Messages and teachings that come from the LDS Church regarding sexuality and gender identification may be causing LGBT members of the church to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate nearly 10 times higher than the general population. What’s more, those members experience “spiritual trauma” and the PTSD-like symptoms that arise from it regardless of how “faithful” they are, suggested the research of a University of Georgia graduate student.
It may come as no surprise that the church’s teachings have adverse effects on its LGBT members. But how much the risk of PTSD increases for such people is, in the words of Brian William Simmons, “outrageous.”
“The thing that shocked me, as well as my committee members, is the number of participants who likely would have experienced PTSD,” Simmons said, regarding the results of his study as published in his doctoral dissertation, “Coming Out Mormon.”
“This population is experiencing trauma at a rate far higher than we expected. It’s big enough that we need to be concerned,” Simmons said during an interview with QSaltLake Magazine on Thursday, Nov. 8.
In his 2017 study, Simmons examined survey responses of 278 self-identified LGBT adults who are or had been members of the church. The study analyzed participants’ responses to 21 LDS teachings or “messages” regarding sexuality and gender identification, rating those messages on a scale from one (“extremely beneficial”) to five (“extremely damaging”).
“At the end of the day, the study participants overwhelmingly said these experiences were harmful,” said Simmons, who himself grew up “queer” (bisexual, he clarified with QSaltLake) as a sixth-generation Mormon in Spanish Fork.
With other carefully selected questions, Simmons linked those teachings to what he called “spiritual trauma” experienced by the study’s participants, and then connected that trauma to the incidence of reported PTSD symptoms. “These are people who had PTSD experiences specifically because of their Mormon upbringing or experiences,” he said.
While the study could not itself diagnose PTSD, it found that 73 percent of participants reported symptoms in the kinds of numbers and combinations that made a PTSD diagnosis “highly likely.” By comparison, that same percentage is 7 to 8 percent among adults generally, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”
Simmons found that study participants who only associated culturally or socially with the church could likely to suffer as much trauma and PTSD symptoms as those considered more “faithful.” The study looked at both how deeply a person internalized religious beliefs, and how closely or literally “orthodox” those beliefs aligned with LDS doctrine. Neither factor was significant in determining whether, and to what degree, a person experienced spiritual trauma.
“Half of these people are still — still, at the time of the study — affiliated with the church,” Simmons said. “[But] their orthodoxy did not save them.”
While the study admittedly lacked the rigor and sampling method to be representative, Simmons said, “Anecdotally I can say that most people read the study and say, ‘Holy shit! That’s me.’”
Simmons said the intention of the study was neither to indict or impugn the church nor to defend it; He got blowback and accusations from both sides of that spectrum. But he says he hopes it helps to inform the church, especially leaders who counsel LGBT members. He also says he believes the church when it says it cares about all its members, including LGBT ones.
But at the same time, he said, “What the church is saying, it’s statements, are damaging. You may love this population with all of your heart, but what you’re saying to them is hurting.”