Editor's note: This commentary by Brigham Young University professors Michael Goodman and Justin Dyer is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

In the wake of The Church of Jesus Christ’s recent policy change related to LGBT families and baptisms, one commentator in a national publication rightly acknowledged “that it’s impossible to know the cause of most suicides,” but nonetheless inferred a connection between the “policies of the LDS Church and the high rate of suicide among LGBTQ teens in Utah.”

Numerous national and regional media outlets, including CNN, ABC, Fox, NBC and The Atlantic, among others, have inferred some connection between the church and the rate of suicide among LGBTQ teens in Utah. As with most who address Utah suicides, we believe those speaking out on this issue are sincerely trying to help, and, unquestionably, they are correct when they report that many LGBTQ individuals have struggled with the church’s policies or teachings.

There are research-based reasons, however, to believe that media narratives regarding LGBTQ teen suicide in Utah are sometimes oversimplified, inaccurate and potentially harmful.

To be clear, it is vital that all act in compassionate and informed ways on this and other issues related to LGBTQ individuals. Behind numbers and statistics are human beings. And, there’s no doubt that there are deeply troubling trends regarding suicide across the nation. This is a crisis demanding our best efforts.

There’s no doubt that there are deeply troubling trends regarding suicide across the nation. This is a crisis demanding our best efforts.

With good reason, attention has often focused on LGBTQ youths. In 2017 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 13% of heterosexual adolescents had seriously considered suicide compared to 48% of LGB adolescents. One study even found a heightened suicide risk for same-sex married individuals in the relatively tolerant country of Sweden.

We applaud those raising awareness of suicidality among LGBTQ youths and adults. Their work is not just important, it’s lifesaving. In our efforts to help, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reminds us that certain ways we discuss suicide can do more harm than good. They explain: “Suicide is the result of many complex factors; therefore media coverage should not report oversimplified explanations such as recent negative life events or acute stressors.”

Even more specific, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays state that, “when individuals and organizations talk about suicide safely and accurately, they can help reduce the likelihood of its occurrence; however, talking about suicide in inaccurate or exaggerated ways can elevate that risk in vulnerable individuals.”

They recommend avoiding speculating “about reasons for a suicide death” or using “social media or e-blasts to announce news of suicide deaths.” The guidelines warn against attributing “a suicide death to a single factor (such as bullying or discrimination) or say(ing) that a specific anti-LGBT law or policy will ‘cause’ suicide.”

To be clear, talking about suicide is critical to intervention and these groups are not suggesting anti-LGBTQ laws should not be addressed. We are heartened to see, in recent years, Utah expand the legal infrastructure to help address discrimination or hate crimes experienced by LGBTQ individuals.

While much has been said about Utah suicide rates, particularly in relation to LGBTQ adolescents and the church, many still wonder: What’s fact and what’s speculation?

Utah’s suicide rate is in fact higher than the national average.

However, this is rarely contextualized. Except Alaska, the nine states with the highest suicide rates (including Utah) are within the same geographic area. Interestingly, of the states in this area Utah has the lowest suicide rate for 12-19 year-olds. These states share many characteristics associated with higher suicide rates, including rurality. Between 2011 and 2016, Utah County’s suicide rate was 22% above the national rate. However, the suicide rate of the more rural Carbon County (adjacent to Utah County) was more than 200% above the national rate. In noting this however, as AFSP counsels, we should avoid over generalizations about any area that may normalize suicidal behavior within that area.

Utah’s increase in youth suicide between 2011 and 2015 is sometimes attributed to LGBTQ youth suicides. And while LGBTQ youth do have higher levels of suicidality (a fact all should acknowledge and work tirelessly to ameliorate) it’s not clear that Utah’s increase was related to LGBTQ youths.

The CDC, for instance, attempted to identify the sexual orientation of Utah youths who died by suicide between 2011 and 2015. Of those whose sexual orientation they could identify (which was the minority) 15% were LGBTQ. This percentage is based on partial data since sexual orientation is not consistently recorded with suicide. This finding is somewhat lower than a 40-state study, also based on CDC data, that up to 21% of 12-17 year old suicides were LGBTQ related.

Even assuming this higher percentage for Utah, LGBTQ youths would only account for a small portion of the tragic increase in youth suicide from 2011 to 2015.

It has been further speculated that The Church of Jesus Christ’s 2015 policy regarding LGBTQ families and baptism was responsible for a continuing increase in adolescent suicide in Utah. However, as has been noted, Utah youth suicides actually dropped by 20% the year after the policy was announced. In 2017, youth suicides in Utah once again began to increase. But the available data does not support the narrative that in Utah a dramatic increase in LGBTQ youth suicides followed the church’s 2015 policy.

Research regarding Utah youth suicidality and The Church of Jesus Christ is instructive. Though counterintuitive to some, research consistently finds that religion in general, and the church in particular, are typically protective against suicidality. Again, it would be an oversimplification to say religion is a protective factor in every case. Many have negative experiences with religion. But discussions about The Church of Jesus Christ and youth suicide should at least include what appears to be the most common research finding, that membership in the church is associated with lower suicide rates.

The CDC’s study of Utah found Latter-day Saint youths actually had a lower suicide risk. Regarding LGBTQ youths, the Family Foundations of Youth Development study found 44% of Latter-day Saint LGBTQ youths had seriously considered suicide compared to 47% of LGBTQ youths from other religions and 77% of Atheist/Agnostic LGBTQ youths (the national rate for LGB youth is 47.7%).

There are a few studies pointing to difficulties of some LGBTQ members of the church. These studies are typically not with youths, do not compare Latter-day Saints to others and use convenience rather than random samples. The studies raise areas of concern that deserve attention.

Some LGBTQ youths seriously struggle with their faith experiences. Others derive protection from their faith experiences and communities. Both are authentic lived realities. Both should be heard and understood.

However, current data call into question the narrative that church policies or teachings are somehow a driving force behind the Utah suicide crisis. Combined with best practice guidelines, asserting such a connection is in fact potentially harmful. It is clear that many have felt deeply wounded by their church experience, and certainly some youths connect suicide or suicide attempts to this anguish. Some LGBTQ youths seriously struggle with their faith experiences. Others derive protection from their faith experiences and communities. Both are authentic lived realities. Both should be heard and understood.

Along with this, as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention points out, “suicide deaths are almost always the result of multiple overlapping causes, including mental health issues that might not have been recognized or treated.” They underscore that linking suicide directly to external factors risks normalizing suicide by suggesting that it is a natural reaction to such experiences.

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The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition further notes that "together we can make a difference to prevent suicide, provide caring, evidenced based interventions, and foster environments that promote acceptance, healing and recovery. With a problem as complex as suicide, no one solution will be enough. Our health, behavioral health systems, schools and communities need to collectively work together implementing the best practices and data available to achieve our goals.”

All of us must acknowledge the difficulties of others and work to help them feel welcome and loved. Those refusing to acknowledge LGBTQ youths as a vulnerable group ignore the evidence and perpetuate inaction. At the same time, those who primarily attribute heightened Utah suicide rates to LGBTQ youths and the church are unintentionally making it harder to address this pressing problem that will require us all to come together.

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

Michael Goodman is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University with a Ph.D in marriage, family and human development. W. Justin Dyer is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University who holds a Ph.D. in human and community development. They are researchers on the Family Foundations of Youth Development study. Their views are their own.

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