Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon women and depression, revisited

It has long been conventional wisdom that Mormon women are more prone to depression than American women are generally. So in the Next Mormons Survey, I wanted to find out if that was really true – and if so, why.

After fielding and analyzing the survey, my answer to that question is still that I’m not entirely sure, as I explain in the long footnote below.* But we did learn a lot about the characteristics of Mormon women who take such medication.

Overall, about a fifth of currently-identified Mormons say they have taken or are currently taking medication for depression—21%.

The numbers are definitely higher for Mormon women than for men. 27% of women say yes, almost twice the number of Mormon men who do (14.5%).

What is going on here? Are Mormon women really that much more depressed than Mormon men?

And if so, is it because the culture places unrealistic expectations on their shoulders to be perfect moms with flawless bodies and unwavering testimonies? Is it because more Mormons are stay-at-home moms than American women more generally, and are therefore cut off from the social networks and self-esteem that can come from paid employment? Both of these have been put forward as possible explanations.

Maybe. I am withholding judgment for a couple of reasons. First, the rate of Mormon women suffering from depression may actually be lower than the national average for women. The data on this is inconsistent, though; Timothy Heaton’s research has indeed found that “LDS women are significantly higher in depression than non-LDS women.” So there is no consensus here.

Second, there’s a known “gender gap” between men and women in the United States where mental health is concerned—and not just in Mormonism.

According to a publication of the Harvard Medical School, women “are about twice as likely as men to develop major depression,” based on a combination of genetic, hormonal, and emotional factors (and also the fact that even if men do develop depression, they are idiots about it they are less likely than women to seek the help they need). The World Health Organization has also found that depression is twice as common in women.

Bottom line, then: Mormon women appear to struggle more than Mormon men do with depression, or at least are getting treated for it nearly twice as often. This is not, however, an unusual or Mormon-specific gender dynamic.

Let’s dive in some more. In my research, I wanted to find out what correlative factors might help us understand the population of Mormon women who do get treatment. Are they SAHMs with large families? Working moms? Republicans? The elderly? Here are some key findings from the Next Mormons Survey:

  • Age matters little, though younger women are a tiny bit more likely than older ones to take medication. It was interesting that in a survey that showed so much generational variation on other questions, this issue was similar across all four generations of LDS adults.
  • Employment matters a little but not very much. The rates for women who were unemployed and not looking for work were five points higher than those who worked full-time and just one point higher than those who worked part-time. So it’s possible that there’s a correlation between being a stay-at-home mother and being more likely to be depressed, but the difference is small. And correlation is not necessarily causation in any case.
  • Democrats are about nine points more likely to take medication than women who lean or vote Republican.
  • We see more significant difference related to church activity. Women who consider themselves “very active” Mormons are less likely to report taking medication for depression (22.5%) than women who are “not at all active” in the Church (35%).
  • Along those lines, about a quarter of women who believe “all or most Mormon teachings” have taken medication, compared to more than a third who doubt or find some Mormon teachings hard to believe.
  • Women who have no children at all are a little more likely to take medication for depression than women who have one, two, or three children. In families of four or more children, women are also a bit more likely take medication. Overall, the women who were least likely to take medication for depression were those with one, two, or three children.
  • There does seem to be a correlation with divorce. Women who were divorced were almost twice as likely as married women to have taken medication for depression (41% vs. 23%). Never-married women fall in the middle at 34%.

I hope these findings can put to rest some of the glib conclusions people have come to in the past. The reality is nuanced and complex.


OTHER FINDINGS FROM THE NEXT MORMONS SURVEY:


* The Fine Print

It’s difficult to get an answer to the “Mormon women vs. other women” question because the studies are all measuring slightly different things.

For example, the NMS had people agree or disagree with the statement, “I have taken or am currently taking medication for depression or another mental health issue.” This can tell us a lot, but it won’t tell us everything we want to know.

First, there’s the issue of non-specific mental health diagnoses. Depression is included here, yes, but so are many other possibilities, from ADHD to zoophobia and everything in between. So it’s hardly an apples-to-apples comparison.

Second, there’s the problem of timing: the question was worded to include anyone who has taken medication for mental health at any point in life, not just right now. So if you took it after your first child was born and you had postpartum depression, you’d still answer “yes” to the question even if you haven’t taken it for years.

And third, those who are taking or have taken medication aren’t the same as the wider population of those who might have – or ought to have – a mental health diagnosis.

It’s important to be responsible about what this question does and does not measure, but it’s also revealing to examine who in the Mormon world answered yes.

This story is available for republication.

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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