SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church responded Thursday to an unverified report about suicide deaths among Mormon LGBT people.
"We mourn with their families and friends when they feel life no longer offers hope," senior church leaders said through a spokesman.
Wendy Montgomery, a co-founder of the Mama Dragons, a group of Mormon mothers with gay children, reported last week that she had been told 32 young LGBT Mormons have died by suicide since early November.
The individual families who told Montgomery about their losses requested privacy. The Deseret News has not been able to verify this number independently.
Given the tragedy of suicide and the alarm the report has raised in the LDS LGBT community, the Deseret News asked experts for insight and solutions. They explained exactly how parents, friends and religious congregations can help prevent suicides by thinking carefully about what they say and do and by welcoming, accepting and supporting LGBT people.
Each emphasized that those who may be contemplating suicide can find help from many people and places, and that families can learn to see the warning signs.
The timing of Montgomery’s report has raised concerns in the LDS LGBT community that church leaders’ Nov. 5 announcement of new policies regarding same-sex couples and their families could have contributed to increased anxiety for some. Experts say it’s impossible to pinpoint the causes of any suicide because research shows there is never a single reason.
Last week in Los Angeles during a conference for Affirmation, a Mormon LGBT support group, Montgomery, who is well-known in that community, reported that 32 families had contacted her directly about the deaths of a child or sibling. She said most were men (27), but three were female and two were transgender. The average age was 17. All were between the ages of 14 and 20. Montgomery said 26 deaths took place in Utah, four in Idaho and one each in Arizona and the New England area. Utah health department officials have been able to confirm 10 suicides in that age range in Utah since the start of November.
Keys for helping
Regardless, teenagers need support, even absent sexuality issues, and families and church congregations can be critically valuable environments, experts said. Research shows religious affiliation generally lowers suicide risks, though it also is normal for believing LGBT youth to struggle to square their realization of same-sex attraction with their religious beliefs. Supportive messages are crucial. The possibility of self-harming behavior more than doubles each time an LGBT youth is hurt physically or verbally.
Parents and families can provide healthy, constructive relationships and environments by expressing affection when they learn a child is gay or transgender, by supporting the child even if the news is uncomfortable and by being willing to talk about it.
For example, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once was asked how he would respond if his 17-year-old son said he was gay. "You’re my son," Elder Oaks said. "You will always be my son, and I'll always be there to help you."
Parents, families and friends also should expect a good adult future for the child, a specialist said, and continue to include LGBT youth in family activities. They also should be the child’s advocate if he or she is mistreated, require other family members to show respect and help their faith community welcome and include LGBT teens.
The suicide prevention lifeline 1-800-273-TALK is available 24/7 as a resource for those in crisis and for those who may be worried about someone else.
Senior LDS leaders reiterated through a spokesman on Thursday that they expect church members to actively reach out to and care for young Mormon lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
"Every soul is precious to God and to the church and the loss of life to suicide is heartbreaking," church spokesman Dale Jones said. "Those who are attracted to others of the same sex face particular challenges and pressures in this regard, both inside and outside the church. We mourn with their families and friends when they feel life no longer offers hope. Each congregation should welcome everyone. Leaders and members are taught to follow the example of Jesus Christ and to reach out in an active, caring way to all, especially to youth who feel estranged or isolated. The church has repeatedly stated that those who feel same-sex attraction and yet choose to live the commandments of God can live fulfilling lives as worthy members of the church. We want all to enjoy the blessings and safety offered by embracing the teachings of Jesus Christ and living the principles of His gospel."
Each of the 32 suicides documented by Montgomery took place after Nov. 5, when LDS Church leaders released new policies in an online update to Handbook 1, a private document of instructions to local priesthood leaders who run Mormon congregations. The update clarified that the church, because of its fundamental doctrine on marriage, considers entering a same-sex marriage to be apostasy and grounds for excommunication. A new section in the handbook instructed local leaders that children living with parents who are in a same-sex relationship cannot receive baby blessings or baptism before age 18.
John Gustav-Wrathall, a gay man who regularly attends an LDS ward in Minnesota and is on the board of Affirmation, an LGBT support group for Mormons, said he takes church leaders at their word when they say the policies were meant to clarify church doctrine, not harm anyone. Gustav-Wrathall said he has observed trauma within the LGBT Mormon community in recent months.
