On mental illness, high altitude won’t keep us down

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
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The word “belt” is often used to describe various parts of the country. There is the Bible Belt–which includes the lower Midwest and the South. Then there is the Rust Belt–which describes old industrial sections of the Northeast, like Pennsylvania and New York. Though these are perhaps the most well-known “belts,” there are others, too.

For example, we live in the Jell-O Belt, or what is often referred to as the Mormon Corridor. Other states in the Jell-O Belt include Idaho, Utah and parts of Arizona. But did you know these states also make up the Suicide Belt?

The Salt Lake Tribune recently published an article discussing high mental illness rates in Utah and a suspected cause for those elevated rates. Those high mental illness rates, and their attendant suicide rates, have led researchers to call this part of the country the Suicide Belt. Jell-O suddenly sounds so quaint.

Speculation has existed for years as to why Utah, which is also ranked as one of the healthiest states, also has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. For all the running we do, we can’t quite outrun our demons. Although speculation as to why mental illness is so rampant in Utah has previously focused on high church attendance rates and religious perfectionism, new research suggests that our high mental illness rates may also have something to do with altitude.

Almost a quarter of Utahns reported having a mental illness in 2011 or 2012. And although Utah ranks the highest, other mountain states have high rates of mental illness, too. Altitude can impair brain function and, for those who are taking antidepressants, the high altitude can also inhibit the effectiveness of those drugs. As it turns out, our high mental illness rates may have more to do with our high altitude than our high church attendance.

Though the research is inconclusive–we may never know why Utah has such elevated levels of mental illness–that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be engaging in policy behaviors that can reduce the negative effects of mental illness. We shouldn’t allow our unique geographical features, like altitude, to allow us to wash our hands and be done with the matter.

In Utah, we are too quick to blame environmental factors for our problems. Utah’s poor air quality is often attributed to our unique topography. And although our unique topography certainly contributes to the problem of inversions–it doesn’t mean we are powerless to stop them.

Utahns weren’t always so quick to dismiss the possibilities inherent in Utah’s many valleys. When pioneers first arrived here over 150 years ago, it was a treeless desert. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the valley’s first European settlers built canals and reservoirs, they planted trees and farms, and transformed the arid region into the world destination it is today. Certainly there were pioneers who, upon arriving in the valley, ridiculed and complained about their new conditions. Certainly some of those pioneers dismissed as impossible the task ahead of them.

Be it dirty air, or mental illness or high autism rates, Utah’s heritage provides an important cue for making improvement. Instead of blaming our environment, let’s change it and make it better.

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