UVU study: Religion helps, hurts depression
Survey • People who feel close to their faith do well; those who feel alienated struggle.
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Religion cuts both ways when it comes to depression, according to two Utah Valley University researchers.

People who see themselves as active participants in their faith are less susceptible to depression. But for those who feel alienated from their religion, it makes them more likely to be clinically depressed.

Jack Jensen, director of UVU's mental health services, and Cameron John, associate professor of behavioral sciences, decided to survey UVU students after Mental Health America ranked Utah in 2007 as the most depressed state in the nation. The nonprofit, formerly known as the National Mental Health Association, used a variety of factors to come up with the state rankings, including the number of adults who had experienced at least one bout of depression and the average number of days in the past month respondents reported their mental health was not good.

The Mental Health America study suggested that access to mental health treatment, education and personal income are the deciding factors in depression. But Jensen said a side-by-side comparison with Texas, which was ranked 42nd out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for depression in the study, raised doubts.

Jensen said that using the study's standards, Texans should be more depressed than Utahns, who have better access to mental health services, are better educated and make more money, on average.

Jensen and John decided to examine Utah's culture for answers. They surveyed 1,000 UVU students about cultural factors that might be related to depression, focusing on four factors — religiosity, the drive for perfection, prescription drug abuse and the pressure to marry.

Their survey — which asked students about their relationship to those factors and if they had depression symptoms — found that Utahns ages 18-24 do experience pressure to get married but that it dissipates once they turn 25.

The study also found low rates of prescription abuse, suggesting the students were less likely to self-medicate to deal with depression.

The researchers also discovered that the more students pushed to achieve perfection, the more likely they were to get depressed, especially if they hit a setback.

But religion, the survey found, worked both ways. It provided a buffer against depression for people who felt connected with their faith community. But it led to depression for those who were alienated.

"People who classify themselves as part of a religion and were involved with their faith … were less depressed," Jensen said.

The study did not ask students what faith they belonged to, but Jensen said the student body is approximately 85 percent LDS.

The researchers presented their study at UVU in September, shortly before Boyd K. Packer, president of the Mormon Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said during a speech on Oct. 3 that homosexuality is "unnatural" and that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation.

The speech resulted in protests and calls for Packer to retract his comments. LGBT advocates said such comments could alienate homosexual Mormons.

"Studies show that gay and lesbian youth who are subject to rejection through any authority figures can cause them to commit suicide," said Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center.

Part of the pressure comes from families who have to reconcile their place in the faith community with having an LGBT family member.

"[Families] get upset and try to move them out of the area, or if they support them, they have to come out to other families, and that coming-out process is difficult for the families."

A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that two-thirds of Americans believe anti-homosexual messages from religious leaders are contributing to suicides among gay youths.

John Malouf, a clinical psychologist with Valley Mental Health, said that while the UVU study suggests an association between religion and depression, it doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

Those who view their self-worth in terms of how they relate to a faith community or what they achieve, either in school or life, may find it harder to cope with depression, especially when facing a setback.

"The way I talk about depression is it is a biological phenomenon and how you feel about it," he said.

Jensen said the study was not meant to pinpoint causation but to help counselors understand what cultural factors may play a role in a student's depression and treatment.

Jensen said same-sex attraction could be considered an alienating factor in LDS society and is a subject that needs to be explored further.

Jensen and John plan to present the study Oct. 29 at the Utah College/University Counseling Center Conference in Park City, and at the Mental Health Institute in Salt Lake City on Nov. 20.

dmeyers@sltrib.com

Twitter: @donaldwmeyers —

On the Web

O View a PowerPoint presentation on the UVU depression study • http://tinyurl.com/26mwxha.