Re-examining gay Mormon youth and suicide: What does the data say?

salt-lake-city-downtown-2[1]Do young Latter-day Saints, and especially gay youth, commit suicide at a higher rate than other youth in the US? The short answer: with the data we have, we don’t know. So what do we know for sure?

The Mormon teen suicide problem

Some readers may have read a recent interview in the Huffington Post with Wendy Williams Montgomery, a Californian mom and LGBT advocate. In the interview, Montgomery refers to a widely recognized problem within Mormon culture: the high rate of suicides among gay youth. “Mormons,” Montgomery asserts, “have the highest rate of gay teen suicides in the country.”

Over the last few years, the idea that Mormons have a problem with teen suicide, especially among gay youth, has become common wisdom. In 2012, a Reuters article highlighted the issue of gay teen suicide in Utah. The Huffington Post has featured the issue multiple times, as in a 2012 post. High-profile Mormon critic John Dehlin frequently discusses gay teen suicide among Mormons, and recently referred to the phenomenon as an epidemic. His characterization seems to fit the general impression: Mormons have a special problem with suicide among gay teens.

Missing data

There is no question that gay teen suicide is a reality among Mormon youth. In many cases, we have heard their stories, either through media or personal experience. Fortunately, we are more aware of this reality than we were in the past.

Unfortunately, however, these stories seem to be accompanied, more and more frequently, by statistical claims that are not supported by data. Mrs. Montgomery’s assertion that Mormons have the highest gay teen suicide rate in the country is unsourced in the original interview, and other blogs and outlets making similar claims are also missing sources. I surveyed all the government and health data I could find on youth suicide in the United States, and was unable to find any agency that collects public data by religion or sexual orientation (data so specific would be very difficult to collect). In fact, the American Association of Suicidology’s LGBT Resource Sheet notes, “to date, there is no empirical data regarding the number of completed suicides within the LGBT community.” The claim appears to be fabricated.

Other claims to the effect that Mormons, or Utahns, have a unique or unusually acute problem with gay teen suicide, or even teen suicide, cannot be supported by any data I can find.

The data we do have

Much of the interest in Mormons and teen suicide seems to originate from a 2006 article in the Deseret News, a newspaper owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article pointed out a few statistics about suicide that would have been surprising to most readers at the time. First, that Utah had the highest rate of suicide among males age 15-24. Second, that Utah had the 11th highest overall suicide rate in the United States. And third, that the youth suicide rate in Utah had tripled over the preceding half-century (in fact, this is true across the United States). The newspaper didn’t cite its sources, but all of the categories of statistics they refer to are available through the CDC and other federal sources and appear to be genuine.

What else do we know? The data in that report is now nine years old, so it’s worth taking stock of the current reality. I’ve collected a set of more recent figures below, from public data and representative surveys:

  • Utah’s suicide rate among people age 15-24 is 9th highest in the United States, among 47 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among males age 15-24 is 7th highest, among 46 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among females age 15-24 cannot be reported as the number of cases is smaller than 20 (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s overall suicide rate is 5th highest in the United States (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah is 29th out of 40 states with available data for the rate of high school students who have attempted suicide (not completed suicide) (CDC, 2013)
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Utahns age 10-17. (Utah Department of Health, 2012)
  • Across 9 sites surveyed (all in the Midwestern or Eastern US and California), lesbian and gay high school students had a rate of attempted suicide that was approximately 4 times higher than for straight students (CDC, 2011)
  • A representative survey of students in Grades 7-12 across the US using the Add-Health database found that Mormon gay teens reported significantly less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts than their nonreligious peers. (Add-Health, 2010)
  • The same survey found that religious gay teens had a lower attempted suicide rate than nonreligious gay teens (the number of cases did not allow for statistical significance, however).   [Update: These last two statistics came via an author and are unpublished. I have not been able to independently verify them, as I don’t have access to most of the Add-Health dataset. Take with a grain of salt! Thanks to Mike in the comments section for doing some digging!]

The following are additional relevant results from a small non-representative 2009 survey conducted by the Family Acceptance Project and affiliated researchers, included at the suggestion of commenters below.

  • Gay youth who experienced high levels of family rejection were 3.4 times as likely to attempt suicide, 2.8 times as likely to experience depression, and 1.7 times as likely to use illicit drugs than gay youth who experienced low levels of rejection. Note: Unfortunately, the researchers who wrote the original journal article misinterpreted odds ratio as relative risks, and accordingly reported higher numbers for the foregoing statistics (specifically 8, 6 and 3 times instead of the above figures). This appears to be a good faith error–misinterpretation of the odds ratio (a very unintuitive statistic) is extremely common, even among researchers. The journal article is restricted, but available here to those with institutional access. General information about misinterpreting odds ratios is here.

