Utah has a youth suicide problem. From 2007 to 2014, the suicide rate among people ages 10 to 17 nearly tripled, according to recently released statistics from the state’s Department of Health. Even before the rate jumped to 8.5 deaths per 100,000 people, Utah had the fourth highest suicide rate in the nation, making suicide the leading cause of death for that age group.
So why are so many of Utah’s youth cutting their lives short? Officially, the state doesn’t know, but says it’s planning a study to find out. Andrea Hood, a suicide prevention coordinator at the Department of Health, speculated on possible factors in an interview with the Associated Press:
Hood said there are some risk factors found more frequently in Utah and other Rocky Mountain states that may explain why suicide rates are higher in those states than the national average.
Residents in Utah move more frequently, which could leave them with fewer social connections and support. There are also theories that lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes can contribute to higher suicide rates and a western, rugged mentality of self-reliance may keep some from seeking help for depression. Utah and other Rocky Mountain states also have higher rates of gun ownership.
While officials had plenty to say about recognizing warning signs of depression and teaching youth skills to increase their resiliency, they seemed to ignore the elephant in the room. As The New Civil Rights Movement points out, the increase in youth suicides corresponds with a recent spike in LGBTQ youth suicides and an intensifying of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy in Utah and from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has its headquarters in Salt Lake City.
According to Wendy Montgomery, co-founder of Mama Dragons (a sort of Mormon PFLAG), 32 LGBTQ Mormon youth ended their lives in the three months following a declaration from the Mormon church that same-sex couples are apostates who children may not be baptized. The Deseret News reported in January:
Last week in Los Angeles during a conference for Affirmation, a Mormon LGBT support group, Montgomery, who is well-known in that community, reported that 32 families had contacted her directly about the deaths of a child or sibling. She said most were men (27), but three were female and two were transgender. The average age was 17. All were between the ages of 14 and 20. Montgomery said 26 deaths took place in Utah, four in Idaho and one each in Arizona and the New England area. Utah health department officials have been able to confirm 10 suicides in that age range in Utah since the start of November.
While it’s possible the state’s increase in youth suicide is unrelated to anti-LGBTQ legislation, church policy, or attitudes, it’s worth noting that more than half of today’s youth identify as something other than straight. And according to The Trevor Project, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide and those who experience family rejection try suicide at eight times those rates. Among transgender youth, one in four report that they’ve tried to kill themselves.