Ever wonder why sometimes
Students at BYU go missing?
But no one talks about
PLEASE NOTE: USGA seeks to create a respectful dialogue that encompasses multiple view points on the topics of faith and sexuality. The views and opinions of the following article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect USGA’s official policy or position.
Trigger Warnings: Suicidal Ideation and Discussion of Suicide Rationalization
Suicide risk is a serious and complex reality that many LGBTQ/SSA people face. In general, highly rejected LGBT young people are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide. In the last three months alone there have been 32 LDS LGBT youth suicides, which Church leaders have publicly mourned.
Unfortunately, BYU students are no exception to these risks. A 2012 survey of LGBTQ/SSA students at BYU revealed that 74% had contemplated suicide, while 24% had attempted suicide. In the last year, there have been at least five confirmed suicide attempts, none of which, thankfully, proved fatal.
All too often we only hear the numbers. Today we would like to share the stories of four individuals who attempted suicide in order to better convey the complexities of this issue. All names have been changed to maintain privacy, but we felt it necessary to speak out, both for the LGBTQ/SSA individuals who are still in a dark place and for those who wish to reach them.
For Jane, anxiety was the heart of her difficulties. “I was getting scared that I would never not be able to feel anxious, if that makes sense. I was getting tired of dealing with constant anxiety.” Many different factors contributed to her stress: work, the lack of a supportive authority figure (such as a professor or religious leader), and the aggressive heteronormativity in BYU culture. “I feel like I can’t be a participant in cultural rites of passage like marriage and dating. It feels like people are willfully and purposefully leaving me out, even when they have no idea that they’re doing so. It feels like people of authority are hostile to me.”
After taking pills, Jane had a change of heart and walked herself to the emergency room for three days of medical interventions. “I think the biggest reason for getting help was probably the thought of my family and my friends. I knew that I cared about them, and they cared about me, and that was definitely evident in the support they showed in the days that followed.”
Since then Jane has found better ways to cope with her anxiety, though it’s still there. Circumstances at work changed to be less stressful and she made sure she had a better support network. “I saw how hard it was on people just when I was in the hospital, how they came in with red eyes. It was hard to think how much it cost everyone else, even when they were happy to give that support. Now I feel that if I have another crisis I can get help without causing another medical crisis,” she laughs.
In Sebastian’s case, fear of rejection and helplessness were the main factors in his suicide attempt. “I was depressed for a reason,” he says. “I’m trans, and I could have fixed it by transitioning, but I couldn’t at the same time. I thought that if I do something about this, then everyone will hate me. It seemed easier to die than to continue with life, either being closeted and being terribly miserable or being out and doing something about it and facing rejection.”
Sebastian took a whole bottle of Tylenol, only to vomit it up immediately. But the desire to kill himself remained, and he contemplated throwing himself into heavy traffic. “I was ready to be done with this life. Two weeks later my parents finally called the BYU police and the real police, who escorted me to the hospital’s mental ward.
“The psychiatric person there was wonderful. Just having that person there to talk to was very helpful. It was then that I realized that not everyone would reject me and that I should give them the chance to accept me.”
Sebastian was formally diagnosed with gender dysphoria and was able to start taking hormones to partially transition. Since then he feels much happier, and has transferred to Arizona State. “As long as there’s progress, that’s very helpful. There’s hope, and I no longer want to die.”
Luis’ problems stemmed from the comments and reactions of others. “Other people’s idealizations or views about me because of my sexuality caused me to want to hurt myself; it made me feel in control,” he says. “I felt that people would rather that I die than have me live my life the way I want. All of my friends, my family would never want to throw me a wedding, but they would throw me a funeral.”
His sister took him to the hospital, and he felt it was a shameful ordeal. His family said that it was selfish of him to attempt suicide. However, one of the nurses on duty was lesbian. She had left the Church years ago and had lived with a same-sex partner. Now she was single again and re-baptized. She reassured him that whatever path he chose, it would be alright, and Luis laid in his bed and cried.
Since then things have gotten a lot better, though Luis still has lingering suicidal ideation. “Sometimes I’m more hopeful, but when I’m suffering, I want it to stop.” Despite this, he has started working full-time in an affirming environment and is saving up to begin the career of his choice, using his mission experience as a springboard into foreign markets. “My life changed just changing environment,” he says.
Alex’s anxiety was rooted in the conflict between his religious beliefs and his sexuality. “My family was really understanding, but I wasn’t ready to give up on the Gospel plan yet.” But after doing everything possible to make himself straight, he couldn’t shake the unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction. “It was getting really bad. I would get an anxiety attack going to the movies with friends because I was the only one without a date. I could barely make it out of the theater.”
The issue reached a head one night when he was watching a video about a happy Mormon couple. “I felt like that could never be me, that I had failed my Heavenly Father and my family, and that it would be better if I just ended my life rather than eke out a miserable, lonely existence.”
Alex picked up a knife from the kitchen and placed it on his wrist, but stopped short of hurting himself. “Fortunately I had lots of friends I had been open with, and I trusted them. I shuffled like a zombie over to their house and curled up in the corner of their living room. I was numb, but I was alive.”
Today Alex is vibrant in comparison to his darker days. “I got more involved with USGA, and helping others brought a lot of clarity for myself.” Alex has come to accept his identity as a gay man and his faith has become stronger as a result. “I don’t really know what my place will be in the Church in the future,” he says, “but I’m willing to be flexible and stick with it until I do. I’ve learned to live with ambiguity and uncertainty.” Alex decided to continue his studies at BYU and is contemplating doing a Masters there as well. “I feel like I can make a difference for others here.”
Recognizing signs that someone is in danger of suicide can be important for ensuring that people get the help they need, but signs differ for each person. Jane withdrew into her room and would miss class and work, while Sebastian withdrew socially and threw himself into schoolwork. Luis would talk about his suicide to others with a smiling mask, while Alex didn’t talk much at all and had a permanent frown. Disruptions in a person’s normal patterns of behavior seem to be the best way to tell if they need help. For serious cases, people can either call the Trevor Project Hotline (866-488-7386) or go to their local emergency room.
How to Help
When asked how BYU students could help, everyone agreed that others could be more kind in what they say to others. “Don’t say mean things to people,” says Jane. “You never know what they’re going through. You never know when a degrading comment will trigger something. Watch what you say and say everything in a positive way.” Sebastian agrees. At one point a girl in his ward was saying disparaging remarks about Caitlyn Jenner, not realizing that Sebastian was trans as well. “We often think that there are no queer people at BYU,” says Alex, “when nothing could be further from the truth. There are closeted people in every ward and every class. Every time you say something, assume a queer person is listening.”
“Be nice, that’s all you need to do,” says Luis.
A Message of Hope
Last, we asked everyone to give a message to any LGBT students at BYU who are contemplating suicide.
Sebastian: “Don’t do it. Transfer, if you need to. It might be harder on you financially, but there’s always student loans. I don’t want you to leave this life. You have a purpose.”
Jane: “There’s this thought that you shouldn’t try to change your situation to deal with your anxiety, that you should change yourself to deal with it. That’s not something that’s always true. You can at least consider taking time off school or finding a different job. That’s not an option for everyone, but there’s medical support you can get or support from friends.”
Luis: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression, make sure you’re not just surrounded by assholes. When I came out at work, I never would have thought that people would come up to me and say how brave I was. When you’re around people that see your sexuality as bad, it’s worse. Know that there are better places out there.”
Alex: I know it sounds cliché, but it really does get better. Get help. Find a shoulder to cry on. Love and acceptance are out there for you; keep looking for them.