LDS Identity’s Effect on Mental Health

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Rebekah Perkins Crawford is a visiting professor in Social and Public Health at Ohio University. She has a PhD in Health Communication.

The recent tragic suicide of a BYU student has prompted conversations about the relationship between religiosity and mental health, about whether Latter-day Saints have a problem with suicide, and, if we do, what our response should be.

Experts (especially at BYU) have consistently claimed that LDS religious practice is positively associated with mental health.  Such claims are based on studies that average difference, homogenize experience, and oversimplify a complex issue.  Other research refutes this conclusion, pointing to a complex relationship between religious practice and mental health.  For instance, people who are religious are less likely to get divorced, abuse controlled substances, and fear death, but they are more likely to have unhealthy ideas about sex, struggle with anxiety and perfectionism, experience guilt, and fear the punishments of God.  So it is safe to conclude that religiosity is a double-edged sword when it comes to mental health: it can heal some people and help on certain issues while at the same time hurting and harming others.  How each of us fares in this religious system depends in a large part on where we are located in our church’s institutional and social hierarchy, whether we are supported or rejected by our community, and what our specific mental health issues are.

My own research supports the conclusion that there is a complicated and conflicting relationship between religiosity and mental health among Latter-day Saints.  When I interviewed bishops and therapists about their experiences working with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experiencing psychological distress, they told me about times when LDS belief and community membership were both supportive of and harmful to individual’s mental wellness.  If a member’s distress could be attributed to biomedical causes, for instance, the “bad wiring” of autism or the “imbalanced chemicals” associated with depression, then religious leaders and their wards were very effective at supporting recovery.

Despite being incredibly busy, bishops consistently report that their priority is the spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing of their ward members, and describe going to great lengths to meet one-on-one with members in distress.  Bishops actively cultivate relationships with trusted mental health professionals, are among the first to suggest professional counseling to those in distress, and sometimes even help members pay for therapy when they can’t afford it.  Many bishops report actively working to combat the stigma associated with mental illness, holding fifth Sunday lessons about mental health or inviting professional mental health care providers to speak in religious meetings.  The collaboration and cooperation between LDS bishops and professional mental health providers were among the most organized and well-developed of any of the denominations I interviewed.

Other stories also made it clear that LDS belief and community constrained some individual’s mental wellness.  If psychological distress was understood to be the consequence of sin, or if the individual in distress was perceived as a threat to the church, its teachings, or its leadership, then religious leaders’ responses and communal rejection could become acute sources of emotional pain that amplified symptoms of mental illness in some or even caused psychological distress in people who might otherwise be healthy.  Bishops who misunderstood reports of sexual violence as confessions of sin, for example, and who responded with disciplinary action against victims who needed advocacy compounded the consequences of trauma. Similarly, if a religious leader became a spokesman for rejection who condemned, disciplined, or ejected LGBT (or SSA) individuals out of the community they exponentially increased the isolation, distress, and suicidality of already vulnerable Latter-day Saints.  People experiencing a faith crisis, struggling with traditional gender roles, or who were living in abusive family relationships were also vulnerable to receiving counsel that amplified their distress.

It makes sense that members with different mental health issues, emotional needs, and sources of psychological pain are going to have different experiences in this system.  How are we to understand and approach this variety of experience, then?

There’s a big emphasis in our culture to trust our individual experience and to value our own emotional response to truth. We stand at the pulpit on fast and testimony Sundays and say, “I know,” “I felt,” “I believe.”  While trusting our individual interpretations of experience can be empowering and liberating, it can also create a cultural blind spot to understanding and valuing the experiences of others.  It is a cognitive shortcut to assume that because my membership has benefited my mental health yours must as well. Responding to another’s pain without the empathy that comes from being able to take their perspective puts us at risk of alienating them and compounding their distress.  How we respond to people who live with difference says more about us than it does about them.

As complicated and tragic as suicide is, there are things we can do as a community to make it less likely.  Suicide is not just an individual problem; it should prompt each of us towards serious and somber self-reflection.  Last year the Utah Department of Health reported a 141.3% increase in the youth suicide rate.  Suicide remains the 5th leading cause of death for Utahns, and Utah scored dead last in the US for overall adult mental health and suicide ideation.  It seems clear that this is a problem. What remains to be known is why it is happening and whether we will allow it to become part of our legacy.

