonable on its face. Trouble is that the LGBT community has tried very hard to work with the Church in a collaborative way. The “Fairness for all” press conference given by LDS apostles was a outcropping of that effort.

    Unfortunately, the LGBT community, having started to develop a trusting, collaborative relationship with the Church was burned badly by the same leadership, leading to the (quite accurate) perception that Church leaders were merely being deceptive.

    Given very reasonable trust issues, it is difficult to see a path to where the relationship can be repaired.

  • I know about this subject from a very painful and personal level. My son died of suicide in June of 2014. His suicide notes and chat logs directly indicate it was the LDS church and his bullying there that led to his end of life decision. The LDS church leaders have been hostile towards investigating the events that led to his end of life decision, to this day has not been investigated, something I am told is because of liability concerns.

    The LDS church has a very serious bullying problem amongst its youth. I have made many efforts to get them to correct their policy on how abuse is addressed, with little success and much resistance. Liability and administrative concerns seem to take precedence over protecting children among the LDS highest leaders. Studies indicate that bullying has a direct effect on mental health and suicides, which could explain the higher numbers of suicides for LDS areas.

    My research also informed me that the LDS policy on masturbation are an factor.