Opinion: Latter-day Saint LGBTQ youths may have lower suicide risk, two new studies suggest

Strong familial ties and less drug and alcohol use were important factors in explaining the difference in reported mental health outcomes

Might traditional religion actually be a protective factor against suicidality for youths, including LGBTQ youths? 

A forthcoming analysis of data from the 2019 Utah Prevention Needs Assessment survey suggests that Latter-day Saint LGBQ youths (gender identity wasn’t looked at in the study) had lower levels of reported depression and suicidality than nonreligious LGBQ youths.

Published by three professors at Brigham Young University, the study also found that Latter-day Saint youths generally reported better outcomes in terms of depression and suicidality than their nonreligious peers.

In a separate study, recently published by Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, researchers from Bowling Green State University analyzed the same data set and similarly found LGBTQ-Latter-day Saints had lower suicide risk than those of other faiths or no faith.

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This research will undoubtedly prompt further investigation and study. The predominant social science theory used to explain discrepancies, on average, between mental health and physical health between sexual minorities and heterosexuals has been the sexual minority stress model, often labeled sexual minority theory. The gist of the theory is that social oppression and stigma adversely impact sexual minorities, including gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual persons and families, leading to, if not causing, adverse health consequences.  

Lately some controversy has arisen over the theory and the tendency to assume it’s correct without adequately testing alternative models. Still, most scholars today accept, with some evidence, that religion, especially traditional religion, is responsible for at least some stigma against sexual minorities. Surely cultural campaigns have plenty to say on that subject, too.

In turn, many scholars theorize that this stigma can become internalized and lead to physical and mental health problems. One study, for example, tied suicide and degraded mental health experienced by sexual minorities to conflicts with religion. Others have claimed that “One of the societal institutions with high rates of sexual stigma is religious organizations.”

Given that context, the recent data from Utah merits consideration. In the BYU analysis, Justin Dyer, Michael Goodman and David Wood, present evidence from the same large government survey of more than 86,000 Utah youths that the Bowling Green scholars analyzed. Their findings are that levels of depression and suicidality were elevated for LGBQ students across all levels of religious affiliation. Notably, however, the differences were smaller for Latter-day Saints than for other religious groups, including those with no religious affiliation. 

On the surface, such findings would potentially further support sexual minority theory, at least in terms of elevated rates of depression and suicidality for LGBTQ youths. Some have suggested that Utah’s relatively high rate of youth suicide might be related to the large majority of residents who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In social science literature, however, religiosity is generally associated with reduced suicide rates, possibly because it provides added social support, stronger community connections, meaning in life, better parent-child relations, and avoidance of self-destructive behaviors such as excessive alcohol or drug use. 

How would these different factors and patterns play out with such a large sample of Utah youths? 

On the one hand, we might assume, LGBTQ youths who are Latter-day Saints would fare better in mental health because of the positive aspects of religiosity; yet, on the other hand, others might theorize that they would fare worse because of exposure to what some perceive as negative religious attitudes and beliefs about same-sex sexuality. 

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This is where the new research provides additional insight. The data from the Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) Statewide Survey was anonymous and responses were weighted to reflect the overall population of youths in Utah. Key variables analyzed in the BYU study included religious affiliation, sexual orientation, suicide ideation or attempt, depression, having a mother/father at home, level of family conflict at home, family drug use, personal drug use, feeling safe at school, and having been bullied in school either for religion or sexual orientation. 

Latter-day Saint students generally were less likely to have considered suicide or attempted suicide, be depressed, use drugs, come from a drug using family, or be bullied for their sexual orientation; they were more likely to come from a home with stable parents, more likely to feel safe at school, and more likely to have been bullied on account of their religion. 

The BYU analysis found that LGBQ students generally were more likely than non LGBQ students to report having considered suicide (40.8% vs. 15.6%) or attempted suicide (19.1% vs. 6.0%), to have no religious affiliation (44.7% vs. 19.0%), to report higher levels of family conflict at home and to not live with both a mother and father (35.7% vs. 23.1%). LGBQ students were also more likely to report living with a family that engaged in drug use (49.0% vs. 32.8%) or personally using drugs themselves (44.4% vs. 26.4%). They are also more likely to have been bullied on account of their sexual orientation (19.3% vs. 0.80%), but less so in terms of religion-based bullying (5.0% vs. 4.8%). 

LGBQ students were more often females (63.7% vs. 49.8%) or other gender than male or female (4.6% vs. 0.01%). Depression and suicidality were strongly related to family conflict, not coming from a mother/father family, being bullied on account of sexual orientation or religion, feeling unsafe at school, and use of illegal drugs by family or the student. Boys were less likely to be depressed or suicidal than girls. 

In their final model the BYU scholars included several two-way interaction effects which found that religious Catholic and Protestant students were slightly less likely to report being depressed. Those with no religious affiliation were the most depressed of any group. Catholic students were slightly less likely to report having considered suicide, but other comparisons were seldom statistically significant, or the patterns were not consistent. 

Both the BYU and Bowling Green studies suggest that being a Latter-day Saint is protective against depression and suicidality, even for LGBTQ students. In the BYU analysis, strong familial ties and less drug and alcohol use were important factors in explaining the difference in these reported mental health outcomes.

These results may suggest that the initial differences observed in mental health as a function of sexual orientation might in some instances be explained by other key factors used in their analyses rather than purely as a function of religious affiliation per se. The results roughly parallel those of recent scholarly work that used a meta-analysis of 73 studies about relationships between religiosity/spirituality and health for sexual minorities, finding that those two factors were positively related for sexual minorities, especially when the effects were measured in terms of belief or spirituality. Deeper analyses using different factors might overturn some of the findings, but this work together with the Utah data suggest the prospect that religion may not always or necessarily be responsible for adverse mental health outcomes among LGBQ students, even as the results cannot be generalized outside of the state of Utah due to the nature of the sample.  

The analysis provides an interesting development in research on youth mental health that will undoubtedly spur additional investigation, particularly as communities search for best practices in reducing suicide and improving the lives of youths. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Residents of Utah may also find resources through the SafeUT app.

Walter R. Schumm is an emeritus professor of applied family science at Kansas State University.