Happy Utah and Suicides

In the news, Utah is the happiest state, with the highest rate of suicide contemplation in the United States (1 in 15 Utahns contemplate suicide) and the ninth highest rate of actual suicides. Randolph Schmid writing for the AP surmises it’s because Utahns who aren’t happy look at those who are, become so emotionally distraught that they kill themselves. Peg McEntee at the Salt Lake Tribune has a different theory. She writes that people with serious mental health problems are the ones killing themselves. Neither of them question the underlying premise of Utah as the happiest state.

We in Utah have a tendency to tell the world that life here is perfect, and any anomalies that happen are the result of those “other people.” The us versus them mentality is the single strongest thread running through our collective society. You’re either Mormon, or you’re not. And it’s not us Mormons who are killing ourselves, we’re the happy ones. It’s those others, they see how happy we are, become depressed, kill themselves. And if somehow that’s not true, then it’s the people with serious mental health problems.

The most recent study on suicide contemplation released by the CDC should give us pause about this premise. It excludes homeless persons, people in the military, and people hospitalized because of psychiatric problems. In other words, it’s the mainstream normal folks who are contemplating suicide. And not surprising, many of them women homemakers.

Utah has one of the worst prescription drug abuse problems in the world, one of the highest suicide rates, an out of control domestic and child abuse rate, alarming incidences of sexual abuse of children, most of them occurring in the home. These somewhat less than happy characteristics don’t readily fit with our self-reports as the happiest people in the nation. The first thing we need to do to solve a problem, is to admit there is a problem.

I have personally known people who attempted suicide, some of whom succeeded. They cover the spectrum of humans. This is not a case of “those other people.” They were not people with severe mental health problems. They were not people who were jealous of the Mormons and their extreme bliss. They were just regular people, most of them LDS faithful, who saw death as a legitimate way to solve a problem.

Teenagers have a hard time of it anywhere. Sometimes they get mixed up in things they can’t handle, drugs, romance, sex. If we truly want to reduce teen suicides, teach sex education, contraception, and interpersonal relationship skills from a very early age. Emphasizing the arts has also been shown to help troubled kids. Arm children with knowledge. The teen suicides I’m familiar with have been far too often the result of pregnancies, early sexual activity, divorce, feeling all alone and on the outside of everyone else. They have also been predominantly among the Mormon faithful. What causes the worst turmoil for many of these children is the fear of being “found out” when they engage in activity not approved in the community, and then when they are found out, the ostracism that follows. A few have struggled with the underlying doctrine of the church. Pregnant, alone, cast out, they have no chance of making it into the Celestial Kingdom. So why bother going on. It’s all too painful anyway.

Another fairly large group of suicides is in the gay community. I understand that Utah has one of the largest percentages of gays among any population. People in Utah think of homosexuality as something that Non-Mormons choose to do. But by and large the gays I know are Mormon, at least until they’re excommunicated. And by and large the suicides I’m familiar with were among Mormons and excommunicated Mormons. There have been suicides among non-Mormons to be sure. But this is not a problem of “those other people.” If we want to reduce suicides among our family, friends, children and citizens who happen to be gay, whether Mormon or Gentile, change the us versus them mentality. Allow gays to be full-fledged members of our society, to marry, to raise children.

Domestic disputes are a large category of people I know involved in suicide. It occurs in families where incest happens. It occurs in families where adultery happens. It occurs in families were abuse and divorce happens. And far too often, it happens in families where one of the adults is a homemaker. And among the people I know committing suicide in a family setting, the person committing suicide has all too often decided to take other family members with them.

Suicide also occurs far too often when things go wrong at work, at times when someone is terminated. I see the same results among people losing their professional licenses, who can no longer practice in their chosen field.

Financial setbacks also lead to suicide.

These are not predominantly the mentally ill taking their lives. These are our neighbors, co-workers, family, friends. Nor is this a phenomenon of “those other people” who are inordinately distraught because they have not bought into the Mormon religion. Suicide, attempts at suicide, and planning a suicide all cut across boundaries in Utah. To start down the road toward finding a solution, we need to recognize that there is a problem. In my experience, Mormon faithful are as likely as non-Mormons to think of suicide as a solution to a problem. Moral judgments and aspersions made by either Mormon or non-Mormon, one against the other, don’t help and can in fact be a significant factor in creating the problem.

I’ve yet to meet the hordes of people who are in absolute bliss because they live in Utah. I for one question the reports of Utah being the happiest place to live, especially when I find out the reports are based on self-evaluations. To say Utah is the number one happiest place to live is to focus on a strong case of societal cognitive dissonance, and ignore reality.

Written by Waine Riches

P.S. I highly recommend “Happy Valley,” a documentary on drug abuse in Utah.