NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Young Mormon men living in Utah who closely adhere to the dictates of their faith are less likely to commit suicide than their peers who are less active in the church, study findings show.
The Mormon Church is known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
For more than 10 years, 15- to 34-year-old males in Utah have had suicide rates markedly higher than those seen nationally. In fact, in the early to mid-1990s, suicide was the number one cause of death among 25- to 44-year-old men in the state and the second-leading cause of death among men aged 15 to 24.
"These results provide evidence that a low level of religious commitment is a potential risk factor for suicide," Dr. Sterling C. Hilton of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and his colleagues write in the March 1st issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.
"If the observed association is real, then it gives us another piece of information that helps us understand suicide... which might help efforts to reduce it," Hilton told Reuters Health.
Hilton and his colleagues investigated the relationship between suicide and religiosity in an analysis of 1991-1995 state death records from the Utah State Department of Health, as well as data from the LDS church and the US Census Bureau.
Roughly 27,740 male deaths occurred during the study period, including 551 suicides among 15 to 34 year olds, the investigators report. About 6 in 10 of these suicides were committed by male members of the LDS church.
Suicide rates in each of the four age categories studied--15 to 19 years, 20 to 24 years, 25 to 29 years, and 30 to 34 years--were lower among active members of the LDS church than among less active LDS church members, nonmembers and males in the general US population, the report indicates.
For example, the suicide rate among less active LDS church members aged 25 to 29 was seven times higher than among their active church peers. Nationally, the suicide rate among 20- to 34-year old males was 2.5 to 3 times higher than among active LDS church members of the same age. Suicide risk was also 3 to 6 times higher among nonmembers in comparison to active members of the LDS church.
In addition, the risk of suicide among males aged 15 to 19 was three times higher among the less active church members than among their active peers, but the rate among the active youth was comparable to the national suicide rate.
One potential reason for the association between lower suicide risk and high levels of religiosity may be the fact that some religions forbid substance abuse or other harmful behaviors that may be associated with suicide, the researchers speculate.
In addition, they suggest, the social structure and support provided by many religions may reduce feelings of isolation and help individuals who are suffering bouts of depression, thereby acting as a suicide prevention measure.
Lastly, the high value placed on life by many religions may also be an indirect method of suicide prevention, since individuals who are strongly committed to their faith may have a greater desire to live.
"Since the possible explanations (given)... for the observed association are not unique to the LDS church, I believe that these findings are most likely generalizable to other religions," Hilton said.
Higher Utah suicide rates are not due to stresses within the church
Utah is the land of Jell-O and funeral potatoes, but it also has a more somber quirk.
The Beehive State is included in the region with the highest suicide rate in the nation.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports suicide accounts for 14.3 percent of violent deaths in Utah, compared to 9.4 percent in the United States.
Suicide was the No. 1 cause of death in Utah for 25- to 44-year-old men, and the second-leading cause of death among men aged 15 to 24. The state has been above the national average for suicides several decades in a row.
Sterling C. Hilton, assistant professor in the statistics department, said the natural tendency is to assume that since Utah has a predominantly Latter-day Saint population, the church must contribute to the level of depression and suicides in Utah.
But he and other BYU statisticians recently conducted a study that concluded just the opposite is true.
"No evidence suggests that church demands and pressures on its members account for the high suicide rate in Utah," Hilton said.
The study, published in the March 1 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, targeted Utah men between the ages of 15 and 34, and cross-referenced their activity in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Active members were found to be seven times less likely to commit suicide than their less-active peers, according to the study.
"Many factors of religiosity relate to lowered suicide rates," Hilton said. "Latter-day Saints believe in a higher being, an afterlife, and the sanctity of life. They believe life, in and of itself, is precious. The church also has an elaborate social support system."
Hilton said activity in any religion decreased the risk of suicide. But adherence to the Latter-day Saint faith in particular lowered the chances of suicide because the church prohibits alcohol use outright, whereas most religions only discourage abuse.
Alcohol abuse is directly linked to suicidal tendencies, he said.
The church activity level of the men studied was determined by whether or not they had the appropriate priesthood calling for their age. In other words, if a 16-year-old had been ordained to the office of a priest, he was considered active.
The study does not account for the higher suicide rate in Utah overall, a statistic that has baffled sociologists for decades.
But Hilton emphasized the point that the entire Intermountain West Region of seven or eight states has above-average suicide rates.
"Utah was at the lower end of the scale in the region," Hilton said.
Dan Judd, author of "Religion, Mental Health, and the Latter-day Saints," hypothesized on the reasons behind the increased suicide rates in the Intermountain West.
"Nevada pulls the region much higher, and I think possibly westerners have more access to weapons and firearms," Judd said.
Judd found that suicide rates at BYU are lower than other college campuses, and contends that it's spurious to assume that depression or suicides are linked to the church.
Mirroring Utah's suicide rate is the level of anti-depressant usage.
More Utahns take Prozac-style drugs than in any other state, according to a study conducted in June of 2001 by Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit management firm.
The study indicated that Utah residents average 1.1 prescriptions per person per year of medications such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil. The national average is 0.7.
"Oregon and Maine also had above average anti-depressant usage, but those states' percentage of overcast days and average length of winter could explain the increased number of depressed residents," said Jim Jorgenson, director of pharmacy services for the University of Utah.
No such weather explanations exist in Utah, which has a high percentage of sunny days and average winter duration, he said.
Jorgenson said Utah women, the group accounting for the largest percentage of anti-depressant use, are under larger amounts of stress than their counterparts in other states because of large family size in Utah.
He also said some experts believe pressures on time and emotions could explain the high Prozac usage among Latter-day Saints.
Judd offered an additional hypothesis after stressing that Utah's usage of anti-depressants does not indicate there is a higher lever of depression in the state.
"Utahns are more educated per capita than residents of other states," he said. "So instead of trying to ignore mental problems or medicate it on our own with alcohol or something else, we tend to seek professional help. We try to address our problems through legal legitimate ways."