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Measuring, Understanding and Solving the Problem of Suicide

Two recent blog posts on RationalFaiths.com take a hard look at the data on LGBT Mormon suicide.

Acknowledging the difficulty of getting statistically validated empirical data on this, and explaining why such data has been so difficult to obtain, they examine what can we know from looking at direct empirical evidence, at indirect evidence, and at anecdotal evidence.

In “Youth Suicide Rates and the Mormon Religious Context,” statistician Benjamin Kroll examines what we do know from purely empirical evidence. He asks whether there is a correlation between the percentage of Mormons living in a state and teen suicide rates in that state. Noting that “correlation does not equal causation,” he does find a strong statistically significant correlation, not only in the number of suicides, but with a recent, dramatic increase in suicides between 2009 and 2014. (Complete statistical data is not yet available for 2015 or 2016.) He notes that this recent, disturbing increase in the suicide rates is not paralleled in parts of the country where there is not a large Mormon population. He tested the data to see if there was a similar correlation between large Evangelical Christian populations and teen suicide. There was not.

It is important to note that the data don’t tell us whether the teen suicides in question were LGBT or not, nor whether they were Mormon or not. The data in and of themselves do not provide a model to explain how having a large Mormon population in a state correlates with high rates of suicide or a recent increase in suicide. In “The LGBTQ Mormon Crisis,” Dr. Daniel Parkinson and Michael Barker attempt to do that.

Anecdotal evidence, Daniel and Michael point out, is still valid evidence. you can’t make statistically valid generalizations from it. But anecdotal evidence basically consists of individual stories, and we have an abundance of these. Anecdotes allow us to hypothesize about causality based on observations of real life. In the model that Daniel and Michael propose, LGBT Mormon youth become progressively more and more isolated because of fear of rejection. Rejecting attitudes and behaviors in their environment convince LGBT teens that they will be expelled from their families and their community if they come out. Community and family are ordinarily strong protective factors against depression and suicide, and Mormons place a high value on both community and family. But they can only function effectively in that manner if vulnerable members feel safe enough to come out, and if, once they come out, they find a genuinely supportive environment.

Individuals who want to make a difference can do so by beginning to work within their communities to create safer spaces for LGBT teens and adults. Daniel and Michael conclude:

The most effective preventions are cheap and easy. We need to educate and support parents, and we need to empower our schools to address the needs of our youth. Parents are eager and wiling to do what is best for their children. Parents need to have access to this helpful information through bishops and auxiliary leaders, through mental health providers and through school counselors. Training needs to happen. Barriers to action need to be removed.

We can start to do this within the Mormon community by engaging in conversations with Church leaders, with bishops, stake presidents, and auxiliary (Priesthood quorum and Relief Society) leaders.

RationalFaiths.com has made PDF’s of “Youth Suicide Rates” and “The LGBTQ Mormon Crisis” available, so that individuals who wish to start doing this work can download and print them and share them with local Church leaders and school administrators. These could be used along with other resources, such as the recent articles in the Deseret News, “LDS Church leaders mourn reported deaths in LGBT Mormon Community” and “Show An Increase of Love,” and the LDS version of Supporting Families, Healthy Children (a PDF of which can be downloaded from the Family Acceptance Project web site) to facilitate a conversation.

Interventions and suicide help lines are a bandage, a last line of defense. Lasting solutions to this problem will require shifts in perspective and not just individual but communal effort.

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