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The two faces of Utah: Healthy but mentally ill
Health » One theory says mental illness and suicide can be linked to altitude, a pattern seen in Mountain states.

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But also in February, the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index found Utah had the 12th best well-being in 2013 based on 55 measures.

Questions revolved around how respondents felt about their life prospects, health, work, healthy behaviors and access to food, shelter and health care.

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That was a big drop from the 2012 index, when Utah was ranked fourth, and was the state’s lowest ranking since it debuted at No. 1 in 2008.

Nonetheless, the state also did well in another health study, America’s Health Rankings, which put the state at No. 6 in 2013. That study looked at a range of public data on disease, behavior and public policy, and credited Utah’s high ranking in part to its low smoking and binge-drinking rates.

Jack Jensen, director of psychological services at Utah Valley University, says it’s hard to compare studies that use different methodologies.

Moreover, "just because a minority of the population are determined to be depressed, it really doesn’t have an influence on the majority of the population that considers themselves healthy and happy," he writes in an email.

A question of faith » Mental health professionals generally agree about one theory on why Utah stands out in mental illness studies: the predominance of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the church’s high expectations for adherents.

They don’t buy it.

"It’s an easy thing to say, but it doesn’t pan out in the research," says Kim Myers, statewide suicide prevention coordinator.

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"It’s a sensible theory," says Ted Wander, medical director for LDS Hospital’s psychiatric unit and spokesman for the Utah Psychiatric Association. "But it just isn’t borne out by the numbers."

LDS teachings that eschew tobacco and alcohol surely influence Utah’s low smoking, drinking and cancer rates. But research also shows that religious faith helps protect adherents from mental health problems.

There has been little research, however, about the mental health of those raised in but not practicing a religious tradition.

Jensen at UVU attempted to get at that question in a survey of 1,000 UVU students in 2010. He and colleague Cameron John did not ask for the students’ religion, but 85 percent of UVU students identify themselves as LDS.

Students who were active in their faith tradition said the religious community helped them avoid depression, while those who were alienated reported more depression, Jensen says.

Likewise, those who had over-the-top perfectionism were more likely to be depressed.

Jensen cautions that the study showed only correlations, not causation, and that more research is needed.

Hikes, not help » The same survey, Jensen says, indicated that Utahns may be more likely to seek professional help rather than self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. That could explain some of the high rates of residents reporting mental illness.

Other mental health leaders wonder if Utah’s shortage of psychiatrists, particularly child psychiatrists in rural areas, means people wait too long.

It can take weeks to get an appointment, says Thomas at the state.

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