To the best of my knowledge, these statistics are the closest we can come to answering the statistical questions surrounding gay teen suicide among Mormons, or within Utah. Specifically targeted data on completed or attempted suicide among gay Mormon teens simply isn’t available.

The data speak well enough for themselves, but it’s worth pointing out that none of the relevant data points appear to justify an unusual suspicion about Utah (or, by extension, Mormons). This is especially true since the surprisingly strong link between high altitude and suicide rates has become well established. Among high-altitude states in the Rocky Mountain West, Utah appears to have overall rates within the average range, and youth rates slightly lower than the average. We have no empirical data specific to Utah for gay and lesbian youth, but we can assume that like other states, the rate of attempted suicide, and presumably completed suicide, is considerably higher than for straight youth.

It’s also worth noting that Utah’s overall suicide rate has increased relative to other states since 2006, while its youth suicide rate has fallen in comparison to other states. Furthermore, the Add-Health dataset mentioned above suggests that Mormon gay youth are relatively less at risk for suicide than nonreligious gay youth. [Update – I haven’t been able to independently verify this. See above.]

Conclusions

While only systematic recordkeeping and representative surveys can answer the questions we’re most interested in, we shouldn’t ignore anecdotal evidence about suicide. The sense among many concerned observers in Utah and elsewhere that the situation is bad and getting worse probably reflects an important reality. Youth suicide in the US has quickly gotten worse over the decades, and a disproportionate number of these suicides across the US, including within Utah, are among gay youth. Combined, these two trends might be giving an alarming impression to those concerned about the well-being of gay teens; an impression made locally that could be transformed into misplaced claims, such as Mrs. Montgomery’s. So her hypothesis–that Mormons in particular have an unusually severe problem with gay teen suicide—could possibly be an observer’s local interpretation of nationwide trends, but it cannot be supported or rejected by the data itself, as far as I can tell.

The hypothesis cannot be confirmed or rejected by theory, either. Many advocates who highlight the issue of suicide among Mormons do so within the framework of a particular narrative, at the center of which is the idea that Latter-day Saint sexual values are harmful. Since there is no data to support the assertion of abnormal suicide rates, the theory seems to be doing all the work. But there are other theories that could be put forth—Latter-day Saints could just as well hypothesize that robust Mormon families and supportive faith communities lead to lower rates of suicide among gay youth. But this would also be unjustified; it would be best for everyone to refrain from attempting to explain phenomena for which there isn’t evidence in the first place.

Those who believe in Latter-day Saint sexual values and those who do not should be able to agree: one youth suicide is too many, including among gay youth. Even if the Mormon problem is not unique, it is still a problem. We don’t need statistics, and certainly not unsourced statistics, to tell us this.

Rethinking Mormons and Porn: Utah 40th in US in New Porn Data

Statistics tell stories, and this is something that Mormons know well. While many demographic indicators speak to the social health of Mormon culture, there are some that do not.

A well-known example: in 2009, a study found that Utah had the highest rate of online porn subscriptions of any state in the US. Latter-day Saints, who form a majority of Utah’s population, profess a belief in avoiding pornography.

New data, however, offer a conclusion opposite to the findings of the 2009 study, suggesting that Utah and other states with high Mormon populations have abnormally low rates of porn use.

Background

The Mormon blogosphere (or “Bloggernacle”) lit up with commentary after the release of the famous original study, and the conclusions of the paper became a focal point of the growing discourse about sexuality among Mormons online. Many major blogs addressed the issue head on, as in posts here and here.

After a few months, the Utah porn statistic became entrenched in conventional wisdom. Blogs would make reference to the statistic, and having drawn their conclusions, move on to provide explanations and accusations regarding the phenomenon, as represented here, here, here, here and here. The popular narrative of the shamed, porn-watching Mormon is well-represented by the views of Joanna Brooks, a well-known observer of Mormon religious practices and culture, who believes some of the religion’s teachings:

We all know LDS Church leaders have been emphasizing the dangers of pornography, especially to young men.  And yet, the statistics have shown that Utah has the highest rate of home online porn subscription.

Still, this seemingly contradictory pair of facts seems to suggest that there’s something compulsive going on with porn in the world of Mormonism.  Mormon communities are emphatic about chastity—because it is a commandment.  But Mormonism’s emphasis on chastity can impact the way Mormons feel about healthy sexuality, tinging it with shame, mystery, guilt, and unrealistic expectations. [link]

For five years the conversation on Mormonism and porn has been defined by this single data point, and psychological and sociological analyses of Mormon culture, like Brooks’, have rested upon it.

