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Mental health and Latter-day Saints: What does the research say? | Opinion


Research studies on the mental health of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can help us come to a better understanding of “things as they really are.” Both positive and negative outcomes have been reported that require serious attention. The data can help us understand where problems exist and how we can best help those in need. At the same time, we must be wise as we evaluate these studies. 

It goes without saying that research that isn’t done well — and the unreliable data that result from poorly done studies — create phantoms that distract us from making progress. This is also true for the misinterpretation of reliable data. For instance, statistics about Utah are often used as proxy for statistics about Latter-day Saints. This is unfortunate, given the mental health of the citizens of Utah appears to have far more to do with region than religion. To understand Latter-day Saints, research on Latter-day Saints is required.

In a recent devotional at Brigham Young University, one of our team members, Justin Dyer, described an article we recently published that reported a review of the last 18 years of research on the mental health of Latter-day Saints. This research helps us have a more accurate understanding of the mental health of Latter-day Saints. Here are some key finding.

Substance use/abuse

It’s not surprising that research consistently finds Latter-day Saints less likely to use alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs than the general population. Given that using these substances is tied to impaired physical and mental health, avoiding these is certainly a benefit for Latter-day Saints.

Depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts

Studies typically find Latter-day Saints lower in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts when compared to other religious groups and those of no religion. It appears one reason Latter-day Saint youth are less likely to experience suicidal thoughts and depression is because of their (on average) stronger family connections and less substance use. However, Latter-day Saints who have unhealthy perfectionism, have legalistic attitudes about grace, or feel that God has abandoned them are more likely to experience depression.

Perfectionism

Two types of perfectionism are often used in research. The first is adaptive perfectionism, which includes attitudes that lead individuals to excel in healthy ways — that is, striving for one’s best. The second is maladaptive perfectionism which includes attitudes that create fear and anxiety about performance — that is, feeling the need to be perfect lest others look down on you. While studies are yet to be done that compare Latter-day Saint perfectionism to perfectionism in other religious groups, one study of Latter-day Saints categorized 47.2% of those sampled as adaptive perfectionists, with 30.3% as maladaptive perfectionists, and 22.5% nonperfectionists. Unsurprisingly, maladaptive perfectionists had lower self-esteem and higher anxiety about God.

Body esteem

Perhaps a surprise to many, four different studies reported that Latter-day Saints have better body image (body esteem) and fewer eating disorders than the other religious groups with whom they were compared. And the more connected Latter-day Saints are with their religious beliefs and practices, the better their attitudes about their bodies. In a world saturated with AI-enhanced body images, regular reprieves — where they are reminded that they are children of heavenly parents, and have a divine nature and eternal destiny — seem to be beneficial.

However, local church culture may make a difference. When church or community cultures are perceived as creating high pressure to conform in unhealthy ways, women’s body esteem may be lower.

LGBTQ Latter-day Saints

Research findings show that Latter-day Saints who identify as LGBTQ (used here to denote all sexual and gender minority experiences), on average, have just as good and typically better mental health than LGBTQ individuals of other religious traditions or those who describe themselves as not believing in God.

What is emerging from more detailed research is that identity conflict is related to decreased mental health. For LGBTQ individuals, being conflicted about their Latter-day Saint identity may be of particular concern. Resolving identity conflicts is likely key for LGBTQ individuals to remain connected with God and the church in healthy ways.

Similarly, there have been some comparisons between LGBTQ individuals who are current members of the church and others who are former Latter-day Saints. Some studies report that LGBTQ individuals who remain active members of The Church of Jesus Christ have better mental health those who leave the church. Other studies report former Latter-day Saints have better mental health than other LGBTQ members of the church who remain active. The more rigorous studies report either no difference between current or former LGBTQ Latter-day Saints or that current LGBTQ Latter-day Saints had better mental health. This research initiative is just beginning and there is much to disentangle. Our best research and clinical work, as well as empathy and understanding, are needed in this area.

Going forward

Although research on mental health and religion is growing, there are many limitations. We need more research tracking Latter-day Saints over time to more clearly understand causality. We also need more research that uses better sampling.

Existing research often uses “convenience sampling” where the survey is posted online, and individuals can pass along the survey to their friends. This kind of research typically results in biased samples. It’s worth noting that studies using more rigorous sampling techniques typically find better outcomes for active Latter-day Saints. That is, the more rigorous the study, the more protective being an active Latter-day Saint appears to be. What is also sorely lacking are more diverse samples; most studies are done with samples drawn from individuals living in Utah. Research on the international church would benefit from the use of international samples. 

Research on Latter-day Saints does counter many assumptions of Latter-day Saints having poor mental health. Consistent with the research on religion and mental health for all faiths, Latter-day Saints are typically found to have just as good, if not better, mental health than other groups (including those of no religious affiliation). And the more religious Latter-day Saint are, the better their mental health. Still, many Latter-day Saints struggle with their mental health, and we need to be as understanding and helpful as possible. 

We should never assume Latter-day Saints struggling with mental health issues are simply not living their religion. Nor should we assume that giving increased attention to religious faith and activity will solve all mental health problems. However, research does suggest that continuing with these practices in healthy ways will benefit those who are faithful. Latter-day Saints can recognize the benefits embedded within the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ are both temporal and eternal. At the same time, there is still a lot of work we need to do to address mental health issues with children, adults, communities and nations. While there may be reason to pat ourselves on the back, we should also push ourselves forward. 

W. Justin Dyer is a professor of religion and family at Brigham Young University. Daniel K Judd is an emeritus professor and former dean of religious education at BYU. Megan Gale is an adjunct faculty member in the school of family life at BYU. Hunter Gibson Finlinson is a BYU graduate who is currently a full-time mom.





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