Utah researcher says no data linking LGBT suicides to religion

I will quote at length this story, which most readers should find interesting. (Note to readers, the link goes to a gay website, so be forewarned.)

A Utah suicide researcher says the friction between LGBT sexuality and religion in Utah may not be quite the driving factor behind youth suicide as many people believe.
Despite a general perception that many of Utah’s youth suicides arise from intolerance toward LGBT people promulgated (though not necessarily intentionally) by teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state’s suicide prevention research coordinator says that may not be the case.
“There’s no data to show that, period,” says Michael Staley, who works in the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner and is the first person who would know, since he leads an effort to collect, compile and analyze suicide information from around the state. He conducts that research at the behest of the Utah Legislature. “We are working to get that data,” he says.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016 that LGBT youth die by suicide at double the rate of their non-LGBT peers, Staley says data specific to Utah so far doesn’t validate the sexuality-religion narrative. “The people who are driving that narrative are going to be disappointed,” Staley says, while at the same time recognizing that “theoretically, it makes sense.”
Given the state’s predominant Mormon faith and the church’s rigid, often equivocal stance on LGBT-related issues, it seems only intuitive that the stress thus induced for LGBT people would influence some toward suicide. Especially when an LGBT person’s family members, under certain interpretations or apprehensions of Mormon beliefs, exhibit “highly rejective” behavior, as a study from the Family Acceptance Project calls it.
So it’s little wonder that “Day one in this job, I started getting questions from the media and members of the general public about sexuality,” Staley says.
But his mandate from the Legislature is broader than that. He is examining all suicides.
“We’re building the most comprehensive database of information about suicide decedents around. That’s huge,” Staley says in an interview with QSaltLake Magazine. In fact, it’s the first undertaking of its kind in the country and, because of the organization of the state’s medical examiner’s office, it’s possible in Utah and only a handful of other states. Staley calls the effort “progressive” and “pioneering.”
Staley’s research involves gathering two kinds of information. The first is the findings in official documents: OME investigation records, medical and mental health records, criminal or court records, and the like.
The second kind makes up a “psychological autopsy,” and involves, among other things, talking to the people suicide victims leave behind: family and friends. “We’re getting real-time data about suicide that we’ve never gotten before,” Staley says.
But that real-time data, as well as other available information, doesn’t validate the narrative of the sexuality-religion-suicide nexus. “I will not ignore that narrative, of course … but I also think it’s a more complex story than just religion and sexuality,” he says.
If there is a misperception about that, it begins with another. During a presentation to the LGBTQ Affirmative Therapists Guild of Utah on Nov. 15, Staley asked guild members what proportion of Utah suicides they thought were made up of youth (LGBT or not) age 10–17. “Most people would say 40–60 percent, and people assume that all these people are LGBT,” he said. But the real numbers may be far lower. Data from the OME shows that suicides of youth age 10–17 make up about 6 percent of suicides per year in Utah.
Staley presented information from the CDC that illustrated one of his obstacles: “If you told me to do a [suicide] study of LGBT people, I have no idea who those people are.”
The CDC in Atlanta reviewed investigations for 150 youth suicides in Utah. Last year, it reported its findings. Sexual orientation could be determined by actual or even circumstantial evidence for 40 of those individuals. Of those, only six — or 4 percent of the total 150 — could be identified as non-heterosexual; seventy-three percent could not be confidently identified one way or the other.

As I have written in the past in this post, the claims of teen suicide being caused by the policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are exaggerated beyond any sense of reality. Of course every suicide is a tragedy, but it is also a tragedy to stand over peoples’ graves for political purposes. The science of depression and suicide clearly shows that people, including teens with same-sex attraction, do not kill themselves for one simple reason (such as the Church’s policy on this issue). And now we have more information that the data in Utah simply does not fit the narrative of the critics of the Church.

By the way, Michael Staley, the Utah researcher quoted above, says he is gay, so you can’t pull the homophobe card on the poor guy.

Can we please get back to studying the real reasons people commit suicide? Thank you.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

18 thoughts on “Utah researcher says no data linking LGBT suicides to religion

  1. Data is delightful. Ignorance is not. Alas, ignorant people tend not to be swayed by data. So I expect the ignorant will continue to promulgate the (now discredited) narrative that the Church of Jesus Christ causes massive numbers of honorable non-heteronormative youth to despair unto self-inflicted death.

    I do look forward to the information on causes of self-inflicted death. I wouldn’t be surprised if a large category is older adults who have fallen on economic hard times, particularly older adults who actively participated in being swindled. But I am content to wait for data, rather than shouting my hypothesis from the housetops.

