Happy Valley? Despite depression and suicide rates, Provo named 7th happiest U.S. city

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According to a recent National Geographic article, Provo is the seventh happiest city in the U.S. This is in contrast to new reports from the Utah Women and Leadership Project that say, among other statistics, that Utah has the seventh highest suicide rate in the nation. (Haley Mosher)

Provo is the seventh happiest city in the U.S according to a recent National Geographic article. But according to a new brief and infographic from the Utah Women and Leadership Project, Utah also has the seventh highest suicide rate in the U.S.

National Geographic’s index was designed by Gallup senior scientist Dan Witters and drew on nearly 250,000 interviews conducted with adults between 2014 and 2015 in 190 U.S. metropolitan areas. The index established 15 metrics from healthy eating and vacation time, to civic engagement and financial security. The article said these factors are “statistically associated with doing well and feeling well.”

Provo was ranked seventh for its “intoxicating blend of city culture and outdoor recreation, with fishing, hiking and rafting all just a stone’s throw away,” according to the article.

However, BYU psychology professor Mikle South said this kind of index is “no more or no less (accurate) than any other measure” because there’s always data to show the opposite side.

South said the disconnect between Utah’s suicide rates and Provo being named one of America’s happiest cities might be due to several factors, such as how Utah keeps medical records. If Utah records and reports depression diagnoses and suicides more consistently than other states, it could make Utah’s rates look higher in comparison.

Another factor could be an over willingness from doctors to prescribe medication because Utahns are less likely to self-medicate.

“This might in part be due to less self-medication, where people in Utah don’t drink as much (and they) don’t use other drugs as much,” South said. “You might be essentially going to doctors more where other people might drink.”

In addition, the Utah Women and Leadership Project’s infographic shows 20.8 percent of Utahns, or 1 in 5, suffer from depression, higher than the nation’s 17.7 percent. Suicide is also the leading cause of death in Utah for people ages 10 to 17.

But South said high depression and suicide rates aren’t unique to Utah — in fact, the Rocky Mountain region from Montana to New Mexico is known as “the suicide belt.”

While some people theorize this “suicide belt” exists due to oxygen deprivation from higher elevations, “nobody knows why (there’s higher rates of suicide in the Rocky Mountain region),” South said. “(Oxygen deprivation) might lead some people, but not all, to be more susceptible to depression and suicide.”

South added that the No. 1 influence on anyone’s happiness is social support. This means having people you’re comfortable with, can trust and can share your sorrows with.

“We might have more of that here with our church communities … though people on the margins of that may feel more left out,” he said.

Longtime Provo resident Marie Sampson, however, said she’s seen evidence of depression everywhere she has lived.

“There are people that are very hard on themselves … but I think that’s everywhere,” she said.

Sampson first moved to Provo from California while attending BYU. She later raised her own family in California, and has lived everywhere from Chicago to Los Angeles, but she’s been in Provo for the past 15 years.

“I love my neighborhood and my neighbors,” she said. “It’s a clean, wonderful area to live in and people are wonderful. … As soon as I moved here, I felt at home.”

Sampson said Provo is “absolutely” a happy place because people are friendly everywhere she goes. There are also beautiful places to experience nature and plenty of culture to enjoy, she said.

“(There’s) just a feeling here and I love it and I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” Sampson said.

BYU student Clara Pusey said Provo has a different kind of happiness than her “super happy” hometown of Dublin, Ohio.

“My hometown isn’t a college town… (so Provo) is fun and more energetic,” she said.

Pusey, a sophomore studying elementary education, said she’s lived in Provo since last fall. While she wouldn’t guess Provo if asked to name the happiest places in the U.S., she said she thinks the city’s prevalent Mormon culture creates a happiness-boosting community.

She also said having a variety of easily-available activities, such as good hiking places, contributes to Provo’s happiness levels. However, Pusey said she wouldn’t choose to live in Provo permanently.

“I don’t want to live where a bunch of college kids are living forever,” Pusey said, “so not because of the environment it has or anything.”

Pusey said Provo’s high depression rate is probably related to the pressure students feel to perform well academically.

“(BYU is) a very stressful environment and a place where everyone’s very smart and top of their class,” she said.

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