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Do religious LGBTQ youth have better or worse mental health?

Do religious LGBTQ youth have better or worse mental health?

Many of us have friends and loved ones who identify as LGBTQ or as same-sex attracted. Maybe you have supported friends and loved ones as they’ve sought to reconcile their sexual/gender identities and religious faith. Some of you have likely also rejoiced with friends and loved ones who have shared the peace and joy they feel as they experience such reconciliation.

But all this becomes harder to navigate in an atmosphere of hostility and contention — since even in the best of circumstances, finding answers can be challenging. For instance, you may have seen studies suggesting religion is associated with LGBTQ well-being or that religion is associated with LGBTQ harm weaponized to pressure people. As a result, our sexual and gender minority friends and family can feel at the center of a never-ending conflict instead of finding greater peace. 

Without requiring anyone to abandon their convictions, a better way forward will encourage enough intellectual humility to be genuinely open to learning from each other, agreeing where we can, and disagreeing where we must.  

There are a number of ways we can do this as we gather as families for the holiday season. First, we must model healthy dialogue. 

In line with the importance of viewpoint diversity in social science, one of us has been a part of efforts to bring LGBTQ-affirmative and religious conservative mental health professionals together for dialogue and collaborative research examining healthy and sustainable life paths for sexual minorities, including for faith-based individuals. As we seek deeper understanding, it helps to stay open to the best information, whether or not it matches our current understanding — and push back against confirmation bias, which can be especially strong regarding issues that matter most to us.

This is why listening deeply to views and evidence outside our own experience can be helpful. In the absence of this, it’s only natural that the experience of those we know, or know of, get amplified and embraced as “what most people experience.” 

Confusion over competing findings

Consider your reaction to the following social science findings in relation to religion and LGBTQ adolescent well-being in Utah:

  1. LGBTQ Latter-day Saints are more likely to consider suicide than non-LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.
  2. LGBTQ Latter-day Saints are less likely to consider suicide than LGBTQ individuals of other religions or no religion.

For those persuaded that religion is harmful to LGBTQ individuals, the first finding would likely be taken as standalone proof that their critique of faith is correct. But if your bias tells you religiosity is helpful to LGBTQ individuals, the second finding would likely be taken as sufficient proof your views are correct. 

When data contradicts a popular story

This commonly-held view that Latter-day Saint LGBTQ individuals are at greater risk of suicidality than those not associated with the church provides a valuable example of these dynamics. 

This belief can be bolstered because we may know of, or have heard of, Latter-day Saint LGBTQ individuals who have experienced suicidal thoughts or efforts. Yet what happens when we hear that almost every representative study of the issue actually finds Latter-day Saint LGBTQ individuals have lower levels of suicidality than LGBTQ individuals who are not Latter-day Saints?

How can an intellectually honest person reconcile two seemingly disparate data points? Rather than writing off whatever evidence disagrees with our current belief — or even worse, weaponizing whatever evidence seems to support our current thinking — we might consider instead trying to understand how such disparate data points can help us have a better and more complete picture overall. 

The stories and the stats can work together in this. Personal stories (anecdotal evidence) help us remember that people are not statistics. And what might be true for the majority (as found through scientific study) doesn’t negate individual lived experience.

In this process, each person deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness. We can listen lovingly, even if we disagree with their conclusion. 

Clarity from controlled studies

But caution is also warranted. In the case of conflicting perspectives, well-done scientific research can help — with poorly done social science more likely to distort the matter. 

Using data from Utah’s Student Health and Risk Prevention survey (SHARP), Mike was part of a team last year that examined LGBQ adolescent suicidality in Utah. Using a population-based, representative sample of 86,346 Utah secondary school students, we found that 28% of Latter-day Saint LGBQ students had seriously considered suicide in comparison to 13% of Latter-day Saint heterosexual students. 

Once again, this finding alone could be interpreted to show that being a Latter-day Saint increased the risk of suicidality for LGBQ students. However, when we compared Latter-day Saint LGBQ students with LGBQ students who were from other denominations or no denomination, a very different picture emerged. Latter-day Saint LGBQ suicidality was 28%, Catholic LGBQ suicidality was 37%, Protestant LGBQ suicidality was 50%, and those with no affiliation was 49%. 

Now the data seemed to be indicating that being a Latter-day Saint was protective of LGBQ suicidality. However, when we included controls for drug use and family connection, the differences between religious denominations largely disappeared. In other words, Latter-day Saint LGBQ did have significantly lower suicidality than non-Latter-day Saint LGBQ but by controlling for drug use and family closeness, we now know the difference was largely a result of lower drug use and closer family relationships among Latter-day Saint LGBQ students. 

This study is not an outlier. It matches the largest meta-analysis done to date on the relationship between religion and LGBTQ well-being, which found that religion has a small but positive relationship with the health of sexual minorities (defined as “mental health, well-being, physical health, sexual health, substance use, and self-harm/suicidality.”) 

And the fact is most studies using representative samples and controls and comparison groups find that religious LGBTQ individuals in general, and Latter-day Saint LGBTQ individuals in particular, have better mental health. 

All that being said, we know that some LGBTQ individuals struggle mightily to reconcile their experience and their faith. Instead of weaponizing findings, we would be far better served by seeking to understand how different LGBTQ-identifying family and friends may experience religion differently. Such nuanced research is beginning to help us do just that. For example, rather than oversimplying the relationship between religion and LGBTQ well-being we can examine why and how some LGBTQ individuals thrive within religion while others struggle. 

Of course, what constitutes quality research isn’t merely subjective. Whether or not a study uses a representative sample, controls, and appropriate comparison group(s) are widely agreed upon as crucial aspects of the most rigorous studies. And it turns out, they make a significant difference in the interpretations we end up making. For example, comparison groups and controlling for other issues that are known to impact suicidality such as gender, mental health and elevation helps us know our findings are not caused by extraneous issues. 

In short, knowing that religious LGBTQ suicidality is elevated raises a concern but doesn’t help us know why it is elevated. But if we compare religious to nonreligious (or differently religious) LGBTQ individuals, we can begin to see what role religion may have in those elevated rates.

So, back to the original point of this article. Instead of fighting each other, if we truly care for our LGBTQ family and friends, we will want them to have the best information available as they seek to navigate their path forward. That means combining personal insight with the best social science findings. 

That can provide us with a more accurate understanding of what is helping and what is not and how we can all try to be part of the solution rather than part of the animosity that often exists surrounding these sensitive issues. This could help lead us to join together as advocates to help rather than as adversaries in the cultural wars so rampant around us. We don’t have to agree with every stand others take in order to stand together in our efforts to help those in our families and communities most at risk.

Michael Goodman is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University with a doctorate degree in marriage, family and human development. He is a researcher on the Family Foundations of Youth Development study and serves on the board of North Star, a faith-based ministry for Latter-day Saint sexual and gender minorities.

Ty Mansfield is a practicing marriage and family therapist and faculty in religious education at Brigham Young University.

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