A local researcher has good news for LDS women: They are less likely to be depressed than American women in general and show no major differences in overall life satisfaction compared to women nationwide.
But they do score lower on measures of self-esteem.
The findings poke some holes in the long-standing stereotype of LDS women as being more depressed, according to Sherrie Mills Johnson, a sociologist at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. Speaking Thursday during the semiannual meeting of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists (AMCAP), Johnson said attempts to tie LDS women's religiosity to increased levels of depression simply don't hold up under research scrutiny.
Johnson's study used two national surveys of LDS women — one of them focusing on 1,519 returned missionaries (RM) and the other on 617 women who had not served missions (NM). She compared those findings to a 1992-94 national study of 3,075 non-LDS women, the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), noting that all three studies included similar measures of depression and self-esteem.
Traditional women's roles involved with marriage and homemaking have long been cited as part of the reason for the purported depression, but national women were three to four times as dissatisfied with their work as LDS women, Johnson's study shows. The study didn't break out specific work categories.
Public religiosity was one measure used to contrast the respondents, and it showed both of the LDS groups scored significantly higher in church attendance than non-LDS women. It was the only religious factor that could be compared among the three groups, since the national study didn't measure private religious practices like prayer, scripture reading, repentance and the influence of inspiration.
In terms of life satisfaction, including place of residence, work, friendship, health, family life and financial situation, there were no statistically significant differences in response, she said, though the largest difference occurred in relation to health. She said that finding may result from the fact that those surveyed are in their child-bearing years (ages 24-44) and LDS women have more children than the national average, along with the accompanying health problems. They also may expect to have better health because Latter-day Saints abstain from tobacco and alcohol, she said, so they rated their health satisfaction lower.
Almost twice as many LDS women answered they were "very happy" compared to others, she said, with three times as many national women reporting they were "unhappy."
More of the LDS women were married at the time of the survey than those nationally, and the latter group had experienced divorce at a rate four times higher than their LDS counterparts, she said. Sixty-two percent of the RM group and 52 percent of the NM group reported being "very happy" with their marriages, compared with 38 percent of NSFH women. Yet fewer of the latter group reported being "very unhappy."
When that category was combined with "unhappy," 11 percent of NM, 7 percent of RM and 6 percent of NSFH fell into that category. Additional research is necessary to determine why a larger percentage of LDS women are unhappy than the national group, she said.
In measuring self-esteem, LDS women scored roughly 10 percent below their national counterparts in rating their ability to "do things as well as other people," with 86 percent of NSFH agreeing but only 75 percent of NM and 77 percent of RM agreeing with that characterization. She said the findings "could be a reflection of the higher standards that are espoused" by the church and some researchers claims that measures used in self-esteem research are biased against orthodox respondents because their language is contrary to religious ideals like humility.
Measures of depression showed the LDS women experienced symptoms associated with depression — including feeling bothered, not eating, feeling blue, unable to concentrate, fearful, restless sleep, lonely, sad — on average about one day a week, while the national group experienced them 1.5 days per week. The largest difference in scores came in appetite, with national women having a loss of appetite about three-fourths of a day more per week than LDS women.
The characterization of LDS women as more depressed than others had its genesis in a documentary aired in 1979 by KSL Television, produced by Louise Degn, dubbed "Mormon Women and Depression," Johnson said. Degn "never claimed Mormon women were more depressed than other women but instead highlighted the problems encountered by Mormon women who experience depression."
The broadcast proved important because it encouraged many who were suffering from depression to seek help, she said. But it also "began a public discussion that depicted Mormon women in general as depressed."
A 1994 article in the Salt Lake Tribune "added fire to the discussion" when a Page 1 story on the anti-depressant drug Prozac "clearly implicated LDS women," Johnson said. Two doctors who had been quoted in the story subsequently "claimed they had been misinterpreted," she said. "The debate still continues as to why anti-depressant sales are high in Utah. To date no conclusive evidence has been presented that proves that LDS women are more depressed or take more anti-depressants than other women."
Relying on claims from early social scientists that the conservative faith's demands are "constraining and that LDS women are discouraged from pursuing careers and other courses that bring satisfaction and provide for mental well-being, these discussions depict depression as a pervasive problem" among LDS women.
Yet Johnson said the most significant finding of her study was that "increased religiosity predicted increased life satisfaction and mental well-being."