The Utah Paradox

Utah is the happiest state in America.

They have the lowest divorce rate, the highest job satisfaction, lowest median work hours, highest rate of volunteerism. It is immensely healthy - low smoking rates, clean drinking water, and massively beautiful national parks tempting the population to spend time outside. Even Utah's online presence is cheerfully sanguine. A recent Twitter study shows that Utahns tend to use words like "rainbow," "wonderful," and "Christmas" enough to make you think it is a state full of Pollyannas.

But this is only half the picture. Somehow, while Utah is ranked by many measures as the happiest state, it is also ranked as the saddest.

Utah has higher rates of depression than any other state. Accordingly, it ranks #1 in the US in antidepressant drug use, at a rate twice the national average. In fact, Utah has the highest rates of mental illness as a whole, with nearly 1 in 4 residents experiencing a mental disorder within the last year. They are #1 in bankruptcy filings, #1 in pornography consumption, and, most tragically, #1 in child sexual abuse, despite widespread under-reporting. Under-reporting is also a problem in cases of suicide, which is the most common cause of death for young men in Utah between 11-17 years old. Among the 50 states, Utah claims the #4 highest suicide rate.

So Utah claims its identity as both the happiest and saddest state in the US. And this has statisticians and mental health professionals at a bit of a loss. As Theresa Fisher from Science.Mic explains:

These polarized feelings of despondency and delight underlie a confusing phenomenon that Perry Renshaw, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah investigating the strange juxtaposition, calls the “Utah paradox.”

There is an elephant in the room, of course, when we discuss the statistical peculiarities of Utah. About 63% of Utah residents identify as LDS (Mormon) with the number reaching much higher in rural areas. While the old reminder, "correlation does not equal causation" should stay on our minds, it is difficult not to see a causal link between the dominant cultural narrative and the deplorable condition of mental health in the state.

Let me explain...

The LDS church requires a great deal from its members. In order to merit grace and attain exaltation, LDS individuals are required to fulfill an astounding list of requirements (giving 10% of their income to the church, abstaining from coffee, submitting to periodic interviews regarding one's behavior, and not debating what the prophet says, to name a few). In Mormonism, the law is not simply a measure for understanding our sin, and grace does not set us free from its requirements. In fact, strict adherence to the law is a prerequisite for grace.

This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us. In his Sermon on the Mount he made the command to all men: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” ( Matt. 5:48 .) Being perfect means to triumph over sin. This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal.
— Spencer W. Kimball, LDS Apostle and Prophet, from The Miracle of Forgiveness

This principle of required perfection is opposed not only to the Biblical doctrine of grace, but to a very objective, universally-understood truth: nobody is perfect.

This results in a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance: the mental stress or discomfort that comes from holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time. Mormons that affirm the teaching of the LDS church are living in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance, wherein their church and culture are affirming one truth (perfection is attainable and required) and their realistic sensibilities are affirming a Biblical truth (this is impossible).

Some people never resolve this dissonance. Some attempt to resolve it with the conclusion that the problem is within themselves, not the expectations required of them. (This is an extremely implicating causal predictor of suicide.)

But this isn't just armchair statistics on our part. For years, mental health professionals have been calling for investigation into causal links between the LDS church's teachings, depression and youth suicide.

If there is a causal link, rural Utahns are perhaps most vulnerable to dysfunction. The population of Sanpete County, specifically, is largely unaware of any belief outside the LDS church- they are either in it or out of it. Less than 1% claim any faith other than Mormonism. Those in the church and those who leave it generally have no knowledge of Biblical Christianity or any other faith. Is it any surprise that people raised in a church that demands perfection, and who don't know anything else is possible, are the ones depressed and suicidal? 

We know that the lost, broken, depressed people of Utah need Jesus. Everyone needs Jesus. These statistics reinforce the urgency of our call to go and share the hope that is found in a relationship with God. There is real freedom that comes with the truth that perfection isn't our burden to bear. We've seen this freedom at work in the lives of friends who have been redeemed from the demands of Mormonism. We want to continue in the work of sharing freedom in rural Utah so that we can invite people to a true, deep joy that's grounded in the enjoyment and glorification of God, not just the surface happiness that statisticians try to measure. As we speak life-giving truth to people overwhelmed with guilt, hopelessness, and depression, it is our hope that God will allow us to change the statistics- one person at a time.

Find out how to partner with Ned and Sarah in reaching the unreached people of rural Utah by visiting our take action page.