Every suicide is a deep tragedy. Each one is a reason to grieve and to long for the day that all things are put to rights, because each one represents the ending of a life that had unique value, each one reveals the extent of suffering that was being experienced by a person created and loved by God, and each one has a devastating impact on many other people who knew and loved the individual.
I’ve contemplated suicide twice in my life. The first time was as a young teenager. I don’t have a clear memory of what led me to that point, but I know it was serious because I got as far as formulating a plan. The second was only a few years ago, when the pain of working through a number of issues in my life that were having a serious effect on my mental health became almost unbearable. I lost all sense of hope and couldn’t see a way that continuing to live could be bearable. For many of us, suicide will be a personal topic, whether because of suicidal ideation or attempts in our own lives or because of experiences in the lives of those we know and love. It is a difficult topic and one we must seek to handle carefully and sensitively.
Heartbreakingly, suicidality and suicide attempts are more common among LGBTQ+ people than among other people, though it is harder to say whether the rate of completed suicide is higher.1
The reality of suicidality and suicide attempts among LGBTQ+ people is something that we need to take seriously, and it raises several important questions: Why is suicide more common among LGBTQ+ people, and, in particular, is there evidence that the historic Christian sexual ethic leads to LGBTQ+ suicides, as some claim that it does? We must also ask how we, as Christians and as churches, should respond to the reality of LGBTQ+ suicide.
The reasons for LGBTQ+ suicides
Discussing the causes of suicide is difficult. We must heed the advice of the Samaritans who warn us, ‘Speculation about the ‘trigger’ or cause of a suicide can oversimplify the issue and should be avoided. Suicide is extremely complex and most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life.’2 We should not, then, look to isolate specific causal factors in any one example of suicide, and we should be aware of the complexities and multi-factor influences that often lie behind suicide.
We should be aware of the complexities and multi-factor influences that often lie behind suicide.
Keeping this wisdom in mind and moving beyond individual situations, can we isolate potential reasons why suicide is more common among LGBTQ+ people as a whole? Since it is recognised that a vast majority of people who die by suicide experience one or more mental health problems,3 one reason may be the higher levels of mental health problems among LGBTQ+ people.4 This raises the question of why mental health problems disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ people. We have explored this question in a separate article.
The claim is sometimes made that Christians and churches who teach the historic Christian sexual ethic are a contributing factor to LGBTQ+ suicides. Is this true?5
There is very little firm evidence to go on,6 and some of it has been deemed surprising. A 2017 study looking at general happiness, concluded that ‘no significant differences are found between mainline Protestants (whose church doctrine often accepts same‐sex relations) and evangelical Protestants (whose church doctrine often condemns same‐sex relations)’.7 And a study of black LGB young adults found that ‘for Black emerging adults who are navigating their sexuality, access to religious faith can serve as a source of support and a resource for positive well-being.’8
There is evidence that externally instigated efforts to change a young person’s sexual orientation can be associated with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.9 However, attempts to change sexual orientation are not part of obedience to the historic Christian sexual ethic and any coercion into such efforts is certainly not in line with biblical teaching.
There is also evidence of a link between family rejection and an increased likelihood of suicide attempts.10 Key here is the definition of rejection. In a summary of her research, the author of the study, Caitlan Ryan, gives several examples of family behaviours that communicate rejection, including:
‘Hitting, slapping or physically hurting your child because of their LGBT identity.’
‘Excluding LGBT youth from family and family activities.’
‘Telling your child that you are ashamed of them or that how they look or act will shame the family.’11
These behaviours, and the others specified in the research, are not only not part of the historic Christian sexual ethic but are in fundamental conflict with basic Christian beliefs about human dignity and love for others. Any such activity is not Christian and is something Christians should speak up against and work to see an end to. Neither same-sex attraction nor the choice to pursue a gay relationship should be a reason for families to reject a family member.
It may also be significant that in the Netherlands, a country where LGBTQ+ people and same-sex relationships have become widely accepted, suicide rates among gay men are still high, even when comorbid mental health conditions are taken into consideration.12 Similarly, a 12-year study in Denmark found that the suicide mortality risk of men in same-sex registered domestic partnerships was eight times that for men in heterosexual marriages and twice as high as that for men who had never married.13
Though these studies don’t relate directly to Christian perspectives, they bring into question the idea that the non-acceptance of same-sex relationships is a significant causal factor in LGBTQ+ suicides, since neither a more accepting society nor a same-sex partnership alleviate the higher suicide rate among gay men.
There is no evidence to support the claim that the historic Christian sexual ethic directly contributes to LGBTQ+ suicides.
The evidence on this matter is far from conclusive, but this sampling suggests that there is no evidence to support the claim that the historic Christian sexual ethic directly contributes to LGBTQ+ suicides. There is, however, evidence that certain unbiblical beliefs and attitudes – such as pressure to seek change in one’s sexual orientation or active rejection and dehumanising by family members – can contribute. This highlights the importance of Christians continuing to seek to rightly understand and apply the biblical teaching on sexuality.
How should churches and Christians respond to the reality of LGBTQ+ suicide?
The fact that suicidality is more common among LGBTQ+ people is something which should motivate Christians to action. What can we do in response?
Take care in what we say
We must be very careful in what we say about suicide, both as individuals and as churches, in person and online. There is good evidence that certain ways of talking about suicide can increase suicide rates, especially among young people, through a form of social contagion known as the Werther effect.14 In particular, it is unhelpful to focus on the method of suicide or to speculate about potential triggers or causes.
