Facebook Twitter

Responding to Ellen on Latter-day Saints and teen suicide

SHARE Responding to Ellen on Latter-day Saints and teen suicide
In this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo, Ellen DeGeneres appears during a commercial break at a taping of “The Ellen Show” in Burbank.

In this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo, Ellen DeGeneres appears during a commercial break at a taping of “The Ellen Show” in Burbank.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Editor’s note: For those in crisis or those helping someone else, the suicide prevention lifeline is available at all hours by calling 1-800-273-TALK. The authors have provided additional resources at the end of the article.

We all must come together to address teen suicide.

Recent news coverage of high-profile deaths by suicide has drawn attention to a serious national crisis. Since 1999, suicide rates increased 30 percent nationwide. As more people in the U.S. become acquainted with the pain and sorrow of suicide, the search for causes and solutions has become increasingly public. It is critical, as we search for answers, that we proceed in a unified, data informed manner.

Certainly, suicide is an issue that affects everyone, and we all carry the responsibility to work towards hope and healing. Blame, specifically along political or religious lines, will divide us when a more collaborative approach is needed to combat the rise in suicides, particularly among teens.

Some have recently tried to point to religion as a cause of teen suicide. However, the vast preponderance of social science research suggests just the opposite: religion is often a preventative factor. As stated in the 2016 International Handbook of Suicide Prevention, research “tend(s) to support the basic premise that religion provides protection against suicide risk.” Thus, what some dub a cause of suicide may in fact be a resource for many teens and others who struggle.

Last week, lead singer for Imagine Dragons, Dan Reynolds, stopped by the daytime talk show, “Ellen.” The host, Ellen DeGeneres, suggested that suicide in Utah may be related to the “shame” caused by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church).

“The leading cause of death for Utah kids ages 11 to 17 is suicide,” she said, reading from a card. “Suicide in Utah has increased 141 percent because of the shame they feel from the Mormon Church.”

We commend Ellen and Dan for discussing teen suicide. It is of deep concern to any community, including highly religious people. All need to work together to address suicide’s multiple causes. However, attributing increases in suicide deaths in Utah to the LDS Church is not based in research.

Research in Utah suggests something quite different. For instance, the 2015 Utah Prevention Needs Assessment (a survey of over 27,000 Utah youths) found that teens who attended religious services more often (a few times a month to once a week) were less likely to have suicidal thoughts or suicidal attempts than those who attended less frequently. Further, teens identifying as Mormon were less likely to report suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Another more recent Utah study of 600 families with a teen (the Family Foundations of Youth Development study, 2016-2017) found the same: more religious teens and Mormon teens were significantly less likely to experience suicidal thoughts. Teens who had previously been Mormon (had left the Mormon Church) had similar rates of suicidal thoughts as their non-Mormon peers. As we consider these findings in a highly homogenous religious state like Utah, we acknowledge that a higher rate of suicidal ideation for non-LDS youths in Utah may speak to a need for better integration of non-LDS youths within schools and local communities.

Nevertheless, suicide exists amongst every group and must be addressed; this can only be done effectively as concerned parents, teachers, counselors and legislators work across political and religious lines. For an excellent description of a process aimed at bringing diverse groups together in constructive dialogue, we encourage readers to learn more about the peacemaking protocol established by the Reconciliation and Growth Project.

Perhaps the most important fact is that youth suicide in Utah has increased, and as Ellen noted, suicide is the leading cause of death for teens in Utah. According to the most recent data, it is also the leading cause of death for teenagers in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Wyoming and Virginia. Thus, when discussing suicide in Utah, it is important to recognize the broad array of risk factors. Clearly, teen suicide is a national problem. However, to focus narrowly on LDS youths leaves out a substantial number of Utah teen suicides and implicates an organization that, as much of the data suggest, may be helpful for many teens.

It is also important to note, as Ellen suggests, that those who identify as LGBTQ are at particular risk. This group deserves focused and compassionate attention. In 2015, the CDC estimated that in the U.S., serious thoughts of suicide among gay, lesbian and bisexual teens was 2.4 times higher than for heterosexual teens (42.8 percent versus 17.7 percent). For the states where data are available, these rates for LGB youths are similar throughout the U.S., both in religious states such as Arkansas at 37.9 percent (a highly religious state, according to a 2016 Pew report), as well as less-religious states such as Massachusetts at 40.8 percent (the least religious state, according to Pew). Unfortunately, these data are not available for Utah.

Actual data on Utah and teen LGBTQ suicide are sparse. Data on the sexual orientation of youths who died by suicide between 2011-2015 in Utah were limited, with only 40 decedents having information on sexual orientation. Of those, six were identified as gay or lesbian. State actors have made recent efforts to begin collecting more data. Beyond Utah, one study suggests that sexual minority college students who view religion or spiritual beliefs as important are at greater risk for suicidal ideation and attempts.

However, this study did not ask about specific religious affiliation or religious behaviors. Other research suggests religious affiliation can be protective against suicidality for at least some LGB adults. Because the research on sexual minorities, religiosity and suicidality is so limited, and at times contradictory, it is critical that constructive dialogue and collaborative research occur across thorny religious lines. There is a desperate need for research that compassionately and accurately reflects the experiences of sexual minority and gender diverse teens as they develop into adulthood. This is particularly true in settings where a teen’s growing awareness of their sexuality may be in perceived conflict with the religious practices or spiritual beliefs of family and community.

With Ellen and Dan, we believe it to be the obligation of each organization (religious or not) to work for kindness, compassion and empathy. No person should come away from their employment, their school, their family or their church believing their life is hopeless or without purpose. Regarding those who are LGBTQ, a statement by Elder M. Russell Ballard, the current acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the LDS Church, applies to all: “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.”

It is also important to note that suggesting religion (or any one religious organization) is a primary cause of suicide deaths among youths is neither accurate nor helpful. This is especially true when research suggests that religion may be a protective factor relating to suicide for many individuals across the life span. We all want to prevent suicide, and the field of suicide prevention requires nuance.

As Utah’s suicide prevention research coordinator, Michael Staley, wisely stated this week in the Deseret News: “It’s never just one thing. Anybody who reduces suicide or an explanation for our rate of suicide in any population to one or two things is sadly mistaken. I think that mentality is an impediment to us moving forward."

If you or someone you know needs help, there are many resources: