Mormons and Suicide
Trigger warning: suicidal ideation and completion, sexual abuse, self-injury.
Suicide is an extremely complicated, sensitive and personal topic. In searching for general information in regard to Mormons and suicide, I found the internet largely absent of LDS-specific suicide support groups or information. A handful common links popped up, which included an article titled Suicide by Elder M. Russell Ballard, a study called Mormon Women, Prozac and Therapy by Kent Ponder which addresses the high rate of depression and anti-depressant usage in Mormon women and lastly, When Your Child is Depressed by Sean E. Brotherson. Shockingly, the Ballard article was first published in 1987, the Ponder work was created in 2003 and the Brotherson compilation in 2004. To wit, in a search of the LDS.org website on 25 April 2011, the search term “suicide” gained 171 results, wherein the terms “peanut” and “chocolate” achieved 400 and 753 results, respectively. This implies that peanuts and chocolate are more important reference topics than suicide, or suicidal thoughts. A recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune addressed the fact that Utah has a statistically higher suicide rate that most other US states. To me, this means that Mormons are committing suicide, but precious few people are talking about it.
Considering the public position of the church in regard to suicide, this lack of reference and support material is no surprise. Spencer W. Kimball used the term “criminal” and Bruce R. McConkie used the phrase “mentally- clouded” in reference to suicidal individuals (quoted here). I see no benefit in calling someone a “mentally-clouded criminal”, especially if they are so distressed that they are considering taking their own life. I am very concerned and disappointed that these statements are among the very few that are included in LDS suicide searches. And while Gordon B. Hinckley addressed loneliness and depression associated with teens, the term suicide was not used, making it the elephant in the room. In light of all of this, it became clear to me that suicide is a very present, but silent killer in Mormon culture because of the labels given to people who feel suicidal.
So let me say this here: SUICIDE HAPPENS TO MORMONS. Even those who are not mentally clouded or criminal. It happens to people going through a very difficult personal time. And, if suicide has touched your life, either in your own thought or by the attempt or loss of a friend or a relative to suicide, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
I privately asked individuals to share their experience in regard to suicide. The multiple layers of pain, anger, distress and fear of exposure made it evident that Mormons are ashamed to talk about suicide. As a result, I am sharing a part of this collection. I hope that the below will express that those who have been touched by suicide are not alone. And although I could not locate any LDS-specific resources for suicide, if you or someone you know is dealing with suicide, there are hotlines at the end of this post where just one phone call will assure you that you are not alone.
Please note: This is not a scientific sample of the overall Mormon population, however, commonalities include: all respondents are Mormon, all respondents are women and all respondents have had personal experience with suicide. Each respondent was promised anonymity. As a result, I have edited or modified identifying characteristics.
Respondent 1: One of my roommates in college attempted suicide. Another roommate came and asked me to go and talk to her, I guess because I worked part-time at the counseling center at the school, but I was a receptionist! I wasn’t really friends with any of my roommates, so it was awkward. But I still went in. I sat there and just started talking, I don’t even remember what about. She was Mormon too, but I don’t think she was really going. She finally agreed to let me call someone. So I called the counselor I liked best and told her what was going on. She cleared her calendar and I took my roommate to see her immediately. Everyone thanked me after, but the whole time, I just kept thinking that I was totally lost and I didn’t know why everyone seemed to think that I was supposed to be the one to help her. It scared me. I am glad I could help get her to a counselor, but I kind of felt like I just dumped her on someone else. I felt ashamed about that and didn’t know what to say to her after. I guess I felt like we were supposed to be closer friends then, but I wasn’t sure. But I am so glad she was okay.
Respondent 2: I think I was 7 the first time I tried to kill myself. There was money missing from my father’s wallet, and my mother decided I had stolen it. I suppose she was trying to get me to confess, because she came into my room and told me that she was going to call the police. But I hadn’t taken the money. So she told me that the police would take me to the station, strip me naked and look inside my vagina to find the money, because that is where thieves hide money. Going into this sexual and abusive detail terrified me. I think what she was saying should have been considered sexual abuse. She told me to say my bedtime prayer because the police were coming to get me in the morning. I knew that God knew that I hadn’t stolen the money. And I knew that to go to God, I had to be dead. So I put a plastic shopping bag on my head, and prayed that I would die in my sleep. I was scared and didn’t put the bag on very tight and just prayed that God would close the bag and I would die in my sleep. I don’t know how long later, but it was still night and my mother came in, took the bag off my head and told me that the money was found.
