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Preventing Youth Suicide in Our Wards and Families (+ Valuable Resources)

The suicide rate among youth in the U.S. continues to rise—especially in Utah. How can we protect the youth in our families and wards? Here is what the experts say.

On January 17, 2018, Elder Ronald A. Rasband joined Utah Governor Gary Herbert and others in a press conference to talk about the seriousness of the surge in Utah’s youth suicide rate. Governor Herbert said it is growing almost four times faster than the national average and is now the leading cause of death for children ages 11 to 17 in Utah [1]. Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox also shared some grim statistics: 5 out of every 30 kids in a classroom have suicidal thoughts, and about half of Utah's LGBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender) youth contemplate going through with suicide [2].

At the press conference, Elder Rasband said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is going to be a very willing participant in a community effort to find answers to this very serious problem” [3]. “We’re committed to doing all we can do, not only in our congregations of Latter-day Saints throughout the state, but in working with all of you in every mode—in church, school, society…” [4]. “We must all come together to face this issue” [5].

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Two days after the press conference, an official letter from the Church was sent to general authorities, area authorities and local priesthood leaders. The letter discussed resources available to help leaders and members with issues associated with suicide. It included resources specific to LGBT people, saying that they “may be at greater risk of suicide” and that “leaders should be especially mindful of extending love and support to these members of their congregations” [6].

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently came to Utah to investigate the problem and make recommendations. Not surprisingly, they found that home and family can be the biggest protective factor against suicide. Faith communities can be an important protective factor as well [7]. For these to be protective factors, our youth must know and feel they belong to us. They need to feel valued, involved, and that they can ask for help and receive our help [8]. As Elder Rasband prophetically stated, “Love is at the center of this issue” [9].

Connection and Belonging Are Key

The CDC report indicated that previous studies have shown a significant relationship between connectedness, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. If the connection is not positive or the person does not feel like they belong, it can increase the risk of suicidal behavior. Bullying and not feeling safe also increase the risk of suicidal behavior [10]. “Connectedness is a common thread that weaves together many of the influences of suicidal behavior and has direct relevance for prevention," the report stated. "Accordingly, CDC has adopted as a theme ‘promoting individual, family, and community connectedness to prevent suicidal behavior’” [11].

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Dr. David Kahn, vice chair for Clinical affairs at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbus University Medical Center, said, “Connection and a feeling of social belonging is, I think, the most important initial step in preventing suicide” [12].

One of the leading experts on suicide, Dr. Thomas Joiner, also said connection is central to suicide prevention. There are two main components of a fully satisfied need to belong and connect with others. There needs to be “interaction with others and a feeling of being cared about. In order to meet the need to belong, the interactions an individual has must be frequent and positive” [13].

Brene Brown, a researcher and professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, specializes in social connection. She said, “Connection is why we’re here, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, belonging is in our DNA. [It] is an irreducible need like love” [14].   “’We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache, We hurt others. We get sick.’ We are profoundly social creatures. . . . At the root of most of [our] desires is a need to belong, to be accepted, to connect with others, to be loved . . . . A sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs” [15].

According to Lisa Hansen, PhD, a Mormon counselor, there is good evidence that when people feel disconnected from their wards and Church experience, the loss of belongingness actually becomes a major risk factor for suicide. In a peer-reviewed study of suicide among Mormon men age 25 to 34, those who had become estranged from Church activity demonstrated six to seven times the risk of suicidality as those who identified as religiously active [16]. This “loss of belonging” risk exceeded the risk of those who had never been part of the Church at all. Becoming disconnected from the Church seems to be a major risk factor for suicide.

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Hansen, who runs a 25-member youth group at the Encircle House in downtown Provo, Utah, says it is a myth that young people leave the Church because they no longer want the gospel, or because they are breaking commandments. The truth is that our young people who recognize they are "not straight" often experience loss of belonging in their wards while they still have testimonies of the gospel and are living the commandments. They hear how others in their wards speak about them and people like them. They are aware that their experiences and stories are less valuable. They are keenly cognizant of whether their future in the Church will be one of belonging.

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In a Church video titled “Is There a Place for Me?” Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever met anybody who didn’t want to belong to something that made them feel worthwhile, that made them feel that they had value" [17]. This statement has important keys. Everyone, especially youth, need to feel worthwhile and feel they have value in our homes, wards, schools and neighborhoods [18]. Knowing they belong, no matter what difficulties they might face, is critical.

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Brene Brown has said that not belonging, or psychological isolation, is “the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience. . . . This not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape the combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness” [19].  Embracing, valuing, empathizing, and including people communicates that they belong with us.

