Dad launches Mormon teen suicide prevention campaign

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An awareness campaign is being launched by the father of a boy who took his own life.

The campaign features a blog post titled, “The homophobic teachings of the Mormon Church killed my son,” written by Brian Bresee, a Las Vegas father who, until recently, had been a sixth-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Child-Friendly Faith Project, a national nonprofit organization that raises awareness of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief, is assisting Bresee in his campaign.

Bresee says that when he began his family, he believed that the LDS Church offered a healthy environment in which to raise children. But on June 9, 2014, his 14-year-old son Samuel took his own life. From that point on, Bresee’s life was forever changed.

The blog post not only looks at why Samuel likely chose suicide, but it also raises questions about the possible connection between Mormon teachings and teen suicide, in general. Statistics show that states with large Mormon populations have teen suicide rates that far exceed the national average.

“By the time I finally came to grips with my son’s choice to end his own life, I learned that one contributing factor rose above the rest — one that, at first, was extremely difficult for me to accept,” Brian writes. “More than anything else, what led my young Samuel to choose suicide were the teachings and policies of our church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

The campaign points out that there are numerous factors that contribute to teen suicide rates. However, one factor that should be studied and addressed is religious teachings and practices, particularly those of the LDS Church.

In Utah, which has the highest Mormon population in the US (nearly 70 percent), suicide is the leading cause of death among youths aged 10 to 17. Last year, Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert launched a task force to study the issue of teen suicide. In other states with large Mormon populations, such as Idaho and Wyoming, teen suicide rates far exceed the national average for that age group.

The CFFP partners with a grieving father

The CFFP works with parents whose children have been harmed in faith-based environments. Many, like Brian, want the public to hear their stories so that others don’t have to endure the same hardships that they have suffered. And so some turn to the CFFP for guidance and support.

“I knew when Brian approached us that he had an important story to tell,” says CFFP founder Janet Heimlich. “We offered guidance in publicizing his important message, although this was Brian’s story, told in his honest and courageous voice. We are honored to be able to partner with him in informing the public about an issue that every parent, especially Mormon parents, should be aware of — the possible connection between homophobic teachings in the LDS Church and teen suicide.”

The blog post describes Bresee’s shock upon learning that his 14-year-old beloved child, Samuel, had chosen suicide. Immediately after receiving that news, while he was still consumed with grief, Brian embarked on a personal and intensive research project in which he was determined to learn just what had led his son to make his end-of-life decision.

“I was immersed in grief upon learning that Samuel had taken his own life, and yet that question of why? gripped me intensely and immediately. From the night of his death until early the next morning, I searched the Internet for possible reasons,” writes Brian.

Dangerous Teachings in the LDS Church

What Brian learned was that some Mormon teachings and practices have the potential to instill in young people shame and self-loathing, particularly teachings that discuss sex and homosexuality. Bresee explains how Samuel, starting at the age of 12, had to sit through “worthiness interviews” in which a bishop meets with a child and asks him or her inappropriately intimate questions about sexuality and masturbation. (Until recently, parents typically weren’t present at their children’s worthiness interviews.)

Bresee also makes clear that the LDS Church has a long history of terrifying children about the possibility that they might be gay and, therefore, risk not following their loved ones into the afterlife. He points to sermons in which congregants are told that young people are “better dead, clean, than alive, unclean.”

Bresee explains that Samuel wasn’t gay, yet he, like many other Mormon children, was mercilessly bullied at church and at his school which had a large Mormon population. What’s more, the bullying often was homophobic in nature. Samuel continually had homophobic slurs hurled at him and was ostracized by other children once they learned that he had been targeted for such abuse. Like many abuse victims, Samuel’s intense embarrassment prevented him from confiding in his parents about the bullying. In the end, he saw suicide as his only escape.

Bresee believes that the bullying that drove Samuel to kill himself was a natural outcome of the church’s sexuality-shaming of children and manipulating of parents.

“I know that if my son and I had grown up in a loving and affirming church community, one that embraced people for who they are rather than filling them with shame and self-loathing, everything — my sense of well-being, our family relationships, and my son’s mental health — would have been better,” writes Bresee.

Photo: Brian Bresee with his son Samuel

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