But I still wanted to be dead. No one was safe and no one but God could protect me, so I wanted to be dead. A few years later I asked my mother about suicide when I understood what the word meant. I think I was 9 or 10 then. She said that people who commit suicide are cowards, who left everyone else to solve their problems and that I shouldn’t talk about things like that on Sunday. I started to hate Sundays and decided that I didn’t even care about seeing God again. I just wanted to be dead, almost all the time I thought about it. My father said that the telestial kingdom is so wonderful that we would all kill ourselves to get there to get there if we saw it. So I took his word for it. I ate a bottle of aspirin when I was about 13. My sister found me and panicked and called my aunt and uncle. I vomited everything up and everyone said it was a mistake, but no one asked me about it.
I felt like I was already dead, I think- just observing everything and disconnected. I tried to kill myself again, but failed. I was tiring of failing at death and became even sadder. So I started cutting myself at about 14. That felt good. I felt alive when I was cutting myself. It was a relief. That actually sort of changed me. I didn’t seek constantly to be dead, but I didn’t care about being alive. I would take five aspirins if I had a small headache, for instance. Just in case they could poison me. I was in a few accidents later on. People said I was clumsy, but I really didn’t care about protecting my head or anything. I remember waking up after one where I was unconscious and thinking that I was disappointed that I didn’t die. I was still doing normal stuff, young women goals, seminary, school, dating. But it was all just routine. Doing what I was supposed to, rather than what I wanted to do. The only thing I ever really wanted was to be “not alive”. I can’t explain it. I had no other goals. I just coasted. Things started getting bad again in my early 20’s after I had been away at college for a while. One Sunday, I just decided I had enough. I wanted to go home. Home to God, even if He was going to send me to hell. So I drove to Wal-Mart to buy a gun because that was the only place I knew sold guns. Turns out that was on Easter, so Wal-mart was closed! I sat in the parking lot crying and screaming at God because Wal-Mart was closed. But- the next day, I felt a little better. I finally went to counseling after that. I never went before because my parents told me that only crazy screwy people went to counseling to unscramble their brains. And I told the counselor about that and other things. So things started to get better and I started to believe that I could be happy. That was an LDS counselor. I still think of her. She was good.
But because I have been thinking about suicide for almost 20 years, well, that thought is a part of me. Even now and a wife and mother who is married in the temple, I absently say “I wish I was dead” almost daily. I still think about putting a gun to my head on hard days. But I don’t think I would try again. But the idea of being away from everything stressing me makes me feel better. I guess that is why some people think of heaven or the next life. But for me, the idea of suicide is like heaven without the family that hurt me. So I think of that alot. Suicide is safer than heaven. I hate that I can’t stop thinking about it, even though I don’t want to be dead anymore. I want to be alive.
Respondent 3: My second baby was stillborn. I felt like my husband blamed me somehow. I knew he did, even though he didn’t say so. It was a terrible time. He started working really long hours, and started spending time with another woman who was friends with an inactive Mormon woman. The inactive woman was telling me that I was hen-pecking him and telling him who to be friends with and that I should leave him alone. But her husband had left her, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. But it was like everyone was like her– everyone was telling me how to feel and what to do, and no one was listening to me and I am a convert, so I had to be happy and show my non-member family how to be because I thought my being a missionary would make me feel better and would protect my marriage. No one was listening to me, and I felt terrible inside. If it wasn’t for my first child, I would have killed myself. But I couldn’t stand the idea of leaving my living child with someone else. We ended up moving house, and things are fine now. We have been to counselling at LDS family services and they helped. They even helped my husband deal with other things he had going on. But for that time after the baby died, I was so alone. People were there telling me that they were sorry, but that I should just move on an serve again. That made me feel even more alone- like my miscarriage meant nothing, and I was still blaming myself. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I am glad for my life now and am very happy and very blessed. I know Jesus loves me. He helped me get out of that time in my life.
Respondent 4: My uncle committed suicide on Christmas. I guess they say he had a hard wife—she was always nagging him. But he was the one who brought us into the gospel! He was the first member of our family to be a member of the church! He introduced us to the church. So we were all shocked. His son found him hanging from a window after an argument. And because he was high up in the church, a lot of stake presidents came to the funeral and everything. And one of them said that we don’t know what state of mind he was in at the time he did that. But I think I would get into trouble if I spoke to anyone about it even though it happened when I was in high school. Because we are supposed to push it down. I still think about that at Christmas, but no one talks about it. No one talks about it ever. We aren’t supposed to. I think everyone blames my aunt. I would get into trouble if I spoke about it to anyone.
