You may have heard the claim that there have been at least 32 suicides by LDS teens with same-sex attraction since the Church made the now well-known changes in the handbook.
I’d like to make a few comments about that claim.
First, and this should be obvious but it still bears repeating: every suicide is a tragedy, for the person and for the person’s family. I agree with the Church spokesman who said that every soul is precious to God and the loss of life to suicide is heartbreaking.
But second, the people who are trumpeting the claims are well-established critics of the Church who are reporting from people they claim have talked to them privately. No independent confirmation of these numbers has taken place. You, dear reader, can choose to believe what you want, but based on my life’s experience, I simply don’t believe that these people are telling the truth. Given the ghoulish way that they are glorying in their claims (which in their minds confirm their opinion that the Church is bad, bad, BAD), is it beyond the pale to believe that they have simply made things up? I think not.
None other than the Salt Lake Tribune, always anxious to find ways to criticize the Church, went looking for information to corroborate the claim of “32 suicides.” But, in a strange twist, actual journalism took place at the Tribune, and they were forced to report that there is no evidence of that many of suicides:
Trouble is, the number far exceeds the suicide figures collected by the Utah Department of Health.
Preliminary figures for November and December show 10 suicides in the Beehive State for people ages 14 to 20, with two more cases “undetermined.”
In fact, the department reports, the overall number of Utah deaths for that age group in those months was 25, including the 10 suicides and two “undetermined” cases, along with 11 in accidents, one by natural causes and one homicide.
“We monitor the numbers [of youth suicides] very closely. We review them every month,” says Teresa Brechlin, who works in the department’s violence- and injury-prevention program. “If we had seen such a huge spike, we would have been investigating it.”
Had there been any mention of the LDS Church’s policy on gays, her department “would have noted that,” Brechlin adds. “We have not seen that at all.”
But third, the people involved ignore the obvious reality that suicide is a complex psychological problem that simply cannot be attributed to one cause in a person’s life. It might be instructive to read this post.
Do you realize that by no research or academic standard would a simple causal factor be seen as responsible for any given suicide – even those that appear to have an obvious instigator (see below). That may be the one thing that everyone in the suicide literature actually agrees on: taking a life is an inherently complex matter (even when it seems simple).
Here’s more from that post:
That’s probably one reason the excellent guidelines produced by the Trevor Project and collaborators, “Talking About Suicide and LGBT Populations” discourage any kind of simplistic sharing when it comes to suicide, noting that “Some coverage…has oversimplified or sensationalized a number of the underlying issues, and in some cases may have created the potential for suicide contagion risk.” They go on to say:
DON’T attribute a suicide death to experiences known or believed to have occurred shortly before the person died. The underlying causes of most suicide deaths are complex and not always immediately obvious. Making hasty assumptions about those causes, even when based on comments from family or friends or media reports, can result in statements that are later proven to be inaccurate. Don’t risk perpetuating false or misleading information by jumping to conclusions about the reasons for a particular suicide death. Also, directly attributing a suicide to bullying or another negative life event can increase contagion risk among vulnerable individuals who have similar experiences.
DON’T normalize suicide by presenting it as the logical consequence of the kinds of bullying, rejection, discrimination and exclusion that LGBT people often experience.
I would like to quote at length from the above post, which was written by somebody who is a depression researcher, regarding many factors in suicides that do NOT receive attention:
In hopes of inviting a more productive conversation about these suicides, I list below five factors receiving virtually no attention in the current U.S. and Utah conversations about suicide (whether for teenagers or adults):
1. America’s depressogenic lifestyle. Researchers at Clark University and the University of Washington have argued that America’s average lifestyle is literally “giving birth” to despair – almost like a perfect “petri-dish” for depression. From a typical diet of low-nutrient, high-additive “food” and ongoing high-sugar drinks to regular habits of sleep deficiency and physical inactivity to an accelerating lifestyle that leaves precious little time for contemplation and mental/emotional rest…it’s hard not to agree with them! The brain can only take so many ‘insults’ before it gets pushed over the edge. Is it time for a public health approach to mental health, where we talk about the collective risk burden that is pushing so many of us (gay, straight, right, left, men, women, young, old) to the edge?