  2. Thank you so much for highlighting this study and writing this post. I will be sharing it as far and wide as possible.

  3. How are you interpreting this? I see a difference between “an absence of data showing correlation (because there is no such data to test)” and “data that are tested and show an absence of correlation”. My impression is that this is a data gathering project so that we will have data in order to later test the correlation(s) between LGBT suicide and religion. There may yet prove to be a correlation between LGBT suicide and religion or not, but we really can’t say until we gather the data.

    Is that how you are reading this?

  4. Geoff,
    I appreciate the update. The last paragraph you quoted is arranged so that it is misleading. If I’m understanding what they stated, what more accurately should have been said was, “Of the 40 suicides of individuals where sexual orientation could be identified, six – or 15 percent (not 4%) – could be identified as non-heterosexual.” Tying the 4% to the entire population is apples to oranges and meaningless. If there are about 3% of the normal population that are non-heterosexual, then the suicide rate of 15% in this sample of 40 is five times that of suicides among the normal population. That it is five times that of the normal population rate should give some cause for concern.

  5. KarlS, I caught that too. The math is problematic and doesn’t seem to prove what it is trying to prove.

    In all honestly, the entire article makes no sense to me. Is an actual reason for the uptick in suicides given and I just missed it? I don’t understand why the relationship between religion and sexuality in LGBT kids (or adults for that matter) should be dismissed if there isn’t an explanation for the uptick in suicides in the first place. However, I am not trying to argue that suicide is ever simple or straight forward by saying that.

    What would be interesting to me is research on attempted suicides through hospital records where causes can be explored with a tad more accuracy.

  6. I doubt that data that contradicts popular propaganda will gain much ground. Ideas are tools for causing change even when they are founded on speculation.

  7. @MrShorty,

    What the article is stating is there is not currently data that supports the widespread assertion that large numbers of non-heteronormative youth are killing themselves due to conflicts with the ideology of the Church of Jesus Christ.

    It is true that apples and oranges are being mixed in the 4% number (with the actual percentage being as low as 4%, possibly 15%, and potentially as high as 77% (presuming every youth for which no sexuality could be inferred was in fact non-heteronormative and killed themselves for that reason).

    However, a more important fact from this is that only 6% of all suicides are from the age group that has supposedly become so problematic. If 6% of all suicides is significantly greater than prior Utah numbers or numbers for other populations, then there might be something here.

    What does remain is that the current narrative claiming vast numbers of suicides from orientation/gender disphoria among youths does not yet benefit from objective validation.

    The other factor is that talking about self-inflicted death tends to increase self-inflicted death in the population folks are focusing on. When my Stake experienced a self-inflicted death (an individual who was emotionally fragile and appears to have been sexually abused), all youth in the stake were brought together and leaders who happened to be trained in mental health issues helped them understand the risks associated with their friend’s death and ensured everyone had the resources they needed to get through this terrible time.

    When the tragic death of a young person is used as political fodder, proclaiming that such deaths are a “cry for help,” the trait that is associated with the tragic death becomes nigh unto an excuse for anyone else exhibiting that trait who wishes to effect societal change.

    I do like the idea that there is a God who does know all things. And I am content to stand before that God and accept responsibility for those things that I have done (while casting myself on the mercy of Christ, as I cannot pay). The politicization of self-inflicted death among young people is something I fear will splatter many with guilt, and some of those so splattered will not have thought they were inflicting harm because they were so confident in the rightness of their cause.

  8. Meg, your comment is excellent, but I want to reiterate the point you make that obsessing about this issue cannot do any good for any Church youth who may be suffering depression or anxiety because of sexual identity questions. It especially does no good at all to these youth to spend your time blaming the “homophobic church” for their problems. Youth will know where you are coming from, and the more time you spend blaming the “homophobic church,” the more time youth with concentrate on that issue. These people are literally making the situation worse for their kids for political reasons. If you go around saying the Church or its members “hate gay people,” teenagers who have same-sex attraction will obviously say to themselves, “why do these people hate me?” This creates more reasons for depression, not fewer reasons for depression. I would beg the parents of youth with same-sex attraction to visit therapists with experience in these issues and be extremely careful about joining groups with political motivations, no matter how innocuous they may sound.

    (In terms of bona fides, I am the parent of a child who has tried to commit suicide and suffers from anxiety and depression. If you study this issue at all with an open mind, you will come to the conclusion that human beings are complex creatures and almost never motivated by one factor when trying to commit suicide.)