Love Is at the Center of This Issue

Helping everyone feel connected and that they belong goes perfectly with Christ’s example and teachings. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated, “Christ did not just speak about love; He showed it each day of His life. He did not remove Himself from the crowd. Being amidst the people, Jesus reached out to the one. He rescued the lost. . . . He not only taught but also showed us how to ‘succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees’” [20].

Elder Uchtdorf also said, “It should not surprise us that caring for the needy is such a central part of our faith. A century ago, President Joseph F. Smith reminded the Saints that ‘it has always been a cardinal teaching with the Latter-day Saints, that a religion that has not the power to save people temporally and make them prosperous and happy here, cannot be depended upon to save them spiritually, to exalt them in the life to come.’ We can only have hope of Zion with ‘every man seeking the interest of his neighbor’” [21].

Man Is That He Might Have Joy

The Book of Mormon tells us that “Man is that he might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Research shows that belongingness leads to joy. Forming bonds is cause for joy. And close personal attachments, a rich network of friends, and high levels of intimacy motivation all correlate to happiness in life. No wonder strong family bonds and strong ward families are so important. These, along with all of our friendships and relationships, are part of finding joy in this life [22].

According to experts, the opposite is also true. “People who lack belongingness [connection] are more prone to behavioral problems such as criminality and suicide and suffer from increasing mental and physical illness. Based on this evidence, multiple and diverse problems are caused by the lack of belongingness and attachments.” Belonging and connection are needs – not just wants [23].

Mental and Physical Health

Research has shown that social connections not only impact your mental health, but your physical health as well. "A review of 148 studies (308,849 participants) indicated that the individual with stronger social relationships has a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival” [24]. This remained true across a number of factors, including age, sex, initial health status, and cause of death. “People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression, a higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them” [25].

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In a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers calculated negative health factors and how they increase your odds of an earlier death. They found that air pollution was 5 percent, obesity was 20 percent, and excessive alcohol consumption was 30 percent. However, not connecting, not feeling you belong—loneliness—increases the odds of an earlier death by 45 percent [26].

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In His Steps

Jesus announced his ministry in Luke 4:18, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and . . . set at liberty them that are bruised. He spent most of the years of his ministry healing bodies and minds, delivering captives from rigid beliefs, and setting at liberty those who believed they were less deserving of God’s notice: the poor, the Samaritans, even the lepers who were seen as deliberately stricken by God. It was precisely those who did not experience themselves as belonging in the religious mainstream that Jesus focused on, spent time with, and defended from others’ criticism. Lisa Hansen points out that Christ’s ministry showed profound awareness of the importance of social and spiritual belonging.

No wonder the Savior asked that we love one another and feed His sheep. He asked that we leave the 99 and go after the lost sheep separated from the flock. Our Savior knew that, like sheep, people do not thrive when isolated and feeling they do not belong. Social wilderness and isolation are harmful.

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Christ’s example was one of compassion and empathy, especially for those isolated and condemned. His ministry was one of love and concern for the very “least of these.” He sought out the rejected and forgotten. He loved them, valued them. Personal concern and friendship help fill people’s greatest need. They bring joy and happiness. Compassion and mercy motivate in positive ways.

President Uchtdorf said, “We could cover the earth with members of the Church, put a meetinghouse on every corner, dot the land with temples, fill the earth with copies of the Book of Mormon, send missionaries to every country, and say millions of prayers. But if we neglect to grasp the core of the gospel message and fail to help those who suffer or turn away those who mourn, and if we do not remember to be charitable, we ‘are as [waste], which the refiners do cast out. . . . Without this transformation work of caring for our fellowmen . . . unless we care for one other – temporally as well as spiritually—we cannot please God and it is impossible to become a people of Zion” [27].

Following Christ’s example of reaching out to everyone will help us solve this problem and bring us closer to our goal of Zion.

Suicide Prevention Resources

Suicide Prevention and Ministering: Whether you are having thoughts of suicide, you are worried about someone, or you have lost someone by suicide, this resource on lds.org provides a plethora of information, including various articles and several suicide prevention hotlines.

Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK is a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Their website has information on Risk Factors and Warning Signs. Learn more at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

QPR: This stands for Question, Persuade, Refer and is a course that can be taken online or in person.  It provides innovative, practical and proven suicide prevention training. It cover three main areas: recognizing warning signs of suicide, knowing how to offer hope, and knowing how to get help and save a life. Learn more at qprinstitute.com.

