It’s not every day the LDS.org home page proudly displays a photograph of a Mormon apostle shaking hands with the leader of a local LGBT advocacy group, but there it is: Elder Rasband and Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. Three years ago similar photos made newspapers with the passage of a landmark 2015 LGBT anti-discrimination bill, sometimes dubbed the “Utah Compromise.” This time, Equality Utah and the LDS church are two of many organizations coming together at the request of Utah’s governor in a state-wide effort to combat Utah’s teen suicide epidemic. Governor Herbert’s announcement of the new task force Wednesday was widely reported in local news media as well as at the Mormon Newsroom. For those wondering why the church would lend apostolic weight to a local political task force, it’s important to consider some broader context.
Utah’s Suicide Epidemic
In the last decade, Utah’s youth suicide rate has risen dramatically. The Utah Department of Health “observed a 141.3% increase in suicides among Utah youth aged 10-17 from 2011 to 2015, compared to an increase of 23.5% nationally.” Although the real numbers may not seem as impressive to many people, last year 44 youth ages 10-17 completed suicide, a 2015 yearly Utah statewide survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders revealed “approximately 19% considered or planned suicide in the past year and 8.6% reported a suicide attempt.” In a state where the LDS Church counts over 60% of residents as members (not adjusted for activity rates), these trends are inevitably reflected in its wards and stakes.
Early in 2017, the state of Utah requested help from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to investigate and recommend more effective courses of action. The CDC’s findings were announced on November 30, 2017 (full report here, summary here, some commentary here and here). One of the CDC’s recommendations appears to have directly led to Governor Herbert’s creation of the wide-reaching community task force:
A comprehensive effort to address suicide across the state can also benefit from taking a collaborative approach, involving partners from across multiple agencies and sectors, including but not limited to, the health department, education, universities, other research institutions, hospital systems, healthcare providers, social services, justice, business/labor and not-for profit groups. Public health agencies can facilitate this effort by mobilizing their colleagues from other sectors in addressing youth suicide. As observed, the risk and protective factors span across individual, interpersonal, and community risk and protective factors, therefore, a collaborative approach will ensure that prevention programs touch on all the necessary sectors and/levels.
The 14-member committee is headed by politicians, but includes representatives from educational institutions, healthcare organizations, suicide prevention groups, local media, LGBT advocacy groups, and business owners in addition to Elder Rasband as a representative of faith-based organizations. The task force has been given approximately four weeks to come up with recommendations for lawmakers, which can then be debated and possibly implemented during this current legislative session (ending in March).
As evidenced by the photo of Elder Rasband and Troy Williams on LDS.org, inexorably linked with the LDS Church and suicide are LGBT issues. There are at least two different Wikipedia entries devoted to the intersection of those subjects (see here and here). Anecdotal accounts of Mormon culture and doctrine feeding into depression and suicidal ideation among LGBT youth are common (I have stories from my own extended family). Even at a BYU Devotional just a couple months ago, Elder Ballard discussed suicide in his response to a question on the church’s stance on LGBT rights.
In the months following the 2015 exclusion policy (declaring LDS gay married couples apostates and prohibiting baby blessings and baptisms for children of gay couples), the Mama Dragons, a Mormon LGBT advocacy group, announced they’d observed an uptick in Mormon LGBT youth suicides. A couple weeks later, Elder Oaks was publicly confronted on the issue the church’s accountability in LGBT Mormon suicides. While Oaks confirmed that such deaths are always tragic, he believed his responsibility was to ensure that, whatever the policy disagreements, rules should be “administered with kindness” so that “they won’t drive people to take those extreme measures.”
And that seems to be the current course. Even as the vigorous debate continues whether an increase in teen suicides in Utah is or is not linked to the LDS Church’s teachings and practices related to LGBT issues, there is at least a consensus that churchmembers are bound by covenant to love and respect members of the community, regardless of sexual orientation. The church’s official statement supporting last August’s LoveLoud festival confirmed,
We applaud the LoveLoud Festival for LGBT youth’s aim to bring people together to address teen safety and to express respect and love for all of God’s children. We join our voice with all who come together to foster a community of inclusion in which no one is mistreated because of who they are or what they believe.
We share common beliefs, among them the pricelessness of our youth and the value of families. We earnestly hope this festival and other related efforts can build respectful communication, better understanding and civility as we all learn from each other.
Doubling-Down on Suicide Prevention
In a separate article on Wednesday, The Deseret News reported that the church’s official suicide prevention website has been updated with new resources for both members and local leaders. Many members missed the creation of that website in September 2016, overshadowed by the first anniversary of the controversial 2015 exclusion policy.
In the last two years, church magazines have run special articles bringing attention to the issues of suicide and mental health, usually in September to coincide with National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and World Suicide Prevention Day. (Ensign articles here, here, here, here, and here; New Era articles here, here, and here; Friend articles here and here.)
Previous to the creation of that website, church efforts towards understanding suicide were more sporadic. Three notable efforts were Elder Ballard’s landmark October 1987 Ensign article, “Suicide: Some Things We Know and Some Things We Do Not,” Elder Holland’s heart-rending 2013 conference address, “Like a Broken Vessel,” and the powerful October 2014 suicide prevention video, “Sitting on the Bench.” (Personal note: I still remember when it finally sunk in that Elder Holland was talking about depression at general conference as a real medical disorder, and not just something to be solved with prayer and scripture study. As someone who has a mental illness, that was a big deal.)
***From the Utah Department of Health Website: Those experiencing suicidal thoughts can reach out for free, confidential help 24/7 by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The SafeUT Crisis Text & Tip Line app is also available for download. Suicide prevention resources for LGBTQ youth are available at https://www.thetrevorproject.org.***