Ever since I read the MHA study ranking Utah as the #1 most depressed state in the U.S., I’ve been asking my Mormon friends and family why they think Utah has a higher percentage of population reporting depression than any other state.
Usually, the initial response I get is one of surprise. Mormons I talk to are genuinely surprised that Utah, of all states, would have the highest percentage of adults reporting depression. After all, Mormons are repeatedly taught that “happiness is the object and design of our existence,” that “men are they might have joy,” that we are following the “great plan of happiness,” and that those who follow that plan enjoy a “blessed and happy state.”
Moreover, our friends and work colleagues occasionally comment that we Mormons seem to be a happy people. When I was a junior associate at a law firm, one day a senior partner unexpectedly said to me:
What is it about you Mormons that makes you so happy?
He then listed off the names of all the Mormons working at our firm and then observed:
All of you have this peaceful, contented way about you. Why is that?
I was totally caught off guard by the question. I tried to quickly think of an answer, and then rattled off something like this:
I think Mormons make a great effort to live according to their beliefs, and when we are living according to our beliefs, I think it gives us a peace of mind and contentment about our lives.
So over the past several weeks as I have pressed my Mormon friends and family for an explanation of Utah’s depression numbers, I’ve been surprised when almost all of them have said something like this:
Mormon culture is highly-demanding and emphasizes perfection, which leads to feelings of inadequacy and depression when Mormons inevitably fail to meet those high demands perfectly.
I’ve been surprised by this common response because, in a way, it is the same theory I offered to my work colleague to explain why Mormons are so happy, i.e., our strong commitment to righteous living.
But interestingly, when I ask Mormons whether they personally feel they have experienced Mormon-culture-induced depression, the answer is almost always “no.” It seems this concept of Mormon-culture-induced depression is something many Mormons believe in, but at the same time, they almost invariably believe it is something that is experienced by someone else. And that seems to be borne out by Utah’s depression numbers, because even in the “most-depressed” state of Utah, we’re talking about 10% of the population reporting depression, which means 90% of adults and adolescents in Utah are not depressed.
So what’s going on with those 1-in-10 Utahns who do report depression? Is Mormon culture what’s depressing them? Frankly, I have a hard time believing Mormon culture is behind Utah’s depression numbers, and here’s why:
- Problems that are expressed in terms of rankings can exaggerate the size of a problem because oftentimes the difference between best, average, and worst is small. For example, Hawaii (surprise, surprise!) has the lowest percentage of adults who report having a “major depressive episode,” which is 6.74%. The national average is 8.05%. In Utah, that percentage is 10.14% So when we talk about Utah’s “depression problem,” we’re talking about depression numbers that are about two percentage points above the national average.
- When we compare Utah to the other “most-depressed” states like Kentucky, Ohio, Okahoma, Rhode Island, etc., that gap is much, much smaller. For example, in Rhode Island, 9.88% of adults report experiencing a major depressive episode. Again, in Utah that number is 10.14%. So there we’re talking about a difference of just .26% between a “Mormon state” like Utah, and a non-Mormon state like Rhode Island.
- Mormonism’s potential responsibility for Utah’s depression numbers is further weakened by the fact that a very significant percentage of Utah Mormons are inactive, i.e., they are presumably not actively steeped in the supposedly depression-inducing Mormon culture.
So to summarize: to assess Mormonism’s potential responsibility for causing Utahns’ depression, it seems we would need to focus on the delta between the number of adults reporting depression in Utah (10.14%), and the most depressed “non-Mormon” state, Rhode Island (9.88%). In other words, if 9.88% of Rhode Islanders report depression without a strong Mormon presence in that state, then it seems at least 9.88% of Utahns are depressed for exactly the same sorts of reasons as Rhode Islanders. That leaves us with a delta of .26% of Utahns who might be depressed because of Mormonism.
I am also intrigued by arguments that Mormonism is depressing Utahns because, even assuming that Mormons experience more depression than others, it seems there are at least two possible reasons why that would be. Either: (1) the Mormon “plan of happiness” is fundamentally flawed and actually causes depression; or (2) a very small percentage of Mormons misunderstand or don’t implement that “plan of happiness” correctly and drive themselves nuts with unnecessary perfectionism.
If Possibility #1 were true, we would expect a lot more than just 10% of Utahns to be depressed. And we would certainly expect Utah’s depression numbers to be much higher than a mere .26% above a non-Mormon state like Rhode Island. Put another way, if Mormon culture depresses Utahns, isn’t it remarkable that 90% of Utahns report not being depressed?
So for me, Possibility #2, that a very small percentage of Mormons don’t understand or implement the Mormon “plan of happiness” correctly and therefore drive themselves nuts with perfectionism, seems to be the more likely explanation of what effect, if any, Mormon culture has on Utah’s depression numbers. And it seems LDS Church leaders recognize this tendency of some Mormons to miss the mark and become perfectionists, because they specifically caution Mormons against developing the sort of perfectionist attitudes that could cause depression:
When comparing one’s personal performance with the supreme standard of the Lord’s expectation, the reality of imperfection can at times be depressing. My heart goes out to conscientious Saints who, because of their shortcomings, allow feelings of depression to rob them of happiness in life.
We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips!
(Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” Ensign, Nov 1995, 86.)
I seem to have heard this type of statement by General Authorities many times over the years. Which makes me wonder: if a Mormon (or ex-Mormon) blames “the Church” for his depression, might it be more accurate to say that he was depressed in spite of his Church leaders’ counsel (e.g., the Elder Nelson quote above), rather than because of it?