Mental Health First Aid: This is an excellent 8 hour course that teaches you how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders in your community. There is a class specific to adults and one specific to youth. Their website lists available classes nationwide. Learn more at mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Safe UT App: This app is a crisis text and tip line that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth in Utah through texting and a confidential tip program. It has licensed clinicians 24/7 who are available to help anyone with emotional crises, bullying, relationships problems, mental health, or suicide-related issues. Learn more at safeut.med.utah.edu.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8pzbR4sYVk Mormon Newsroom, “Utah Governor Task Force to Address Teen Suicide; Mormon Apostle Offers Support,” January 17, 2018

[2] https://www.cityweekly.net/BuzzBlog/archives/2018/01/17/ready-to-make-an-impact City Weekly, “Ready to Make an Impact” by Dylan Woolf Harris, January 17, 2018

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8pzbR4sYVk Mormon Newsroom, “Utah Governor Task Force to Address Teen Suicide; Mormon Apostle Offers Support,” January 17, 2018

[4] https://www.lds.org/church/news/elder-rasband-highlights-suicide-prevention-resources-for-members-and-leaders?lang=eng  “Elder Rasband Highlights Suicide Prevention Resources for Members and Leaders” contributed by Camille West, LDS.org Church News. January 19, 2018

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8pzbR4sYVk Mormon Newsroom, “Utah Governor Task Force to Address Teen Suicide; Mormon Apostle Offers Support,” January 17, 2018, Minute 1:29 – 2:06

[6] https://www.lds.org/bc/content/ldsorg/church/news/2018/01/19/15249_000.pdf?lang=eng

[7] Because of our surge in youth suicides, the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control) came to Utah to study the problem and make recommendations. They found that the number one biggest protective factor is the family. Church is another big protective factor. But these both have the opposite effect if the person doesn’t feel they belong in their family or if they feel they don’t belong at church. According to the CDC we need to create an environment where all the children and youth feel “valued and able to ask for and receive help when they need it.”

[8] Utah Health Dept summary of CDC Report

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8pzbR4sYVk Mormon Newsroom, “Utah Governor Task Force to Address Teen Suicide; Mormon Apostle Offers Support,” January 17, 2018 minute 3:09

[10] Epi-Aid # 2017-019: Undetermined Risk Factors for Suicide among Youth Aged 10-17 years – Utah, 2017, Final Report, page 64 & 65

[11] Strategice Direction for Prevention of Suicidal Behavior, “Promoting Individual, Family,and Community Connectedness to Prevent Suicidal Behavior”  published by the CDC

[12] Anne Harding, “Sense of belonging a key to suicide prevention” Reuters, April 2, 2008

[13] Joiner, Thomas. Why People Die by Suicide (p. 96). Harvard University Press.

[14] Huffington Post, updated December 6, 2017, “Brene Brown On Why Courage, Vulnerabiltiy and Authenticity Have to Be Practiced”

[15] Psychology Today, Aug. 2012. “Connect To Thrive – Social Connection Improves Health, Well-Being & Longevity” by Emma M Seppala Ph.D.   https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201208/connect-thrive 

[16] Hilton, S. C., Fellingham, G. W., & Lyon, J. L. (2002). Suicide rates and religious commitment in young adult males in Utah. American Journal of Epidemiology, 155 (5), 413 -419.

[17] Video, “Is There a Place for Me?” Elder D. Todd Christofferson https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/2016-03-0020-is-there-a-place-for-me?lang=eng#p3s:1170&p3e:232330

[18] Video, “Is There a Place for Me?” Elder D. Todd Christofferson https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/2016-03-0020-is-there-a-place-for-me?lang=eng#p3s:1170&p3e:232330

[19] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 140 Penguin Group US

[20] President, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “You Are My Hands” General Conference, April 2010

[21] https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/president-uchtdorf-transcript-salt-lake-inner-city-mission Transcript: President Uchtdorf address to the Salt Lake City Inner City Mission, December 4, 2015

[22] Baumeister, R.F., & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. Doi:10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.49

[23] Ibid

[24] Psychology Today, Aug. 2012. “Connect To Thrive – Social Connection Improves Health, Well-Being & Longevity” by Emma M Seppala Ph.D.   https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201208/connect-thrive 

[25] Ibid

[26] J. Holt-Lunstand, M. Baker, T. Harris, D. Stephenson, and T.B. Smith, “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2), 2015, 227-37

[27] https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/president-uchtdorf-transcript-salt-lake-inner-city-mission Transcript: President Uchtdorf address to the Salt Lake City Inner City Mission, December 4, 2015

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