The paper’s accompanying fact that Idaho (25% Latter-day Saints) had the lowest rate of porn subscriptions per thousand broadband users in the US has only very rarely been cited. Also seldom reported is the fact that the data in the 2009 study was from an unnamed vendor, whose users may or may not be representative of the US population.

The New Data

Pornhub pageviews per capita

Annual pageviews per capita by state, Pornhub.com.

Last week, the third largest pornography website in the United States (Pornhub.com) released data on its annual pageviews per capita by state. A chart of pageviews by state is shown at right (a link to the analysis, which does not show explicit content, is here).

The chart as presented by Pornhub is limited in its applicability, because relevant demographic variables are left uncontrolled for, but the conclusion nevertheless appears favorable for Mormons. Utah’s pageviews per capita in 2013 were 40th in the US. Idaho and Wyoming, the other states with large Mormon populations, are even lower on the list, at 49th and 46th respectively.

In order to find a more meaningful interpretation of the data that would adjust for possible confounding variables, I went to the trouble of gathering the most recent demographic data I could find for each state, so I could perform a controlled regression. I included variables for GDP per capita, internet penetration per capita, male/female ratio, age distribution, race and each state’s marriage rate.

Using ordinary linear regression methods, I generated a difference between a state’s actual views per capita and the views that would be predicted based on demographic variables. In this analysis, Utah’s deviation from the views predicted by demographics was 45th in the United States, while Wyoming was 46th and Idaho came 50th.

In other words, when controlling for other variables, there is an even stronger suggestion than before that Mormon populations do not have abnormally high rates of porn use (at least as represented by Pornhub). We might even suggest that their rates of use are especially low.

I also decided to directly analyze the relationship between Mormonism and porn use (again, as measured by this particular metric). This is something the author of the 2009 study did not do. I included a variable for the percentage of a state’s population that is LDS, as measured by official LDS membership statistics and the most recent population projections based on census data.

The regression finds, roughly speaking, when controlling for the variables already mentioned, that a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 16% decrease in the amount of porn consumption.

This result is highly significant, even at the 0.001 level. In fact, “percentage of Latter-day Saints in population” had a higher statistical significance than any other single variable I included in the regression (the next most significant variable was internet penetration). The proportion of overall explained variation in the regression is 66%, and a test for overall significance is highly conclusive, suggesting that the model as estimated is meaningful and significant.

Why do the results appear so different for these two sets of data? It’s almost impossible to know. The author of the 2009 study did not reveal the identity of the “top ten” porn vendor who gave him credit card data, and he admitted that there was no way to evaluate whether the users of that vendor were representative of the porn industry in general. His data, which was gathered from 2006 to 2008, also did not measure consumption, but rather paid subscriptions. A possible explanation of the discrepancy is that Utah’s porn use is skewed toward paid pornography.

In fairness, we cannot be sure that Pornhub.com users are representative of the industry overall. However, in this case we are aware of the identity of the provider, which provides both paid and unpaid content.

Statistics tell stories, and the famous “Utah porn statistic” has told far more stories than it is worth. If critics of Mormon teachings on porn and sexuality would like to continue promoting the idea that a conservative sexual culture has backfired on itself, then they will have to confront a less convenient set of data.

Here is another narrative, that perhaps time and further analysis will prove: Mormons view less porn than others, and those conservative sexual teachings are working.

EDIT: In response to a request, I obtained recent Gallup data on religiosity by state, and added these variables to my regression, in order to separate the effects of religiosity in general and religious engagement by Mormons. The same general results persist: a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 17% decrease in porn pageviews. The p-value is once again very low, at 0.002. In deviations from projections including religiosity, Utah is ranked 38th, Idaho 50th, and Wyoming 46th. The differences from the earlier analysis are small and require no changes to the conclusions I suggested above.

Technical notes: I used Stata to perform the regressions mentioned. Data were collected from government sources wherever possible. The results were consistent even when using logarithmic variables for pageviews and GDP. I learned the relevant statistical methods as part of the completion of the econometric portion of my Honours economics degree. EDIT: Datafiles and my Stata do-file can be accessed here.

Is There Still a Place for Religion?

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

If there exists a popular portrait of religion in the West, it is not as bright as it once was. The spirituality that once illuminated the stage of history is now painted dimly, as if an obstacle in the path of progress and material prosperity.