  9. In terms of bona fides, I am a parent of a gay child whose suicide ideation, 20 years ago before it was popular to blame the church, was partially caused by his perception of what he thought God thought about him based on Church teachings. “Perverted,”, “heinous,” “repugnant,” “abominable,” “evil,” “shameful,” “degenerate,” “pervert” are terms used by leaders back then with vestiges still hanging around today. The primary reason he didn’t go through with it was that he thought being gay was a heinous sin, but so was killing himself and he didn’t want two reasons for God to condemn him on the other side.
    In my eyes, because I am a direct witness of it, the Church teachings can be a significant factor in suicide ideation at the individual level. I’ve read accounts of other parents who can confirm this. How much impact over the population of suicides it has can’t apparently be determined at this time because of lack of data. And, I’m against promoting inaccurate data for any cause. So, I agree that there has been some misleading flag waving and fear mongering by critics of the Church. (EDITED)
    Geoff and Meg, your latest posts are well taken, except the parts where each of you (I’m sure unknowingly) insult the parents of gay youth who have or could potentially take their lives by insinuating that their (the parents) motives might be politically motivated rather than out of a deep love and concern for their children and others. Granted, some activists seem to be acting politically, but making statements that readers could interpret as lumping everyone together who suggest the Church or its members could improve as politically motivated probably isn’t sending the message you really wanted.

  10. KarlS, if there is no political motive in your concerns on this issue, then the comments weren’t aimed at you and you have nothing to worry about. But I am sorry to report that many of the promoters of this issue are almost exclusively interested in political posturing and will outright lie about the data involved for political and anti-religious reasons. I am not going to give any space on this post to these people (which is one of the reasons comments are moderated), but I have had long discussions with these people, and their motives are evil, not good. As I say, I don’t know you and I’m not lumping you into this group, but this blog is a faithful blog that supports the Brethren, so we don’t take kindly to people lying for political or anti-religious purposes. And I will not back down from that statement.

    Regarding some of the negative terms that have been used, I have encountered some of the terms you mention in past talks and books by Church leaders, and I would agree with you that they were unfortunate. I am a convert to the Church, and I can tell you that in 20 years of being a Church member I have literally NEVER heard a member use such a term in a church setting (or any other setting, to be quite frank). I live in a very conservative ward in a semi-rural part of Colorado, and the only reaction that members of my ward have to same-sex attraction is to reach out in love and kindness. I realize that this does not happen all the time, but I truly resent and will not tolerate the generalizations that come from opponents of the Church who constantly adopt an attitude of blame and shame. And as I say, this is a blog that builds up and supports the Church and the Brethren, so I am simply not going to allow some discussions to go in the direction that some people would like to take such discussions. That may or may not be your cup of tea, but that is what will happen on this blog.

  11. Can we please make sure this article gets to Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons? Seriously. His crusade against the Church’s beliefs on sexuality is hitting a lot of Millennials’ faith pretty hard. Thanks.

  12. As a parent of a now-adult child whose circumstances are similar to those of the story related by KarlS, I would applaud data that proves that the Church and its teachings are not a factor in teen suicides. The article makes it clear that it is an ongoing study, and that no such data exists yet. I would hope that is how this turns out, but one incomplete study only gives hope, not definitive proof. I would also warn that just as there are some who may be using the graves of dead children for political purposes on the LGBTQ side, we also need to be cautious not to do the same thing on the side of defending the Church. This is incomplete and inconclusive, and needs to be confirmed by more data, and the research of others as well.

  13. Hi KarlS,

    To the matter of bona fides, I have a relative who is shifting genders who is active on the ExMormon Reddit group. This relative routinely castigates the folks there for obsessing about suicide and the Church. This relative isn’t currently affiliated with the Church. I don’t know if this relative uses their real name on Reddit, but I understand that their castigation of folks for politicizing this issue is pinned.

  14. I have wondered why this is supposed to be a particular problem for homosexual or transgender youth. The Church has made a particular effort to discourage pornography, heterosexual fornication, adultery and masturbation, and a person entangled in any of those can feel both self disgust and awareness that their actions and thoughts are inconsistent with the ideal. Perhaps the particular psychological vulnerability, particularly of those with gender dysphoria, who have a very high suicide rate in general, brings the problem to the forefront. Promulgating the idea that we must relax all standards because they are a trial to those who are being tested is a very ancient idea, addressed by Alma in his words to Corianton. It is incumbent on all who bear the name of Christ to cherish all, but abandoning standards is not the answer.

  15. We read Alma 21 this morning, which tells of how Aaron and the others who preached to the Lamanites were attacked and imprisoned for preaching the word.

    Two lessons:

    1) sometimes it can be more effective to serve as Ammon did than to proclaim as Aaron et al. did.

    2) it’s never been true that adhering to the gospel guaranteed a smooth road.

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