Guest Opinions

No correlation between youth suicide and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2015, file photo, Sandy Newcomb poses for a photograph with a rainbow flag as Latter-day Saints gather for a mass resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. LDS leaders tell gay and lesbian church members that attraction to people of the same sex is not a sin or a measure of their faithfulness. But they remind those members that acting on those feelings by having sex violates fundamental doctrinal beliefs that won’t change. The message is part of the Mormon church’s “Mormon and Gay” website launched Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, with dozens of articles, teachings, videos and stories from Latter-day Saints who identify themselves as gay.
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2015, file photo, Sandy Newcomb poses for a photograph with a rainbow flag as Latter-day Saints gather for a mass resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. LDS leaders tell gay and lesbian church members that attraction to people of the same sex is not a sin or a measure of their faithfulness. But they remind those members that acting on those feelings by having sex violates fundamental doctrinal beliefs that won’t change. The message is part of the Mormon church’s “Mormon and Gay” website launched Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, with dozens of articles, teachings, videos and stories from Latter-day Saints who identify themselves as gay. AP File Photo/Rick Bowmer

When reporting on the LGBT community, suicide and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s vital to include a thorough analysis of accurate data. Headlines, and the substance of the reporting, should also align with generally established professional recommendations that seek to avoid sensationalizing issues. We hope raising important discussions around these topics leads to greater understanding. Lamentably, a recent story in the Idaho Statesman, “‘Endure until you die’: LDS Church’s LGBT policies put gay youth at risk, advocates say,” (Sept. 8, 2019) didn’t fully live up to these standards.

The author makes it easy to infer a correlation between LGBT Church membership and suicide: “LGBTQ advocates cite Utah’s high levels of youth suicides and high population of Latter-day Saints as an indication of LDS youth suicides,” the author writes, linking to a report that shows rising and troubling suicide trends in Utah.

Probing a bit deeper, it becomes clear that many of the counties in Utah with the highest percentage of Latter-day Saints also exhibit some of the lowest rates of suicide in Utah. Carbon County, one of the four counties with the lowest percentage of Latter-day Saints, has the highest rate. Idaho suicide data seems to run contrary to the story’s evident thesis, at least in part. Public Health District 7, which includes eastern Idaho counties with the state’s highest proportion of Latter-day Saints, has Idaho’s lowest suicide rate.

Michael Staley, who works for Utah’s medical examiner and ranks among the most respected researchers on this topic, said in an interview with Q Salt Lake, a Utah LGBT magazine, his initial findings do not support the narrative that Utah youth suicides are rising as a result of the Church’s traditional teachings on sexuality or LGBT issues. “There’s no data to show that, period,” Staley said. “The people who are driving that narrative are going to be disappointed.”

Even one suicide is too many, and none of this information discounts what LGBT Latter-day Saints share. We acknowledge the unique challenge it often is for LGBT members to deal with these issues and that some people have been unkind. We should respond with care to our LGBT friends when dealing with complex religious and emotional matters.

We should also expect journalism organizations to avoid oversimplification.

The World Health Organization asks journalists to avoid sensational headlines or propagating the harmful myth that there is one cause to suicide. “Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event,” WHO writes. “The factors that lead an individual to suicide are usually multiple and complex, and should not be reported in a simplistic way. Health, mental health, stressful life events, social and cultural factors need to be taken into account when trying to understand suicidal behavior.”

We encourage all Idahoans to reach out with love to their fellow citizens, we invite further research into this important topic and we encourage those dealing with suicidal thoughts to call the Suicide Prevention Hotline: 208-398-4357.

The opinions expressed in this guest opinion piece are those of the individual authors and are not meant to represent the church. Dr. Lane Williams is a professor of communication at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg. His doctoral dissertation covered the relationship between the news media and religion. Amy Fife is a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and lives in Boise with her husband and five children. She volunteers as the church’s director of public affairs for the Boise area. Hal Boyd is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at BYU.
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