Respondent 5: A few years ago, my sister tried to kill herself. I think she had been trying for a while, but this time, she became violent against others who were trying to stop her. So they called the police and took her away in hand cuffs. Somehow it worked out that she went to a mental hospital instead of jail. It came out that she had been raped when she was about 15. But we were all told in Young Women that if we were raped, that it was our fault. If we were raped, it was because we dressed immodestly or enticed men somehow. I was even taught in Merrie Miss– so I assume she was too- that if we weren’t virgins, we might as well be dead. So she didn’t tell anyone about the assault and blamed herself, even though the attacker was old enough to be her father and was in a position of authority. She even confessed to the Bishop that she had been sexually active, hoping that would make the attacks stop. I am a few years older than she is, so had left for college when this was happening, so I can’t really say what my perceptions were at the time because I wasn’t there. When I saw her at Christmas, everything seemed normal. But she was crashing on the inside. She moved out when she was 16 to live with my Grandmother. She went to LDS Family Services then, but they didn’t seem to help her. But I don’t know if she was able to tell them about the rapes or if they focused on other things that were also crashing in her life by then.
So after a decade of depression, ill-choices and feeling like everything was her fault…she drove her car into a tree. Everyone said it was an accident, but I had a feeling something else was going on. Still, I didn’t say anything. I lived in a different state at that point with a family of my own, so I guess it didn’t occur to me to really do anything. Then she drove a car into a building. Same thing, everyone said it was an accident. Then she pulled a knife to cut herself. Her teenage son tried to stop her and she pulled the knife on him. That’s when they called the police. After she was institutionalized, everyone started to say “suicide” and “rape” out loud. She is out of the mental hospital now, but can’t live on her own. She is considered psychologically disabled and lives in a group home, though she can leave to attend some family things. She is medicated and has lost her driver’s license. I don’t think she considers herself Mormon anymore. I don’t ask her about church stuff. To be honest, after learning all of this, I wanted to take a baseball bat and go and bash in the head of the rapist. I also think about the Young Women leaders who taught us that it was our fault if we were raped. I don’t respect, trust or care for them or the Young Women manuals for teaching such bullsh!t. And all this is probably really stupid- because my anger doesn’t help my sister in healing. But I don’t know what else to do besides to be angry on her behalf. She seems okay now, she is somewhat independent and on anti-depressants. I am so glad that she has finally found some help in anti-depressants.
Respondent 6: My younger brother tried to kill himself. His girlfriend broke up with him, and he went and tried to hang himself in the garage. My sister and his girlfriend heard something and went in and stopped him. He never went to counselling. And none of us told my parents because we were afraid they would be really angry. They still don’t know, but I think he is still having problems.
Respondent 7: I met someone through my blog because of her suicide attempt. Her church counselor contacted me about her. She had a painful, chronic disease and had been reading my blog for a long time. She swallowed pills, and then changed her mind. She called someone for help and they were able to have her stomach pumped. So she survived. Her counselor contacted me and asked if I would try to be friend because she’d found so much connection in my blog. Eventually we met in person. As her depression lifted, our friendship grew. She’s now doing really well–professionally and health-wise. I think a lot about whether she were to choose to try suicide again….I feel like I would have to honor that she tried so hard to make her life work, and honor the choice to want to end it, too.
Respondent 8: My cousin killed himself. It was a big deal- he threw himself off of a building in the business district. We didn’t know he was upset—he was always the one who said that everything was okay and really laid back. He never liked to argue. But he had trouble getting work. And he was smart! He was a graphic designer and had trouble getting a job and trouble at work. The police were there trying to talk him down for a while. They even got him to eat—they said, “Hey, why don’t you have something to eat and relax?” And pushed a sandwich towards him. And he ate it. But then he said, “I wanna be free”. And he jumped. They thought they were going to talk him down. But they didn’t. I don’t know how they did it, but the funeral home did a really good job, because his body was really messed up from hitting the ground. But he looked nice for the funeral. My aunt was very upset, but then, after the funeral, she said she had a dream. In her dream, he was wearing all white and he was smiling—she said she had never seen him look happier. That helped her and she didn’t seem to worry about him. Especially since people say such terrible things about people who commit suicide in the church. They really say terrible things! But they don’t know. His mother she said she had never seen him look happier in her dream. And we all felt good about that.
This is not an internationally comprehensive list of suicide hotlines. Please feel free to amend and add suicide hotlines in the comments.
Suicide hotlines by US state: http://suicidehotlines.com/
US National suicide hotline: 1800 SUICIDE (1 800 784 2433)
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
New Zealand suicide hotline: 1800 999 9999
UK suicide hotline: 08457 90 91 92 or 08457 90 90 90
Ireland suicide hotline: 1850 60 60 90
Canada suicide hotline: 1800 273 TALK (1800 273 8255)