"There continue to be LGBT folks who have testimonies and who want to raise their children in the church," he said.
Church leaders have said that they do not reject LGBT members but love them, and that all should extend love and encouragement to them. They also have said repeatedly that members who experience same-sex attraction can live full, productive lives and participate fully in the church by following the moral laws provided by God.
“If your life is in harmony with the commandments,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve, “then you are worthy to serve in the Church, enjoy full fellowship with the members, attend the temple, and receive all the blessings of the Savior’s Atonement.”
The church has a website, mormonsandgays.org, designed to encourage parents and families to embrace their LGBT children, brothers and sisters. The site is scheduled to be updated early this year. The faith’s official website, lds.org, also has a resource page devoted to the issue, and the church released an anti-bullying video.
Also, church leaders spent 2015 supporting laws that protect gays from discrimination in housing and employment.
Family acceptance of a youth — regardless of whether the parents and other relatives embrace the individual’s sexual identity — lowers risk, while rejection increases it, said Rachel Peterson, Utah Pride Center director of programs.
“We’re not trying to challenge or change anyone’s spiritual or religious beliefs, morals or values,” she said. “But we hope people will use this information to reduce the risk. Small changes in behavior can make a difference.”
Peterson said research shows that a family’s reaction to their child’s sexual identity can impact risk. LGB young people from highly rejecting families are more than 8.5 times as likely to attempt suicide. Parents can help reduce risk — ”not by changing beliefs, but by changing behaviors in even small ways. You can accept and love your child without supporting LGBT rights,” she said.
As health officials began analyzing youth suicide data, they thought friends or school atmosphere would be important. Neither proved very influential. What was protective and helpful, said Jenny Johnson, Utah Department of Health spokesperson, was religious affiliation of some kind, proving the interplay of faith is complex. It didn’t matter which religion, just that one was involved. Parents were very influential, too, especially if they included their children in decisionmaking. Having meals with the family regularly improved family interactions and greatly reduced risk of suicide ideology or action, too. Family and the activities they share make a difference.
Some LDS people are still reacting to the LDS Church statement and trying to figure out what it means for their families, said Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, who is a frequent public speaker, quite often at churches. “More care and more support is needed than ever. You have to start by knowing that already LGBT individuals are vulnerable in religious worlds where people believe being LGBT is wrong.”
She said it is not a question of whether parents love their children. Rather, it’s a matter of behavior and how parents respond to a child whose sexual orientation does not fit the family’s values or ideals. Parents can contribute to increased risk of suicidal ideation and attempts — and they can reduce it, as well.
“There are many rejecting behaviors that contribute to risk. As family rejecting behaviors increase, so does the risk. As they decrease, so does the risk. There are simple things that parents and families can do even if they don’t agree.” Researchers from the Family Acceptance Project have created some audience-targeted brochures for different groups, including LDS families, that explain why it’s important to love and accept LGBT youth. They contain suggestions for doing that while “staying true to their own beliefs and values.”
Examples include standing up for the child when he or she is mistreated because of LGBT identity, having candid discussions about sexual identity with the child and others, expressing unconditional love and “believing your LGBT child can have a happy future.”
Ryan said parents should also treat an LGBT child the same as their other children. That’s something that churches, families and different types of communities do every day, she said. “When you do that, you are giving them a really strong message that I love you, I will be there for you, even if I disagree.”
As the church’s statement Thursday suggests, suicide prevention experts and gay Mormons said the first way friends and members of a congregation or community can care for LGBT youth is to be supportive at all times, even and especially when you think no gays are within earshot.
“My experience was that before I came out I’d hear lots of offensive things in church classes,” said Kayden Maxwell, 18, a high school senior in American Fork, Utah, who says his ward has been supportive since he came out. “You need to always assume someone is there who has a gay friend or who is gay themselves.”
Gustav-Wrathall said that in his experience, Mormons tend to be on their best behavior when they know an openly gay person is in their midst. The experience likely means they are better informed.
“The sad stories that I’ve heard, the horror stories, even,” Gustav-Wrathall said, “have been reported by people who are not out of the closet in their wards and there’s nobody in their ward who is out. They’re the ones who will report that someone gave a talk that was really painful.”
Generally, he said, hurtful messages come from people who assume people can choose not to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, or that being LGBT is the result of sin or insufficient commitment to the gospel.