Now is not the time for defensive claims that religiosity supports mental health.  Now is the time for taking a real, hard look at a complex, messy issue.  Now is the time for us to be vulnerable, to be open to hard conversations, and to prioritize the experience and perspective of the other.  We do so many things well but must figure out where we are falling down and how we can improve. The scriptural injunction to look after every sheep has never been more applicable.

*Photo by Jaka Škrlep on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Are you asking that we should stop asking people to change because some people struggle with changing?
    I want to love every sheep. So how do I love every sheep without stopping preaching the gospel?

  2. jader3rd, focus more on the loving and less on the preaching. If you focus on really loving the sheep, the sheep will come to know Christ through you, and they’ll change themselves. All you have to do is love.

  3. I appreciate the care and balance here. This phrase rings true, granting the likelihood of confirmation bias:
    “more likely to have unhealthy ideas about sex, struggle with anxiety and perfectionism, experience guilt, and fear the punishments of God”
    Would it be fair or reasonable to draw up a work plan from this list, for areas where bishops (in particular) should learn more or develop better responses?

  4. Thank you. I have two children who have been suicidal in the past year. I do not blame the church for anything, but I certainly don’t want the church making things worse for them as they try to deal with their life circumstances. Moving forward while having symptoms of depression and their own unique challenges is very, very hard for them.
    Right now as a struggle to know how to help one of my children, I do wonder if the church will actually help or if it will hinder recovery. For my other child I have resigned myself to the fact that life is better outside of the church.
    I, myself have struggled with depression during some times of my life but I have always thought the church was helpful to me, but does it actually make my anxiety worse?

  5. Jader3rd,
    Someone who is suicidal doesn’t need to be told he is feeling bad because he isn’t doing everything God has commanded. None of us are perfect. Someone who is suicidal should be counseled the gospel “God loves you and you have potential to do good in the world.” “You will not always feel this hopeless, you will feel better someday, keep going and you will get through this and be the person you want to be.” “God loves the real you, you don’t have to pretend to be someone you are not in order for God to love you. He sees your heart. I see the good qualities that you have.”

  6. Jks, so all of our prepared lessons and Sacrament meeting talks should be given from the point of view that the entire congregation is on the verge of suicide?

  7. Thanks, Rebecca.

  8. Jesse Lucas says:

    The conversation about suicide in Utah rarely discusses the relatively high suicide rate in all of the Mountain West, and in fact in high-altitude locations worldwide. The reduction in oxygen can interfere with the body’s use of dopamine, seratonin, and creatine, causing sudden mood swings that are often dismissed. Many, many people suffering from mental health problems in Utah would be greatly benefited by supplements or just by moving somewhere they can get enough oxygen.
    https://catalystmagazine.net/your-brain-on-altitude-2/

  9. Strange that the author would neglect to take into account the following pieces of information.

    While the Utah youth suicide rate may be climbing, so is that of the neighboring states such as colorado.
    While the Utah youth suicide rate may be climbing, the state is becoming less Mormon.

    So the first point shows that suicide in general is rising, and it is not a Mormon specific phenomenon.
    Even if it were a Utah phenomenon, which it’s not, it should be ascribed to the fact that fewer people are Mormon, and are therefor having less meaning in their lives.

  10. jader3rd, probably, yes. At the very least, all of our talks and lessons and interactions should happen with the idea that at least someone we’re talking to is going through something that we don’t know about, and don’t understand. And we should treat everybody around us like the neighbor we love and want to impress, not like someone below us that we need to correct. Yes, there’s a time for calling to repentance, but for the vast, vast majority of us (and, I suspect, that includes bishops and other ecclesiastical leaders), that time is Not Now.

    idiots, what of the fact that the suicide rate is rising in other places, too? I mean, are you arguing that we shouldn’t be concerned about a rising suicide rate in Utah because Coloradoans are also committing suicide? That doesn’t strike me as a particularly productive method of acting, nor does it seem to have any relation to what the OP says. I mean, even if suicide is increasing around us, it seems to me trying to get to the root causes of the problem where we are and can act, in a manner that isn’t defensive, is always a good idea.

  11. Sidebottom says:

    A family friend left the Church a few years ago shortly after returning from a mission with her husband. She’s never been happier – freed from 60-odd years of extremely high cultural expectations and finally allowed just to live and love her grandkids One might suggest that she should listen to the myriad GC talks directed to women to avoid the perils of perfectionism. I’d suggest we look at the toxic elements of our culture that require them to give these talks in the first place.

  12. nobody, really says:

    Jenny – sounds a lot like “If I love him enough, he’ll change.” It was toxic in the Twilight series, and it’s toxic here.

