Note: The following questions and thoughts are my own, Jacob Hess, and not necessarily representing the larger writing team, which is currently collaborating on various “maps” for this and other issues arising out of our own disagreements as a team. Erratum – Diane Oviatt was misquoted in an earlier version of this article. A correction has been made, and I apologize for the oversight.
While the numbers were passed along second and third-hand, the underlying implication wasn’t left to anyone’s imagination: these deaths are clearly the Church’s fault…
This is not the first time such an accusation has been made, and it most certainly won’t be the last. One person wrote that particular attitudes in the LDS Church were responsible for “killing another generation of beautiful Mormon youth.” Another mother recently stated that “there are graveyards full of young Latter-Day-Saints” who have tried to fit the LDS narrative. She went on to talk about her own son’s attempt to do so, despite how he felt about his true nature, as “a lie that backed [my son] into a suicidal corner,” thanks to “the shame and self-loathing that his religious doctrine and culture imposed upon him all those years.”
These are deadly accusations about a deadly issue. If there was ever a question deserving careful scrutiny and thoughtful conversation, this is it.
And I’d seriously love to see that actually happen…
But instead of doing the hard work of listening across different perspectives, it’s turning out to be much easier to simply pass around insinuations of ‘the awful truth’ online in an outward rippling of outrage.
“This is unbelievable and the church continues to preach hate” responded one. “I am so, so angry”…said another on Facebook.
And who wouldn’t be upset if this was all true? That the very church calling itself by the name of Christ was actually responsible for some of these deaths – with “blood on its hands” as some adamantly insist…
If that’s true, then we should all be marching. But what if it’s not true? What if the responsibility for what is happening is much more complex and multi-faceted than can be distilled into another viral Facebook post?
And this leads to my first question for those involved in the conversation: Are you open to pursuing the full truth on this question – even if you don’t like the answers?
That’s a sincere question I would pose to everyone in this conversation, including religious conservatives. Compared to the self-affirming echo-chamber within which more and more of our lives play out, I’m convinced the full truth about this (and any question) is going to take a very different kind of conversation – one where we allow our most precious convictions (mine included) to be challenged and scrutinized in the light of day. Are we open to that? (you and I both?)
If so, my next question is this: In all the recent talk of suicides, why is so little attention being given to a medical literature that now includes nearly 13,000 research studies touching on risk factors for suicide?
As a depression researcher myself, I find it curious (and troubling) that this documented array of complexity is rarely mentioned by those raising concerns…
And so my question is simply: why not?
It’s worth realizing 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).
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.
Kudos to Caitlin Ryan, Kendall Wilcox and Jay Jacobsen for being vigilant about continuing to remind people of these considerations.
Despite these efforts, some seem more focused on getting ‘the truth’ to the world, rather than creating conditions of a productive conversation.
In fairness, once again, I would probably be doing the same thing if I believed my progressive friends did about identity, sexuality, biology, choice, change, God, eternity – and suicide itself.
But I don’t.
Are you open to exploring together other potential explanations for some of the numbers we’re seeing?
In hopes of inviting a more productive conversation about these suicides, I list below four 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. 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.
And yet, when depression or anxiety arise in our youth or adults, almost universally our cultural response is to somehow fight against the emotional pain itself in attempting to make it “go away” – often without serious (enough) consideration of many of the root risk factors that give rise to deeply painful moods.
3. 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).
What role do these kinds of wrenching shifts play in de-stabilizing individuals – especially young ones? Other accounts describe the “dream for me ever since before I was born” laid aside (FB-RU) or walking away from everything one had been taught to value such as a mission, marriage, the Church itself: “When that happened, the whole world sort of came crashing down” (FB-BE)
Another parent described what many individuals feel in the process: “I had to re-examine everything I had previously thought…It upended my notions of truth, happiness, obedience, loyalty, and in fact all that I held dear, including my perception of the character of God….All of my beliefs have been upended and rearranged.”
What impact does this kind of a profound upheaval have on mental health – this veritable ripping-away from one’s theological moorings? However we might disagree about the necessity or wisdom of this upheaval (some might call it an inevitably painful, but necessary process), people from various perspectives might agree that this might represent a crucial risk factor for suicide (well confirmed by the medical literature as well).
4. 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).
The implications for mental health and de-stabilization to the point of suicide are apparent in people’s own stories. After coming to identify as gay, one man spoke of the challenge of having “two conflicting identities.” He reflected, “I realized why people get depressed, and suicidal because you’re constantly trying to resolve something that’s irresolvable” (FB-TI). Another added, “It’s hard to even go day by day. Not knowing how you’re going to reconcile this about yourself, how you going to create a life that is happy in any way” (FB-H).
