Why Does the US’s Happiest State Have the Highest Suicide Rates?

Neuroscientist Perry Renshaw calls it “the Utah paradox” — why does the US state with the shortest average work week and the highest reported happiness of residents have one of the highest suicide rates?

Residents and experts are aware of the disparity — and also of the state’s number status for anti-depressant use — and blame the statistic on factors like gun ownership and low population density. Renshaw, who works at the University of Utah, thinks he’s found the true culprit however: altitude.

According to Mic.com, Renshaw believes the change in air quality associated with increased altitude could alter residents’ levels of serotonin and dopamine — two chemicals in the brain most closely associated with happiness. Most popular mental medications and recreational drugs mess with the brain’s levels of serotonin and dopamine, so why not air?

Renshaw has gathered a good amount of statistical and anecdotal support for his theory. It turns out, Utah is only one state of many that make up what some refer to as the “suicide belt” — a collection of Rocky Mountain states in the West with disproportionately high suicide rates second only to Alaska.


Image courtesy of KSL.com via CDC

After a stint studying the effects of drug abuse on brain chemistry at Harvard Medical School, Renshaw moved to Utah in 2008 to study Utah’s statistically astounding suicide rates. A group of researchers, Renshaw among them, released a 2011 study analyzing state suicide rates with comparisons to altitude, gun ownership, population density, poverty, health insurance quality and availability of psychiatric care.

Of all the factors, altitude had the strongest link to suicide. Renshaw conducted a few more studies to account for separate factors, but the results kept coming back the same. According to the studies, the elevation at which people live is a good predictor of mental health status.

Studies from abroad, including analyses of nations including South Korea and Austria, confirmed the findings. Based on comparisons between people living at sea level versus those living at high elevations, living at a high altitude may make people 30% more likely to commit suicide.

The anecdotal evidence piled up too. One woman approached Renshaw telling him of a support group she ran, consisting almost entirely of women who began having symptoms of anxiety and depression only after moving to Utah. A U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs reported having trouble holding onto both students and faculty who often left the academy, complaining that they felt “off” mentally since the move to the higher elevation.

But what about the other side of the coin — all those positive reports of happiness in mountainous Utah? Often, research participants who grew up in Utah and moved away found themselves longing to return to their home state before long. Researchers in Colorado noticed the same trend. Renshaw was soon turned onto a new piece of the puzzle — altitude-induced oxygen depletion.

The physical effects of lower oxygen density at higher altitudes, including headaches and nausea, are well-documented, but little research has been done on the effects of mental health. Renshaw believes the oxygen deprivation leads to decreased serotonin, which work to stabilize our moods, and increased dopamine levels, which helps us focus on one task.

The conflicting alterations in brain chemistry affect every individual differently. According to Renshaw’s theory, those with predispositions to mental illness would react more negatively to the oxygen-poor air, leading to an increased suicide risk. Women seem to suffer more, as they generally have lower serotonin levels to start with. Those without the predisposition may become happier in the mountains, in contrast.

Lower instances of ADD and ADHD in Utah figure into Renshaw’s hypothesis as well — since both are dopamine deficiency disorders, the mountain air works as an all-natural remedy.

Renshaw doesn’t believe mountain dwellers must flee towards coastal areas as a precaution — he says, instead, that his findings should help scientists and doctors better understand ways to improve treatment of mental illness.

To find out more about Renshaw and his theories, read the full story at Mic.com.