This metaphorical portrait is given commentary by academic voices speaking the language of statistics. Sociologists juxtapose the low religiosity of countries in Northern Europe with their low rates of crime and poverty. Unbelievers in America remark that religious people are over-represented in US prisons—and under-represented among its scientists and thinkers. In the opinion of many researchers, the statistical landscape of religion is bleak.

As someone who is religious, I have sometimes looked away in disappointment from this scene, wishing there was some other pattern to be seen in it. While I have always found compelling spiritual and personal justifications for my religiosity, I have avoided debates about the social effects of faith, suspecting there was little statistical ground to stand on.

I have recently discovered this is not the case. The dramatic patterns of cause and effect, made obvious by a glance at the portrait that was brushed in broad strokes, give way to subtler narratives when the picture is crafted in finer lines by someone with keener eyes.

Two books I have read recently on religion and society have given nuance to my view. Both attempt to uncover the nature and role of religion in the United States. One is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, both researchers at prominent American universities. The other is American Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists by Rodney Stark, who is one of the best known sociologists of religion.

Despite the ecclesiastical tone of each title, both books are mainly occupied by data and analysis. American Grace is particularly data-heavy, and it is appended by 123 pages of notes and appendices. With little theory or speculation, the authors share their analysis of the newest and best datasets on religion in America. American Blessings is also a statistical work, and it cites more than two hundred academic studies, all of which, according to Stark, use rigorous statistical methods.

Here are the claims of the authors. Campbell and Putnam find that religious Americans are more civically engaged, more generous, more neighborly, and more likely to be happy than irreligious Americans. Stark goes further, making and justifying claims that religion has the effect of lessening crime and delinquency, increasing educational success, improving mental health, lengthening human longevity, preventing suicide and promoting charitable giving and volunteering, even to secular causes. He proclaims (with satisfaction) that religious couples report more enjoyable sex lives than their unchurched peers, and that they are less likely to cheat, divorce, or mistreat their children.

Some of these findings are not surprising: most everyone has agreed for some time that religiosity is linked to generosity and civic engagement. The rest of the claims, however, seem to contradict popular (or at least academic) wisdom. I assumed, for example, before I began studying the question, that religiosity was linked to lower educational success and higher rates of crime and poverty.

What explains the gap between our assumptions and these statistics? According to Stark, most of the claims made about religion in the sociological literature are justified by simplistic analysis of poorly gathered data. Many papers use small samples of individuals, often drawn from non-random sources. More importantly, a great deal of the analysis performed does not control for relevant external variables.

This is a vital criticism. When searching for cause-and-effect relationships in social science data, it is irresponsible not to control for possible confounding effects to find independent relationships between variables. This is more difficult than correlating two sets of numbers: it involves regression analysis, a sophisticated technique with well-established statistical properties that can reveal hidden patterns in data.

It is true, for example, that the US states with the lowest incarceration rates have the lowest levels of religiosity. But when controlling for race, income and other social factors by way of regression methods, Stark finds that religion is actually negatively correlated with violent crime. This apparent discrepancy is resolved by the fact that black and Hispanic Americans represent a hugely disproportionate share of incarcerated Americans, but are also more religious than white Americans. While religious blacks and Hispanics are somewhat less violent than irreligious blacks and Hispanics (as can be confirmed by a closer look at the data), there are so many more minorities in prison than whites that it appears as if religious people commit more violent crime. Naive interpretation of data, even accurate data, can lead to conclusions opposite to reality.

Likewise, little can be inferred from the observation that the Western countries with the lowest religiosity are also those with the lowest crime rates. While there is very little statistical analysis of religion and crime in Europe, the existing literature finds a negative relationship between the two (the cited study is for crime in Sweden). Further, it is important not to be selective with statistics: while the US has a much higher murder rate than the Scandinavian countries, it also has far lower rates of assault and burglary, using 2008 data (according to Stark). It appears that crime has declined in the West over time despite growing irreligiosity, and probably not because of it.

It is also certainly possible that the heresy of our age underlies the slow decay of economic growth rates in the West, the rise of structural unemployment, or the stubbornness of child poverty rates (which are correlated with single parenthood).

The literature on the social effects of faithfulness is of course not settled. It may turn out that some of Stark’s conclusions are wrong, or lack adequate nuance. To that point, it seems to me after more study that the relationship between education and religion is more complicated than he let on: while church-attending students outperform the irreligious, it is also true that individual religiosity decreases as individuals gain higher education.

Nevertheless, a second look at the data is justified. To the extent that social scientists have neglected rigorous analysis in favor of more agreeable correlations, they must re-evaluate their assumptions, and paint their portrait of religious society in finer strokes, and from a wider palette. They will likely find that faith does not cast a shadow on modernity, but rather lights its way.