Bonus Essay: LGBTQA+ suicide

Doug Henning, PhD

I understand how difficult it is for established organizations to change. Especially when those in positions of influence & power played key roles in establishing, and maintaining, it’s expected standards and rules over several generations. I’m thinking here primarily religious organizations, and more specifically Christian denominations. 

I also how difficult it is as an individual to change from being in a community for 20 plus years to change from one community of believers to another one. Over the course of my life I’ve changed denominations a few times. I have to say that each time I made a change it has not been without much thought and prayer. The reason for changing was often due in part due to the realization that change from the inside the organization was not happening in concert with the changes taking place in me.  Often this was coupled with a growing uneasiness with what I would call the church’s attitude(s) toward individual behaviors that were outside the “accepted rules”.

The changes I’ve made have been toward a better fit for my wife and I. I have never had particularly negative feelings for those individuals who stayed. Although I must say that we have missed the friendships of over 20 years together. However, I must say that the inability or unwillingness of an institution to change is often done at a pretty high cost to some individuals in it’s community. I’m speaking here of the unwillingness to accept and affirm LGBTQA+ individuals for who they are, particularly the youth. 

Recent research on suicide among youth has concluded that the reason we haven’t made a dent in the rate of suicide deaths is that the focus of prevention has most often been on individualized solutions rather than systemic solutions. Systemic solutions need to address protective factors such as faith communities as well as family ties. Interestingly, social and political contexts have a significant impact on LGBTQA+ youth. Higher rates of suicide attempts are found in youth who report that their homes, schools, communities [think communities of faith] are not accepting.  To make this point, in “states that proposed anti-LGBTQA+ legislation, texts to the Crisis Text Line rose by a statistically significant amount in the subsequent 4 weeks … We essentially have youth existing in an environment that is pervasively invalidating.”  Pervasive feelings of sadness or hopelessness among LGBTQA+ students is 69%.  This is compared to 57% among girls and 29% of boys in general.[1] 

Without the affirmation, and often with outright condemnation, of who these young people are, they are being forced to seek outside support and help, if they seek it at all, and not within their own faith of origin.  Due to the vulnerability that youth face during this time of development, the lack of validation only increases the likelihood of depression, isolation, and suicidal ideation.

A bit of perspective, and as a glimpse into my background, may provide a bit of context for my comments and concerns I’ve shared here.  I’ve lived inside a few different conservative denominations having been raised Southern Baptist, and committed my life to Christ as a young adult in a Charismatic community while in the Vietnam War.  I remained in that community for 20 years.  Then due to a variety of factors I left the Charismatic church and floundered a bit eventually being attracted to a conservative and denomination with roots in the Anglican Church of England tradition, The Church of the Nazarene.  I was particularly attracted to the emphasis on what I understood to be more of what’s going on inside a person rather than particular behaviors,  We stayed in the Nazarene denomination for more than 20 years, in the process getting a teaching position at a Nazarene University and staying there for just shy of 20 years.  In 2007 we switched denominations again, this time to the Episcopal Church.  The Episcopal church is much more accepting of LGBTQA+ individuals as members as well as in leadership roles. Each change over the last nearly 60 years has seemed like a logical next step. Being an old fly fisherman, with hindsight, this journey has been like crossing a wide mountain stream, each stop on large rocks or logjams has provided new and broader perspectives, growth as well as a different view of the stream.

In the 50 years that I have practiced psychology both as an academic as well as a clinician, the subject of faith has often come up, and when asked I’ve made recommendations to clients regarding a possible community of faith in which they might find a healthy fit for them psychologically. However, shamefully, for the first 35 years of that practice I felt I could not recommend my own community of faith to my LGBTQA+ clients and friends, I often recommended an Episcopal church, or a Lutheran church if I was aware of its stand.

Based on the importance of developing more systemic solutions to youth suicide, and even higher rates of suicide among LGBTQA+ (see above) significant efforts must be made to change the systems of faith our youth find themselves in, or encourage and guide them to find a community in which they feel accepted and validated.  To do anything less could be considered self-centered.

[1] Monitor on Psychology (a publication of the American Psychology Association}, July/August 2023, pg 54-61

Doug Henning, PhD, Psychology Professor Emeritus, MNU

This essay is not included in the book Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be Fully LGBTQ+ Affirming.

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