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August 27, 2014

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Don’t jump to conclusions about religious groups

A heart-breaking tragedy took place Tuesday evening when Scott Bybee, age of 26, took his life at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ temple in Las Vegas.

I can only imagine the sense of sadness and loss experienced by his family and friends. As a community, we also mourn such heartrending loss and naturally seek to understand and prevent such things from happening again. In our grief, as we reach for understanding, we are particularly prone to making assumptions. This recent tragedy is no exception.

As I read the article early Wednesday morning, my attention was quickly and unfortunately sidetracked to the comments section as the discussion devolved into generalized stereotypes and unfounded speculation. Some of the comments involved assumptions regarding the relationship of religion, particularly the Latter-day Saints, and mental health. With very little information from a very short article, some commenters implied or directly placed blame for this tragedy on a religion that they speculate leads to depression and suicidal tendencies in its members.

This isn’t the first time I have heard such claims. At the age of 14, a friend of mine at school proudly marched up to me with a grin on his face to tell me what he had recently “learned” from his youth pastor; that Mormonism was so wrong, so destructive, that its members were literally dying because of it. As evidence, this pastor had mentioned to his followers that Salt Lake City had the highest suicide rate in the country. He was grinning because he knew that I was a member of the church.

This claim piqued my curiosity (and perhaps my inner nerd), as I took the first opportunity I could to run to the school library to investigate. With the help of the librarian, by sixth period, I was handed a copy of suicide statistics ranking Salt Lake City far down the list.

It is understandable that opinions on such topics as religion can get very intense, personal and emotionally charged. At such times, it is crucial to hold to objective and solid information. As individuals, our experiences vary widely and addressing such individual situations is obviously beyond the scope of this article. Doing so, especially with respect to this recent situation, would be irresponsible for many reasons, only one of which is that there is very little information available. I wish to contribute the most objective and solid information.

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a doctorate in psychology. My dissertation involved an in-depth look at all the available peer-reviewed literature involving quantitative studies on mental health in the Latter-day Saint community.

It so happens that several particularly well-designed studies have looked specifically at the relationship between religious activity and suicide in the Utah LDS population. They have remarkably similar results showing that those with high activity in the church have the lowest rates of suicide compared with less active members and non-LDS groups.

One study found that active LDS members are seven times less likely to commit suicide than the general U.S. population. That is not to say that such suicides don’t happen. It does, however, suggest that membership in the church, if anything, is protective against, rather than a contributor to suicide.

Of further interest might also be studies looking at depression in the LDS community. The vast majority of studies on depression in the LDS community, particularly those including a large number of people studied, show a meaningful and significant mental health benefit to active membership in the faith. In other words, the more active or involved in church attendance and participation the group, the less likely they were to be depressed.

This also tended to hold true with other mental health-related issues, such that the more religiously involved the LDS group is, the higher their sense of well-being, the more competent they are socially, the higher their marital commitment, and the lower their probability of things like eating disorders, delinquency, drug use, divorce and racial prejudice. These conclusions were all drawn from peer-reviewed studies involving sound quantitative measures and large group samples rather than generalizing single cases or personal experiences, which are often biased by countless confounding variables.

This positive relationship between mental health and religious activity is not unique to the LDS church. It seems to be fairly consistent across major religious groups studied. In general, the more active the group is in its faith, the more benefit there tends to be toward mental health.

That is not to say that there aren’t those in the LDS population, or in other faiths for that matter, who are poor parents, severely depressed, socially incompetent, anorexic, or even suicidal.

But when speaking about the organization and its influence on its membership as a whole, there are fairly clear and consistent benefits directly related to mental health. Individuals can express their opinions, share their personal experiences, and point to specific variables from which wild and varied conclusions can be easily drawn. But before we instinctively jump in to point the finger in our fear, grief or anger, let’s consider the objective reality of solid, peer-reviewed, replicated finding.

Jared Overton is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Henderson and Overton.

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