Perspective: Faith is a factor in good mental health. Why are so many people unable to see this?
We see what our culture primes us to see, even when it comes to the protective role of religion for LGBTQ youth
A popular YouTube video created by renowned psychology professor Daniel Simons invites viewers to count the number of times a group passes a basketball. After the video, the correct answer is given, but then the viewers are asked if they saw a gorilla. Typically, half of viewers miss the person in a gorilla suit walking right in the middle of screen, beating its chest and walking out. To a large extent, all of us see what we are looking for — what we are already prepared to see.
This principle applies across virtually every area of human endeavor. In a recent class at Brigham Young University, we showed these statistics from a 2019 Utah Department of Health survey of more than 86,000 Utah teens:
- 13% of Latter-day Saint heterosexuals had seriously considered suicide in the last year.
- 28% of Latter-day Saint LGBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning; transgender will be discussed later) teens had seriously considered suicide in the last year.
We asked the students to give some possible explanations for the striking difference. Their answers included: LGBQ individuals may experience dissonance between their sexuality and their religion, be ill-treated by their fellow congregants and family, and not feel accepted in their religion. At their root, the students’ explanations assumed church membership is causing problems for these individuals. The implication many take away is that membership in the church increases suicidality for LGBQ individuals.
After this discussion, we then showed the students two other statistics from the same dataset:
- 22% of heterosexuals teens with no religion had seriously considered suicide in the last year.
- 49% of LGBQ teens with no religion had seriously considered suicide in the last year.
The students experienced an immediate perspective shift. If the risk of suicidal thoughts is nearly double for those of no religion versus Latter-day Saints for both LGBQ and heterosexual individuals, might that mean the church is protective in some way?
That the church may be good for some LGBQ individuals is, for many, a foreign thought. But for those that know the research in this area, this comes as no surprise. The broad consensus among researchers is that religion is, on average, beneficial to mental health and a recent statistical analysis of more than 70 studies found religiosity/spirituality related to better mental health for LGBTQ individuals as well (or, under some circumstances, religiosity/spirituality had no relationship with mental health, for better or for worse).
Yet it seems today many simply assume that religion in general, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in particular, is associated with mental health problems —especially for the marginalized. From what we see in blogs, social media and from many influencers, we may be surprised if Latter-day Saints (and even those who are religious at all) did well. And yet, that is just what much of the research finds (see this presentation for an extended discussion of LGBTQ Latter-day Saint mental health and mental health in Utah).
This may simply be what our culture primes us to see, just as people looking for a basketball don’t see a gorilla. Several trends have created some distrust of religion and perhaps of Latter-day Saints in particular. The Portraits of American Life study found Latter-day Saints the second least respected religion in the United States (Islam was the least respected). These cultural lenses, often unbeknownst to us, can narrow our ability to see different perspectives. But science has a way of helping us see beyond our expectations and experiences. We can create hypotheses, test them and determine whether our intuitions are right or wrong.
This brings us back to LGBQ Latter-day Saints. We recently published follow-up research to an earlier study, both of which find Latter-day Saint LGBQ teens at lower levels of suicidality and depression than LGBQ teens of other religions or no religion (Catholic LGBQ individuals also did particularly well). Both studies find the likely explanation to be unsurprising. The apparent reason for the lower levels of suicidality and depression is that Latter-day Saints are, on average, less likely to have poor family connections and are less likely to drink alcohol or use drugs, both of which are substantial risk factors for suicide.
Analyses with transgender individuals found few differences in mental health across religions, though religious affiliation did, in some instances, seem to offer protection. The only other studies to compare Latter-day Saint LGBTQ teens to LGBTQ teens of other religions and no religion was a team of researchers from Bowling Green whose findings are similar to our own (see here and here).
It could have been that Latter-day Saints had better mental health than non-Latter-day Saints because Latter-day Saints who disaffiliated were more distressed. We investigated this possibility with calculations from our first study and found that even if you count former Latter-day Saints as current Latter-day Saints, you still have lower rate of suicide ideation for Latter-day Saints than those of no religion. Others have suggested Latter-day Saints may simply want to look good on surveys, though research has found Latter-day Saints to be among the least likely to be influenced by social desirability in this manner.
Our research is also in line with the overall body of research finding religion generally protective against suicide. Indeed, Harvard researchers calculated that nearly 40% of the recent increase in the U.S. suicide rate could be attributed to the decline of religious attendance (they also found Catholics were particularly low in suicide).
Back to our students in the class we mentioned — another reason for their first assumptions may stem from the information we initially shared with them: information about Latter-day Saints with no comparison. Indeed, much of the research on Latter-day Saints makes no comparisons to other groups (many studies also use no statistical controls). Without comparisons, it is tempting to conclude, as our students did, that any mental health problems must be due to church membership. And it should be said that research on LGBQ Latter-day Saints is more nuanced than presented here (those who want to understand it should read widely, here’s an example). It is also a very new research area with much more to be understood. But the aspect we are presenting here is one rarely heard.
Of course there are still serious mental health concerns amongst Latter-day Saints. Finding that 13% of heterosexuals and 28% of LGBQ Latter-day Saint youth have seriously considered suicide is cause for enormous concern. Latter-day Saints should be at the forefront of engaging with this problem. Until the rate is zero, we all have much work to do. And it should also be acknowledged that there are individuals who certainly have bad experiences, experiencing pain in the church.
None of this research invalidates anyone’s personal experience or pain. The studies we conducted examine the average experience. Understanding experiences of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints is critical (see also here). We should recognize when people have difficulties and do all we can to be as Christlike as possible as we deal with the very real pain some people carry. Further, that suicidality is higher for LGBQ individuals in Utah is, sadly, not surprising. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that LGBQ individuals have higher rates of suicidality in every city and state.
Regarding sexual orientation, as the Church Handbook says: “The Church encourages families and members to reach out with sensitivity, love, and respect to persons who are attracted to others of the same sex. The Church also promotes understanding in society at large that reflects its teachings about kindness, inclusiveness, love for others, and respect for all human beings.”
Of transgender individuals, the Handbook says: “Transgender individuals face complex challenges. Members and nonmembers who identify as transgender — and their family and friends — should be treated with sensitivity, kindness, compassion, and an abundance of Christlike love. All are welcome to attend sacrament meeting, other Sunday meetings, and social events of the Church.”
In the end, social science research is critical to our understanding of the world. We often see what we are primed to see. And we (the authors) are no exception to this. All of us need to have our biases examined and follow the science where it may lead. As Notre Dame professor Christian Smith has said: “In the academic study of religion, we must be guided by the recognition of complexity, fair case selection, empirical honesty, and balanced, fair-minded judgments, however good or bad religion comes out looking in the end.”
In following the scientific method, we become aware of things we would otherwise miss. And while there are no studies or experiments anyone could conduct that would determine whether God exists or test other theological questions, statistics and other scientific tools help us know in what ways people are experiencing difficulties. Then, we can reach out in the most compassionate, effective ways possible.
W. Justin Dyer is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University who holds a doctorate in human and community development. Michael Goodman is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University with a doctorate degree in marriage, family and human development. They are researchers on the Family Foundations of Youth Development study.