  13. I have mental health issues. I can say, from that perspective, that currently in the LDS faith, the acceptance and feeling free to talk to appropriate clergy (bishop or whoever) is wide open. In the past I NEVER mentioned my issues, because I’d get the standard “You need to pray more” or “What are you doing that drives the Holy Ghost from being by your side?” as if I caused my problems and I could make them go away. It’s not that simple, the issue of mental health crises is very complicated. And prayer and faith go a long way as tools to help with some of it, but they don’t ‘cure’ it. It’s not curable. It helps to have informed leaders and people with an open mind. I’m glad there are more of those than the old school.

  14. I, for one, am glad that the word “toxic” is still getting lots of play. It’s become *such* a useful catch-all for general discomfort.

    The aforementioned “extremely high cultural expectations” are surely real, to some subjective degree – but I would put forth that every culture is defined by expectations. We likely agree that Utah-centric Mormon culture (or perhaps extended to the Mormon belt of Idaho -> Arizona) has elements that are perfectionisticly ridiculous and should be freely and readily abandoned. But to pretend that *real* happiness is found by casting aside all these expectations – the baby and the bath water – and subsequently ‘living your truth’ is a hollow train of thought. It offers short-term psychological relief at the expense of real, lasting meaning brought about by sacrifice, service and humility. A pity that so many of us fall prey to this mindset.

  15. Thanks for this great message. You even point out one of the issues in your article that I’m seeing reflected in the comments so far…”While trusting our individual interpretations of experience can be empowering and liberating, it can also create a cultural blind spot to understanding and valuing the experiences of others.”

    I think sometimes when we have a leadership calling we feel a burden to fix problems. That can lead us to creating lists, keeping score, and spending too much time looking at the big picture. It’s not my job to defend the church or come up with reasons that statistics are what they are. In reality it’s ok to not have all the answers, to not keep score, and forget about a list of members that “need” to improve things.

    One person needs a friend in a single moment, one person needs some good advice or help finding a mental health professional and maybe even help getting to an appointment, one person needs to just be listened to without judgement. I think that’s where I can help.

  16. Jack Hughes says:

    A young man in my stake recently took his own life. I haven’t lived in the area very long, so I don’t know the family or the ongoing issues in his life aside from whisperings among ward members the day after the funeral. The only time it was talked about out loud was in elder’s quorum, when one of the older men asserted that this young man had fallen away from church activity some years previously and hadn’t been on “the covenant path”, and thus received his just reward for unrighteous living. He further claimed that the high rate of suicide among the LGBT population was also because of their bad life choices, and that those who remain faithful “don’t have that problem”. Many gray heads nodded in agreement. I walked out in disgust.

    If this represents the prevailing attitudes of devout Latter-day Saints, I don’t have much hope for things to improve anytime soon. While the Church seems to be trying to make minor efforts at suicide prevention, which is far better than what they were doing previously (nothing), in the end they refuse to acknowledge the fact that the Church itself (through culture, explicit teachings or administrative practices) is often a contributing factor to mental illness. This is one of the prime directives that a Church-employed therapist will never violate, so it would be best to seek help elsewhere.

  17. Mr. Schmidt says:

    Interesting to read some of the defensiveness in the comments on this one. Wherever one stands on this issue, I thought that this statement in the OP was most informative:

    “Responding to another’s pain without the empathy that comes from being able to take their perspective puts us at risk of alienating them and compounding their distress.”

    I really do believe that we collectively are challenged to cultivate empathy for those different from us. It takes real, hard work to see and appreciate someone whose approach to life, etc., is different from our own. And, specifically, whose approach to understanding their relationship to God and their fellow man differs from our own. Isn’t it the height of hubris to assume that our own approach to worshiping God is the right one?

    I can understand the knee-jerk reactions from both the nothing-is-wrong-with-our-religion view as well as the why-cant-all-the-members-and-apostles-be-as-enlightened-as-me view. But at the end of the day, I think that comment about empathy sums it all up for me about how things should be. Think of all the good that would come from us knowing ourselves, our religion, and most importantly our God well enough that we have the confidence to empathize with different viewpoints and needs, without succumbing ourselves to habits that we view as unhealthy or unsuitable to increasing discipleship (I say this last sentence because it seems to be the fear that drives an unyielding and you-all-must-repent attitude without any of the compassion to temper it).

  18. “It is a cognitive shortcut to assume that because my membership has benefited my mental health yours must as well. Responding to another’s pain without the empathy that comes from being able to take their perspective puts us at risk of alienating them and compounding their distress. How we respond to people who live with difference says more about us than it does about them.”