2. Anti-depressants and suicidal ideation. Since Robin Williams took his life, almost all national discussion about his death has focused on depression and other contributing disease states – and the need to “decrease stigma” for such illnesses. Universally, these recommendations come with gentle reminders to ‘get help’ and ‘get people into treatment’ sooner, earlier, more often. It’s remarkable that almost no mention has been made of the fact that Robin Williams was in treatment…the best psychiatric treatment available. Within a health education system often funded by pharmaceutical companies, it seems our priorities are not to explore the way anti-depressants have been shown to sometimes de-stabilize vulnerable individuals – including sometimes increasing the likelihood of suicidal thoughts – especially for teens, especially during a dosage change. Can we have a more thoughtful conversation about the role anti-depressants can or ought to play in assisting those facing depression?
3. Digital and pornographic colonization of American life. Whether teen or adult, all Americans are now swimming in an environment unlike any before faced by previous generations. In addition to the sheer volume of digital stimulation (that everyone agrees is rewiring our brain), we’re living in a highly pornographic and sexualized environment. And this isn’t your “father’s porn”; a surprisingly high amount of porn that teens are consuming these days is violent, aggressive situations that depicts pleasure arising from acts that most humans (of any perspective) would consider degrading and objectifying. The darkness, despair and depression associated with compulsive digital consumption, to say nothing of compulsive pornography consumption – is increasingly acknowledged. Can we talk about that too?
4. Personal and social upheaval. For many, religious communities provide a powerful set of protective factors against some of these very toxic patterns in the surrounding culture. But what happens to these protective structures when a teen comes to identify as LGBT? These protections can quickly melt away – and not simply because religious people suddenly become hostile. The philosophical shift alone is profound. Describing his own coming out experience, one person said: “All [previous] teaching about my identity…was WRONG! I had so many ideas of what I thought my life was going to be like, and who I was going to be, and how I was going to be that for the world and those people that I loved and had grown up with. And as I grew up and as I figured out more about myself and who I was, I began to realize that that person that I had been raised to be was not who I actually was” (FB-KA, italics mine).
5. Seemingly Impossible Futures. Personal conflict is almost universal for teens growing up with same-sex attraction. When someone comes out and identifies as LGBT, some report a reduction in personal conflict moving forward. For others, however, this same move to identify as LGBT actually exacerbates the conflict further – to where it becomes profoundly paradoxical and even more impossible to reconcile – “a sharp, painful dilemma” one man called it, “with the contrast in teaching about the church” (FB-CH).
So, to sum up: Here’s what I see. I see a progressive culture, and many liberal Mormons, glomming on to a report of “32 suicides since the Church announced its policy change” that simply does not pass the test of basic common sense. The facts show that nowhere near 32 suicides has taken place. The people involved have an axe to grind and are using this report to encourage opposition to the Church. And the Church’s critics are ignoring the simple reality that the suicides, even if any of them took place, cannot honestly be attributed to a single event. There are a lot of other factors going on in the world (detailed above) that should be considered when discussing suicide.
It is also worth considering that the worldwide trends that actually are contributing to suicide are trends, in most cases, that the Church has warned about.
But there is one last point that may be worth considering: are progressive Mormons making the situation worse? The Church’s position is certainly not intended to make people with same-sex attraction feel unwanted. I would argue that the Church’s position is undeniably compassionate: why subject teens to unnecessary conflict with their parents over baptism when they are young? Why not wait until they have become legal adults able to make their own decisions? Why encourage same-sex behavior that will damage a person’s eternal progression? But instead of seeing the Church’s policy from a position of charity, progressive Mormons become attached to the secular belief that the Church is necessarily describing people with same-sex attraction as flawed and lesser beings.
By continually repeating the secular refrain that the Church sees people with same-sex attraction as flawed, progressive Mormons are reinforcing a message that hurts these people rather than helps them. Progressive Mormons may be contributing to teen suicide, rather than preventing it. God sees all people as having essential worth regardless of their choices. D&C 18:10: “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” The Church reflects this and encourages people, because their worth is great, to follow the Lord’s commandments rather than break them. The prophets, because they have true charity, are looking to eternal values, not just to short-term decisions on a flawed Earth. We should follow the prophets.