“When they get messages that this is just because you haven’t tried enough, that is a devastating message,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “Those kinds of messages just fill people with guilt, shame, because most individuals in this situation have been really struggling to overcome it, in a variety of ways. Those are the kinds of messages that can create despair: there’s no hope for me, there’s nothing I can do.”
Gustav-Wrathall said LGBT youth need to hear in everyday conversation that people are understanding.
“It’s really important that individuals feel comfortable being able to come out, feel comfortable being able to talk about this. Isolation is one of the most deadly things in terms of suicide. When people start to struggle they start pulling back from friends, from family, from activity in their ward because they feel if people knew who I am, they would reject me. When people pull back and out of relationships they have no way to find support. They don’t know that if they told a trusted youth leader or their parents, maybe they would find that unconditional love.”
Maxwell and Gustav-Wrathall are right about teaching people to speak inclusively at all times, said LDS psychologist Wendy Ulrich, because it creates the expectation that someone does care.
“It’s not enough to be respectful and kind when we’re talking with someone who is dealing with this issue directly,” Ulrich said. “That’s certainly a wonderful thing and something we should strive for, but we have to be respectful and kind any time we are talking about it with anyone, because we simply have no idea who is dealing with this in their life.”
Ulrich gave simple, plain advice about talking with LGBT youth who seek help. Be decent. Listen. “Say, ‘I’m really sorry; that sounds really hard. Let’s pray about this, let’s talk about this, let’s find out what resources we can find, who do we know who could help us who has dealt with a challenge in their own life in a satisfactory way even thought at one point they thought it would be difficult.’”
Church leaders and members could help, too, by thinking ahead about how they would handle it if someone was bullying or being cruel.
Obviously, the stakes are high, she added. When Ulrich’s husband was an LDS mission president in Montreal, she reacted strongly whenever a missionary made a mean remark or joke about gays.
“I was just rude,” she said. “I told them you have no idea who is listening right now to what you are saying who might be dealing with this issue and trying to decide if life is worth living based on how people are responding. The ways that we talk about it affect how people feel they are going to be treated if others find out what they are struggling with.”
Ulrich said if an LGBT teen or adult approaches an LDS ward member, they can look for guidance to the Book of Mormon, in which a prophet named Alma taught that church members promise God they are “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” and “are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”
When Ulrich teaches church classes and someone makes an ignorant comment, she points out that someone in the room is likely struggling with LGBT issues.
Ulrich also said parents and youth leaders need to do a better job preparing youth to deal with what she called the temptations of despair.
“When we’re looking at suicide, this is not an LGBT problem, it’s a problem of depression and despair,” she said. “I don’t know that we treat despair as a temptation we need to fortify ourselves against and that we need a plan for dealing with, because a lot of us do have a predisposition to depression or despair.”
Hard to measure
Utah won't have final numbers for some time, but preliminary numbers for November and December in the Utah medical examiner's database show 25 total deaths in the 14-18 age group, with 10 suicides, said Teresa Brechlin, the violence prevention coordinator at the Utah Department of Health.
In fact, the number of Utah suicide deaths actually decreased during the final two months of 2015 compared to the final two months of 2014, she said.
Ryan said that Montgomery's numbers might reflect the total number of attempted suicides.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in death records, which makes accurate suicide counts for LGBT people impossible to track. But public health officials consider the information crucial to prevention of what’s being called a public health crisis. States take different approaches to improving data collection. In Utah, for instance, a question regarding sexual orientation was added to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and health officials hope to add a question to measure history of suicide attempts, said Andrea Hood, suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Health. “This is a hopeful avenue of collecting some data, and the department plans to create an LGBT Health Disparity Report when we have enough data collected to be of value.”
They worry, however, about spooking parents leery of letting children share information related to sexual identity.
Despite the counting challenges, a great deal is known about suicide thoughts and attempts. Both population-based and community-based studies have provided a lot of data, Ryan said.
The Movement Advance Project said U.S. surveys find lesbian, gay and bisexual youths and adults (transgender is not included) have two to six times higher rates of reported suicide attempts, compared to heterosexuals. Major risk factors for LGBT people include depression and experiencing stigma and discrimination, such as anti-LGBT hostility, harassment, bullying and family rejection.