    Amen!!! So very true!

  19. Thanks for addressing the side of this question we want to sweep under the rug. There’s obviously a problem. Let’s figure out what we can do to reduce its prevalence. Open discussion is the best medicine.

  20. I would point out that Christ himself alone as it says in Matthew 27:46

    “…..My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

    Joseph Smith also suffered feelings of abandonment in Liberty Jail.

    Surely it wasn’t a result of failing to fall the covenant path.

    We need to learn to listen, and meet people where they are—comfort, mourn etc rather than resort to the “pray, read your scriptures” like it is a cure-all.

  21. Sidebottom says:

    Bensen – To be clear, I’m not advocating for my friend’s decision nor am I suggesting that “follow your bliss” is always the best advice. I am suggesting that in this specific circumstance that my friend has found herself substantially happier after abandoning the community where she spent 60+ years. I’d suggest that our first impulse should be to wonder why.

  22. I think the OP is a balanced look at a difficult puzzle. I am a transgender Latter-day Saint. I have been within inches literally, of attempting suicide in the past and have had decades of static just under the surface suicidal ideations. 40% of transgender individuals will attempt suicide, one of the biggest risk factors for trans suicide is a lack of family/social support and intrinsic self-directed transphobia. The church is a blessing to me, but there is no structural social supports within it for transgender individuals. The genderessential cosmology that has been promulgated in a non-canonized proclamation is interpreted by most LDS as placing transgender people outside of any reconcilable solution to their dilemma other than to assume they should just not be trans. Labels such as “gender confusion” being used on the largest LDS venue as a moniker for a basic identity increases the steady accretion of intrinsic transphobia in transgender LDS who take General Conference seriously (as I myself do). We’re gonna be flyin lots of flags half-mast. I have found a strategy to lose my suicidality, by looking past the Church’s teaching on who I am and focusing on my relationship with Christ’s empathy and my Heavenly Parents answer to prayer that they love and accept me as their daughter even though the church might reject me. I feel a symmetry to the prior policies on restrictions in priesthood in my current circumstance, and I have hope that Hand of God will tilt his church over time toward a long arc of justice, this helps me to stay alive, but in the meantime the situation is fraught for a large percentage of transgender brothers and sisters who are still struggling to pick the locks of this puzzle since it seems the keys are currently of no utility. I pray a key may yet be turned. If any trans out there reads this I ask you to stay with us, love yourself, and live – which was our first covenant and I feel has come to supersede every subsequent attempt at covenant.
    For an excellent review regarding the factors that are most associated with transgender suicide see the following:

    http://www.sebastianmitchellbarr.com/blog/2015/10/8/why-are-transgender-people-more-likely-to-attempt-suicide

  23. Sam Branson,

    The fact that the suicide rate is rising in other places to just goes to bolster my point, and counter the op belief that the LDS church, by preaching gids word is causing these suicides. There is something wrong with this world, but it is the lack of God, and his word, causing it, rather than an abundance of it. Pointing out a geographical neighbor lacking religious similarity merely points out, that blaming the Mormon s is not good statistics. It is good apostasy, but not good statistics.

    You can care about rising suicide rates all you want. But if you aren’t willing to contextualize properly stop pretending like you care, because you don’t if you ignore relevant data. Anyone who ignores that data point is obviously just trying to hurt the church, or is an ignorant fool, who likewise shouldn’t speak out.

    When you’ve dealt with enough mentally ill folk, you’ll learn only true idiots don’t act defensive around them.

  24. Jon Miranda says:

    I may have a different take on this. The world can be a cold cruel place. The world is not going to change just because I or someone else is suicidal. The suicidal person should be given hope but on the other hand a dose of reality as well.

  25. Jon Miranda:
    “The world can be a cold cruel place“
    True Jon, doses of reality are not hard to find. I have hope that we can all look for ways to make this world less cruel, less cold. I think the We includes all of us, including our Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am optimistic this is the arc of the future because Christ is at the helm. I think we will continue to have intermittent but painful misdirections because He is letting us steer.

  26. idiots, I’m starting to think you didn’t read the OP. Rebekah explicitly states that the causes of suicide are complex, and that the relationship between religion and suicide is not completely clear. But then she takes the scriptural step of saying, “Lord, is it I?” Certainly, if our religious identity is as important to our lives as we think it is, it will have some effect on suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. And I think there’s significant value in sussing out how Mormon theology and practice affect LGBTQ (and other) suicides, an fixing those problems.

