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Mental Health Disparities in Utah

Mental Health Disparities in Utah

Mental health is a collection of individual behaviors, social and environmental factors, and health provider services that work together to improve behavioral functioning, quality of life, and an overall sense of self-worth. In Utah, this fairly universal definition is quickly muddled by contradictory facts. Studies have shown, for example, that the state has the highest rates of mental illness as well as the highest ranking for happiness.

But maybe these statistics aren’t as contradictory as they first appear. Hypobaric hypoxia is prolonged oxygen deprivation associated with living at higher elevations. The effects may include euphoria and increased moodiness, along with fatigue, headaches, cognitive disruptions, and other symptoms associated with mental illness. Yet, this is largely a mental health difference between Utah and the rest of country. What about inside the state? Here are a few of the factors that create disparate outcomes for Utah residents with a variety of mental disorders.


Geography and Mental Health in Utah

It’s easy to imagine geographic barriers in the counties that are not along the I-15 corridor, and indeed access to health services in rural areas is a big issue in Utah. Yet, many would be surprised by the number of residents in Tooele, Summit, Morgan, and even Utah County who struggle simply to get to and from their health provider appointments.

At the same time, living in one of Utah’s valleys presents its own risk profile. These areas are known for their winter inversions and poor air quality. The three largest cities in Utah (Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo) are all located in valleys which produce the worst air quality in the state. This is significant as air pollution has been linked to autism, suicide, and other mental disorders.


Financial Inequality

A lack of financial resources compounds the problem for individuals and families with minimal access to daily transportation and clean mountain air, but this is far from the only consequence of poverty on mental health in Utah. Whether it’s public assistance, affordable health insurance premiums, and/or private fees for services that are deemed “medically unnecessary,” a certain level of financial resources is a must.

Unfortunately, existing health coverage may act as a deterrent for upward mobility. The working poor may guard against making just enough money to get kicked off public assistance, a situation that would leave household members without access to badly needed health services.

Rising income inequality is also a big source of mental health disparities in Utah. This enables a relatively small portion of the population to inflate the fees for select or extended health services. This is an issue that every state struggles with, and the good news for state residents is that Utah has one of the lowest rates of income inequality overall. We used to be best in the nation, but the latest data has us trending in the wrong direction.


Religious and Cultural Factors

Much like living at higher altitudes, the overall weight and effect of cultural influences is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. There’s little doubt, for example, that the LDS church manages a robust financial assistance program for both its members and generally underprivileged populations. Yet, it’s also true that a complicated heritage has led to many state residents who are generally distrustful of civil authorizes, a distrust that can spill over to the state’s health provider services.

People from other states also underestimate the cross-cultural dynamics that are at play in the state. Several different ethnic groups, religious immigrants, non-religious or “cultural” Mormons, new urbanites, and a strong LGBT community are just a few of the groups that contribute to a culturally diverse population. At the end of the day, we must keep working toward positive mental health outcomes, even as we recognize that perfect parity is unattainable.



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