As for transgender numbers, a report co-produced by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at University of California Los Angeles said “respondents who experienced rejection by family and friends, discrimination, victimization or violence had an elevated prevalence of suicide attempts.” The study, which focused on transgender adults, said the rates were highest among younger people, ages 18-24, those who are multiracial or American Indian and those with low education achievement.
The national Trevor Project cites a 2010 study from the American Journal of Public Health that found “each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.”
“LGBT youth who feel highly rejected by their families are more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide, more than six times as likely to report high levels of depression, more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs, and more than three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases,” Utah Department of Health suicide prevention coordinator Andrea Hood told the Deseret News, citing research from Family Acceptance Project.
Suicide attempts seldom, if ever, occur with no warning.
Hood said signs include expressions of self-hatred or lack of interest in things that used to matter. They can include changes in interactions with family and friends, drug or alcohol abuse, a decline in work or school performance, giving away treasures, mood changes, a previous suicide attempt or loss of a loved one to suicide, or writing or talking about death. Experiences that can make someone feel rejected or ashamed, like being expelled from school, a romantic break up or other loss, being assaulted or fearing punishment for mistakes or crimes should put loved ones on high alert.
“All warning signs and communications about suicide should be taken seriously. The best thing to do is ask directly about thoughts of suicide and then listen and take the individual to a professional counselor for help. It is also important to remove any firearms, alcohol or pills from the home and stay with the person until they can get to help,” Hood said.
Ryan said the Family Acceptance Project has documented more than 100 ways that parents and caregivers respond to a child who is LGBT. Of those, about half are rejecting behaviors that contribute to suicide, illegal drug use and other health risks.
Other family accepting behaviors can be protective, and these help promote self-esteem, life satisfaction and well-being and increase connectedness within the family.
Bullying is a big problem for many LGBT youths. Ryan said research finds LGBT young people who have been bullied don’t thrive and may fail academically, even dropping out. Still, bullying is not a direct line to suicide: “Almost all people who die are suffering from a mental illness.” And lots of people are bullied and don’t attempt suicide.
Many religions proscribe homosexual behavior, as do many cultures. In faith- or community-based groups with those values, it’s sometimes harder for parents to know what to do, because when faced with a problem, those parents typically turn to someone within that community for guidance and support. If part of the problem is the tension with the community’s values, “it puts more pressure on the parents who are trying to help their kids,” said Ryan.
Gustav-Wrathall will tell you his spiritual experience was unmistakable. He clearly felt God inviting him to return to the LDS Church and assuring him that he would be welcomed back.
Excommunicated by the church nearly 20 years earlier and a gay man in a same-sex marriage, he wrestled with the invitation before eventually yielding.
“From the moment I set foot in that church and I sat down and I began to sing the hymns and listened to the prayers and the talks,” he said, “I just felt the Spirit there, and I knew immediately that I had a testimony of the church.”
Ten years later, Gustav-Wrathall is still in that marriage, is still excommunicated and still believes the church is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. He regularly attends the Lake Nokomis Ward of the Minneapolis Minnesota Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His LDS bishop instructed the ward council to embrace him and his never-LDS husband, so he feels loved and accepted and sometimes accompanies Mormon missionaries when they teach people who have questions about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the church.
He fully believes the reasons offered by LDS Church leaders for the policies announced in November. He made peace with those policies, but after taking numerous calls from Mormon and former Mormon LGBT people troubled by the policies, he said he realized he had begun to experience secondary trauma and depression. He now meets regularly with a therapist friend.
His concern grew last week when he learned about the suicides during Montgomery’s report in Los Angeles at a conference of Affirmation, a group that supports LGBT Mormons and former Mormons and the families, friends and church leaders who seek to help them live healthy, productive lives consistent with their faith and heritage.
Gustav-Wrathall hears about hurtful incidents in some LDS congregations. Montgomery and her son have their own examples. She and her husband moved their family of five-children to a welcoming ward in Chandler, Arizona, after bad experiences in two California wards. There, after he came out as a 13-year-old deacon, he heard gay slurs from other teens, watched in church meetings as fathers announced they would not send their sons to Boy Scout camps if he were there and saw people refuse the sacrament when he passed it.
“I am very lucky to be in a good, supportive ward,” Gustav-Wrathall said. He speaks of friends within the ward, of a woman there who just invited him and his husband to dinner with her family. “Others ask questions and just want to try and understand. That sends me a message of love and support. I accept the church where it is, and the members of my ward accept me where I am.”