    And it’s funny that you point to a lack of God in the world as being something wrong with the world (and, by implication, being a contributor to suicide). If the word of God prevented suicide, and we believe that we have the word of God, you’d think that Utah—the Mormonest of states—would have a far lower rate of suicide than its similarly-elevated neighbors.

    So yes, there’s a complex web of causes of suicide, ranging from availability of firearms to mental illness to elevation to all sorts of things. But it strikes me as indefensible to argue that, while all of these other things affect suicide rates, religion does not. It’s not clear precisely the effect (or more likely, effects) that Mormonism has on suicide, but deliberately ignoring religions practice by saying others have high suicide rates too strikes me as counterproductive at best, and potentially actively harmful.

  27. Isn’t it just possible that religion helps some people and harms others? You know, like the OP says. If that’s so, at least two things quickly follow:
    1. Gross statistics will be endlessly confusing.
    2. An argument against paying attention to the harm category is an argument that those people or that category of concern doesn’t matter.

  28. I have had a great interest in mental illness for many years now after witnessing the sufferings of friends and family members dealing with it. While I realize the OP is concerned with present options for changing our behavior toward others, may I enlist your support for advocating for future treatment options for the mentally ill.
    I would like to see us request from our researchers such projects as the genetic study at BYU last year that found a genetic variant that protects people who carry the gene for Alzeimers so that they do not get the disease even though they carry the gene that would have caused them to develop Alzeimers. It is thought that identifying this protective gene will lead to medicines that might provide the same protection in others. Can we request similar genetic research for various mental illnesses? After all, it is our Family Search database that makes so much of this genetic research possible in the first place. The Mormon Belt should lead the world on this. So many of the mentally ill do not have access to effective medicine to treat their conditions.
    We talk so much about forever families, but mental illness is destroying those families here in mortality. Can we tackle this head on?
    So please, add to the database with any additional family names you can. Connect those easy to connect deceased people and encourage others to do the same and write your Congress representatives requesting additional research using the tools we possess. (If you would like to rapidly increase the database, start using the hints feature to add people in the Netherlands. There are currently such good hints that we should be able to connect almost the entire nation of the Netherlands. Then researchers there would be able to conduct amazing research. And yes, the Utah Population Database, which is the organization to which the Church donates copies of large chunks of the Family Search database to use in research, does allow researchers throughout the world to make use of it. While we change ourselves so that we truly mourn with those who mourn, let us work toward a better day here in mortality for the mentally ill.

  29. I’m not going to comment on its efficacy, but the church is trying to address the suicide problem that some people here appear to insist doesn’t exist. Videos were released yesterday featuring Elder Renlund, along with a group of resources for preventing suicide and helping in its aftermath.

  30. Jon Miranda says:

    Lona Gynt
    I said what I said in my post because sometimes I just get the feeling that some people think just because someone is suicidal that the world is going to change just because they are suicidal. We have a lot of problems in this world to be sure. So we just have to figure out how to deal with them with compassion hopefully.

  31. True Jon. Well said.

  32. I’m really skeptical that someone dealing with suicidal ideation needs to be confronted with real talk about how the universe is indifferent to their suffering.

  33. Jon Miranda says:

    John c
    Everyone has to deal with the cold hard world, sooner or later. No one is exempt.

  34. I call this “doing the needful thing” and it’s incredibly powerful.

  35. I have two friends who are dealing with these issues. One just got out of a mental hospital for treatment. I can’t tell you how much her pain has effected my “certainty” about what I thought I had all figured out. Thank you for sharing your story. May God guide you on your faith journey, and all those facing similar challenges.

  36. I had never thought of family search databases being used in mental health research. That is a great idea! I invite you to read a post I did where I analysed my own family back three generations for family trauma and the effects I see on my cousins, my siblings, and myself.

  37. Actually, everyone needs to reject cynicism and realize the only reason the world is cold and hard is because we make it that way. You make it that way with your attitude, but that is your choice. I choose to believe I can help build a better world for those who suffer.

  38. Thank you BHL, very kind.

  39. Well written and thoughtful article until you mentioned the oft quoted statistic about suicide rates in Utah. That rate is likely more correlated with altitude than religion. All the counties in the US that are significantly above sea level have high suicide rates. When corrected for altitude Utah compares well. When people are surveyed on religion, frequency of church attendance and suicide, those studies show that participation in the lds church reduces suicide.

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