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On the Weaponization of Suicide and Moral Culpability

Let’s start with a confession: I’m really reluctant to write this blog post. This is an extremely serious subject, and one that should always, always, ALWAYS be treated with the utmost caution. And, I am utterly unqualified to comment on it. I am not a mental health expert. I am not a health professional of any kind. But there are some conversations going around about this topic, with some things being said that I think are unfair, and even dangerous. I feel like some things need to be said, and so I am going to say them.

You should be able to figure out from my title I am talking about suicide. To be more specific, I have in mind talk about Gay Mormon teens, who are said to be at extremely high risk of suicide. This has been one of Dehlin’s talking points in the past. A little over a week ago, Tom Stringham did an excellent job illustrating that there is no real data to support such claims. It is a myth that has been generated for the sole purpose of weaponizing these suicides to use against the Church’s stance on same-sex behavior. Stringham, however, does not talk about how that very weaponization is more than likely doing more harm than good.

This is not exclusively a Mormon phenomenon. The same thing is happening among many Christian faiths. Yet Ritch Savin-Williams, a leading researcher on the psychological well-being of LGBT youth has not only denied that there is any kind of gay youth suicide epidemic, but he has also stated that talking like there is one is harmful to gay youth.
As a developmental psychologist, when we look at the wide population of youth who identify as gay or who have same-sex attractions, it appears to me when I look at the data that they're actually just as healthy, and just as resilient, and just positive about their life as are straight youth. 
So from a scientific perspective, there is certainly no gay suicide epidemic. But the more problematic aspect for me is that I worry a great deal about the image that we are giving gay-identified youth.
And what is that image which concerns Savin-Williams? In an interview with Encyclopedia Britannica, he was asked, “As a developmental psychologist, is all the attention on gay suicide likely to help or hurt gay youth coming to terms with their sexuality? What message might you prefer be sent?” He answered:
I personally believe, without empirical evidence, that it hurts gay youth. Why would a youth identify as gay if he/she understood the fate that would befall him/her? The message given by mental health, public policy, and medical sciences professionals/researchers is simple: Be prepared to kill yourself! I just have to believe that this is not a helpful message to deliver. 
One of my interviewees some years back said that he thought he might be gay but wasn’t sure yet because he had not yet tried to kill himself.

We must be careful here, because as Savin-Williams admits, there is no empirical data at this point, but there is a certain common sense to what Savin-Williams is saying here. I see no reason this shouldn’t apply to a specifically Mormon context. It just can’t be a good idea to send the message to our fellow Latter-day Saints who identify as LGBT that they are bound to kill themselves, especially since the message tends to be that some external entity—the Church, usually—is responsible for this. The message thus becomes, you are going to kill yourself, and YOU are powerless to stop it. Only the Church can do anything about this, and you are destined to kill yourself unless THEY do something about it.

I am with Savin-Williams on this: such a message simply cannot be healthy for our youth, whether gay, straight, or whatever else. This is especially unfortunate because, as some of the data reviewed by Stringham indicates, higher religiosity actually seems to help lower suicide rates among gay teens. So any message that has the potential to drive a wedge between them and their religious community has the potential to increase risks of suicide.

Suicide is an awful tragedy, always. If you are and have ever felt suicidal, I would urge you to talk to somebody, call a hotline, or otherwise get help. The message I want you to take away from all of this is that the worth of souls is great in the sight of God. Even one soul is precious. Even your soul is precious. Whatever your personal struggles are, God still loves you, values you, and so do many people here, many people around you. You are not powerless. Whatever you face, with God you can face it together. I promise that is true.


For everyone else, we all need to be careful and cautious about how we talk about suicide. We all need to be careful about the message that we are sending. I have noticed a tendency with John Dehlin and others who want to pin all the blame on the Church—they flat out refuse to be held morally accountable for the harms of their own actions. They betray no real capacity to self-reflect on what the negative impacts of their actions might be, and own up to them. They might be doing some good—but that does not mean the negative does not exist, and it does not mean they get a pass on the harms they cause. The “gay Mormon suicide epidemic” is a narrative that simply does more harm than good—harm to the Church, and also harm to gay Mormon youth. I hope we can all stop perpetuating it. 

Comments

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  2. Thanks Neal

    I find that so many of these issues devolve into a debate about what constitutes "harm" and what (or who) is causing it. The continual refrain by those advocating for change is that the church is "hurting" so many people through maintaining certain policies or doctrines.

    The problem is that what is causing the harm may just as easily be the deceptions of Satan. If he can get people to believe in something that isn't true and then to feel victimized based off of their miscalculation, then it is not the true doctrines or principles that is causing the mental/emotional pain but the misperception of truth itself. There is a direct correlation between what we choose to believe and the perceived mental/emotional pain that we feel.

    Consider the archetypical ward librarian of 20 years who feels betrayed when the new stake president makes a change in stake boundaries which will evict her (or him) from her long-established calling and from Sunday friendships in her home ward. Imagine the librarian being so "hurt" by this policy that she goes about recruiting members who feel the same way. Whenever they see each other all they can talk about is the pain and heartache that this new policy will inflict upon them. When they can't get the stake president to change his mind, they collectively boycott his leadership and choose to stop coming to church.

    Contrast this with other saints in the stake whose lives are just as disrupted (if not more so) by the change but who choose to view it optimistically. Who choose to willingly sacrifice and cheerfully submit to all things which God in his wisdom sees fit to inflict upon them.

    The question isn't about whether the "hurt" and the "harm" is real. It is about what or who is causing it. My heart goes out to all who are in such pain that they are willing to take their own life. Yet it is a sad reality that those who hurt are often blind to the true source of their pain. What these people truly need is a competent spiritual physician (Jesus Christ). Unfortunately they sometimes turn to the crowd that only wants to exploit their pain to justify an ideology.

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  3. I appreciate the point of this article; I don't like people just throwing out anecdote as fact, either. However, I have to say, as a gay Mormon who associates with hundreds of other gay Mormons in person and through various social media, that the idea that publicizing a link between gay Mormon youth and suicide is harmful to LGBT suicides is ludicrous. The idea that this publicity sends a message driving LGBT youth to suicide is silly and seems to be a vain stretch to give more sense to the idea that these claims should be refuted.

    On the contrary, as a gay Mormon youth actually feeling that pressure of being torn in two different seemingly incompatible directions, seeing such reporting actually gives me hope because I realize that my own depression and perplexity at the seeming unfairness of my situation are NOT my own doing but are pressures faced by others like me, who I may have no way to contact and whose existence I may not even be aware of during that especially rough time when I feel like I can't talk to anybody about my feelings and even doubt their reality myself. It actually gives me hope and, exactly contrary to the hypothetical take-away given by the imaginative Ritch Savin-Williams, above, is NOT "be prepared to kill yourself." Rather, it is something closer to "Your difficult feelings of depression (and perhaps emerging suicidality) are not unique to you, and there are people who care about you getting through this.

    The Church would be MUCH better off if members recognized the difficulties their LGBT youth face and proactively addressed them, rather than argued in goofy hypotheticals about how not addressing the issues somehow indirectly helps the affected youth.

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