A Utah suicide researcher says the friction between LGBT sexuality and religion in Utah may not be quite the driving factor behind youth suicide as many people believe.
Despite a general perception that many of Utah’s youth suicides arise from intolerance toward LGBT people promulgated (though not necessarily intentionally) by teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state’s suicide prevention research coordinator says that may not be the case.
“There’s no data to show that, period,” says Michael Staley, who works in the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner and is the first person who would know, since he leads an effort to collect, compile and analyze suicide information from around the state. He conducts that research at the behest of the Utah Legislature. “We are working to get that data,” he says.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016 that LGBT youth die by suicide at double the rate of their non-LGBT peers, Staley says data specific to Utah so far doesn’t validate the sexuality-religion narrative. “The people who are driving that narrative are going to be disappointed,” Staley says, while at the same time recognizing that “theoretically, it makes sense.”
Given the state’s predominant Mormon faith and the church’s rigid, often equivocal stance on LGBT-related issues, it seems only intuitive that the stress thus induced for LGBT people would influence some toward suicide. Especially when an LGBT person’s family members, under certain interpretations or apprehensions of Mormon beliefs, exhibit “highly rejective” behavior, as a study from the Family Acceptance Project calls it.
So it’s little wonder that “Day one in this job, I started getting questions from the media and members of the general public about sexuality,” Staley says.
But his mandate from the Legislature is broader than that. He is examining all suicides.
“We’re building the most comprehensive database of information about suicide decedents around. That’s huge,” Staley says in an interview with QSaltLake Magazine. In fact, it’s the first undertaking of its kind in the country and, because of the organization of the state’s medical examiner’s office, it’s possible in Utah and only a handful of other states. Staley calls the effort “progressive” and “pioneering.”
Staley’s research involves gathering two kinds of information. The first is the findings in official documents: OME investigation records, medical and mental health records, criminal or court records, and the like.
The second kind makes up a “psychological autopsy,” and involves, among other things, talking to the people suicide victims leave behind: family and friends. “We’re getting real-time data about suicide that we’ve never gotten before,” Staley says.
But that real-time data, as well as other available information, doesn’t validate the narrative of the sexuality-religion-suicide nexus. “I will not ignore that narrative, of course … but I also think it’s a more complex story than just religion and sexuality,” he says.
If there is a misperception about that, it begins with another. During a presentation to the LGBTQ Affirmative Therapists Guild of Utah on Nov. 15, Staley asked guild members what proportion of Utah suicides they thought were made up of youth (LGBT or not) age 10–17. “Most people would say 40–60 percent, and people assume that all these people are LGBT,” he said. But the real numbers may be far lower. Data from the OME shows that suicides of youth age 10–17 make up about 6 percent of suicides per year in Utah.
Staley presented information from the CDC that illustrated one of his obstacles: “If you told me to do a [suicide] study of LGBT people, I have no idea who those people are.”
The CDC in Atlanta reviewed investigations for 150 youth suicides in Utah. Last year, it reported its findings. Sexual orientation could be determined by actual or even circumstantial evidence for 40 of those individuals. Of those, only six — or 4 percent of the total 150 — could be identified as non-heterosexual; seventy-three percent could not be confidently identified one way or the other.
Another obstacle is knowing the exact factor or combination of factors that led to a suicide, and to what degree each factor contributed. Even deeply personal, probing interviews with people closest to a deceased person can only go so far to shed light on that. “We have to abide by what families will allow us to see,” Staley says.
Staley, an openly gay man, adds that in a nutshell, LGBT suicide with the LDS church as a factor “is not this overwhelming tidal wave.”
He knows he’s going to get pushback.
“I hope I didn’t paint a huge target on my chest with this group,” he said to the Guild. Nevertheless, “I want to prepare groups like this group to hear that.”
But that hardly means that the “intersection between sexuality and religion,” as Staley calls it, is not a factor in suicides, or that religion-based or -justified messages and actions don’t contribute to it.
When the final report comes out, he told therapists, “I don’t think anybody’s going to be really satisfied.”
To QSaltLake, he added, “This is what I’ve been trying to say all along: Suicide is just not reducible to this one thing, or even one or two things, or three things. It’s many things that add up, and we’re trying to figure out how they add up.
“… I’m sure that there will be people who think that our study and our research are flawed, and I probably will agree with them to some extent. But we do our best to get at the truth, and that’s what we have to do.”
Kara Posner, a Salt Lake City therapist in private practice who specializes in treating LGBT individuals, agrees that suicide is not a simple issue. “We’re all such complicated creatures,” she says.
Posner sits on the leadership committee of the Guild and invited Staley to address the group. “What Michael is doing is invaluable, and I applaud Utah for doing something groundbreaking,” she explains.
Posner did not seem disturbed by the disconnect Staley anticipates between the LGBT-suicide narrative — driven as it is by anecdotal evidence — and the direction his research data appears to be headed. Macro data is important for broad-based strategies and approaches; but for the therapist, Posner says, “I’m just working with the person in front of me.”
Regardless of either the statistical data or the broader social narrative, she adds, “What I’m going off of are my clients narrative and their issues, and their pain — and my opinions don’t matter. If they’re an outlier from the data, I just need to deal with their narrative. It doesn’t change their story because the data says something else.”
Posner and Staley both said that attributing blame, for instance to a religion or church, is counterproductive. While ascertaining the preventable causes of suicide is important, they agree it’s also important to find and emphasize reasons to live.
Posner advocated for “trying to find more love so that people stay alive, rather than contributing to hate by pointing fingers.”
“There’s a pretty heavy focus out there in suicide prevention at looking at risk factors and warning signs, and that’s important,” Staley tells QSaltLake. “But there’s this other side of that that is protective factors.”
In addition to finding out why suicide is rampant in Utah, he says, people should be discerning: “What about this place keeps people alive, so we can re-invest and tell people and family and peers and friends what it is that keeps people alive, and how to do those more and better.”
There are several local centers and national support lifelines that can help support and protect LGBT youth.
Encircle House – Family and youth support center. Location is in Provo and a new center opening in Salt Lake City in 2019.
Utah Pride Center – A safe space for education, support and events for LGBT youth.
Suicide prevention resources:
1-800-273-8255 – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline available 24 hours 7 days a week.
TrevorLifeline for LGBT youth at 1-866-488-7386.
Safe UT App – Smartphone app providing confidential crisis intervention, 24 hours 7 days a week.