Whereas these kinds of feelings and conclusions are almost always interpreted as clear evidence of the harm of religious conservative teaching, it’s also reasonable to look at the profound conflict itself (between religious conservative and progressive views of sexuality) as centrally driving the pain and confusion.
From that vantage point, both sides of the conflict might bear some responsibility – including both the old identity/life narrative and the new identity/life narrative. For instance, a third individual spoke of messages he had been getting that “this is just who you are and you just need to be yourself and be gay” as contributing to his desire to kill himself – specifically “not knowing that there were other options.”
One progressive man’s recent essay reflects a striking example of the verbalized dichotomy that many LDS teens experiencing same-sex attraction certainly now hear all around them in progressive American culture: “Today, the message to LGBT Mormon youth is clear, and it’s a bleak Sophie’s Choice: either resign yourself to life of celibacy, or be ejected from your church and family — for all time and eternity. Regardless of which option Mormon youth choose, they lose.”
I’m going to say it, dear author: This is irresponsible talk…and for someone with your knowledge base, it also feels a bit dishonest (two options only…really?).
Rather than a personal critique, I say this for the same reason you’ve written what you have: the welfare of these teens. And I hope you realize that from one perspective, this kind of ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ rhetoric may well be contributing to some of the very pain that these teenagers we all care about are facing.
Want to make a teen in the LDS Church despair? Convince them that who they are demands either acting in violation of their most sacred convictions or living a life not quite as enjoyable as “those who have lupus.” As one person said, “I figured if I couldn’t have the life I wanted, and the life I could have from what I read wasn’t conducive to the gospel…then my only option was to kill myself.” (VH-DEC)
Lack of options, hopelessness, no viable future = a deadly cocktail by any measure. In a broader mental health context, I’ve described this as “learned hopelessness.” Can we at least agree to leave possibility and options open (yes, more than two…yes, even options you and I might disagree with)?
Think of the strength of our common ground right now: the value and welfare of precious human beings…especially the children.
Perhaps the ONLY thing that could possibly get in the way of us finding together some real answers…is, well, a narrow, deformed conversation.
So what do you say: How about a broader conversation about suicide – one that opens itself to various explanations, independent of whose biases they confirm?
This doesn’t mean you can’t believe the Church bears significantly responsibility, just as I will continue believe the same about the progressive activist community. It means we’d actually come together to hear each other out – staying open to thoughtful, good-hearted people looking at the same numbers, the same stories and seeing something very different going on.
 (A conversation that could actually get to the bottom of this problem). And yes, I have the same concern about my own tribe – religious conservatives who can be so eager to share the truth with neighbors, that they make precious little time to actually hear the story of their neighbors.
 No, Lisa, numbers never ‘tell the story’ alone…the truth is, all numbers require a story-teller. That being said, I found your piece this week quite powerful, generous and helpful. (My only slight quibble being that my feeling is we need to have more discussion – rather than less – if we are to get to the bottom of this).
 In an earlier version of this article, I also attempted to summarize the conversation around anti-depressants and suicide risk (since anti-depressant narratives are a central research interest). But I felt unsettled about attempting to do so in one paragraph – especially given the many ways brief commentary on such a sensitive topic could be misconstrued. Given the enormous complexity of that topic, I opted to remove it as something deserving of more independent and extensive exploration in the future.
 Even satisfied post-Mormons speak of ‘post-traumatic church syndrome’ – reflecting real mental health consequences associated with someone choosing to leave a faith or reexamine their entire world-view.
 In the mental health world, I’ve seen that sometimes the existence of possibility is the only thing people need to keep going. To my mind, then, it would and could be a huge step forward if we all agreed to represent what others in the conversation actually thought about these crucial, life-and-death questions. That conversation may not be as “effective” for our various causes or campaigns – and it may feel uncomfortable to not simply have our various biases confirmed. But don’t these questions deserve the highest quality of conversation? Isn’t that something we might agree on?
While we’re at it, maybe we can stop pretending that conservatives think gay people “choose to feel attracted” – and pretending this is the only way of thinking about choice? Can we also stop insinuating there is only one way of thinking about the body’s role in sexual orientation – and implying that anyone with questions are somehow automatically hateful and less compassionate?
 Where each side could say “yes, that really does represent what I think.” To help support this conversation, our diverse team at Flirting with Curiosity is creating a collaborative “map” to help guide a productive conversation.