This last point is particularly relevant for us. Sadly, some Christians have been irresponsible in how they have talked, sometimes in national media, about specific LGBTQ+ suicides, accusing the traditional biblical teaching of being they key cause. In so doing, they may be causing young people who are wrestling with their sexuality in Christian contexts to assume that suicide is their only answer. We must not weaponise suicides for our own purposes in a way which may cause further tragic deaths.
We must not weaponise suicides for our own purposes in a way which may cause further tragic deaths.
Several organisations provide very helpful guidelines for speaking about suicide. Churches and Christians should take note of these.15
Encourage openness about mental health
All of us need safe spaces to talk about our mental health. There is great power in being able to share with others about how we are feeling, struggles we are facing, and thoughts we are having.
Churches should be one of the easiest places for all of us to be open about our mental health. It’s important that we have a good, Christian understanding of mental health, and that we create church cultures where it is not only safe but is normal and natural to be fully honest about how we are, even if we are in a really bad place emotionally or mentally.
Teach and help people to experience the fullness of God’s plan
When Christians struggle to experience God’s plan for sexuality and relationships as the good news that it should be, it is usually because we are not teaching or enacting the fullness of what God has said.
We find it easy to clarify the noes – what God says we shouldn’t do – but without also embracing the many yesses – what God teaches about love, identity, friendship and church family. It is these yesses that make it possible to live out the noes.
Or to put it another way, we often focus on the what – the choice between celibate singleness or opposite-sex marriage – without an equal focus on the how – how do we thrive in whichever of these gifts God has given us?
If we want to help all people – married and single, gay and straight – to experience the fullness of life that Jesus has promised us, we need to teach and enact all of the Bible’s teaching.
Learn about how to help those who may be contemplating suicide
It’s important that we know how to start a conversation with those whom we think might be contemplating suicide. Most people who are suicidal don’t want to die, and the opportunity to talk about what they’re thinking and feeling can be a lifeline. It’s also important that we know how to help someone if they share that they are feeling suicidal.
If you’re struggling
If you’re struggling and are feeling suicidal, there are people who care about you and who want to help you. Whatever you’re feeling right now, whatever you’ve done or has been done to you, however painful life might feel at the moment, there is a way forward and there is hope. It won’t always feel like this.
There are people ready and waiting to listen to you and to talk with you. They won’t judge or tell you what you to do; they’ll be there to listen. If you’re in the UK you can call the Samaritans any day, any time on 116 123. If you’d rather text than talk, text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258 to access the Shout Crisis Text Line. If you’re not in the UK, take a look at this page to find support lines in your country.
- Research in this area has been full of controversy, mainly because of the many complexities that arise in the research process. Many studies have faced criticism for using inadequate methodologies, and that the matter is complicated by the fact that different researchers focus on different elements of the topic (e.g. suicidal ideation or suicide attempts or completed suicides). It’s now well established that rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among LGBTQ+ people are higher than among the wider population, but the figures of these rates are not agreed upon. The relative rate of completed suicide is hard to ascertain because relevant data is less easily available and harder to evaluate.
On sexuality: Ilan H. Meyer, ‘Prejudice, Social Stress and Mental Health in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Populations: Conceptual Issues and Research Evidence’, Psychological Bulletin. Accessed 25 February 2021: ‘More recently, studies that used improved methodologies, such as random probability sampling, clearer definitions, and improved measurements of suicidality, also found strong evidence for elevation in suicide-related problems among LGB persons … Also not clear from studies of suicide ideation and attempt is whether LGB persons are at higher risk for suicide-related mortality.’
On transgender: Preston Sprinkle, Embodied (David C. Cook, 2021), offers a helpful summary of some of the research (pp.229-230 and notes), concluding ‘No one disputes that suicidality is high among trans* people. Just how high it tougher to say’ (p.230).
- ‘10 top tips for reporting suicide’, Samaritans. Accessed 25 February 2021.
- Louise Bradvik, ‘Suicide Risk and Mental Disorders’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Matthew K. Nock et al., ‘Prevalence, Correlates, and Treatment of Lifetime Suicidal Behaviour Among Adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement’, JAMA Psychiatry. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- Most research into LGBTQ+ suicide does not take mental health into account, and so it is hard to say to what extent mental health is an underlying factor. However, one relevant study of adolescents with gender dysphoria found that when compared with young people who had mental health diagnoses, the suicide rate was largely the same, suggesting that mental health was a significant factor. See Kenneth J. Zucker, ‘Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria: Reflections on Some Contemporary Clinical and Research Issues’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour. Accessed 25 February 2021.
- In what follows, two examinations of the evidence have proved particularly helpful: Andrè Van Mol, ‘Scapegoating the Church for LGBT Suicide and Stigma’, Christian Medical & Dental Associations. Preston Sprinkle, ‘Is a Traditional Theology of Marriage Intrinsically Harmful Towards LGBTQ People? Part 2’, The Centre for Faith, Sexuality and Gender. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- Jeremy J, Gibbs, ‘Religious Conflict, Sexual Identity, and Suicidal Behaviours Among LGBT Young Adults’, Archives of Suicide Research: ‘In light of this, recent studies have investigated the relative impact of religious affiliation and religiosity on mental health outcomes in LGBT adults … Findings from these studies have been generally inconclusive in determining the aspects of religiosity that are associated with mental health outcomes.’ Accessed 20 April 2021.
- M.N. Barringer & David A. Gay, ‘Happily Religious: The Surprising Sources of Happiness Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adults’, Sociological Inquiry. Accessed 20 April 2021
- JJ. Garrett-Walker and Buffie Longmire-Avital, ‘The Impact of Religious Faith and Internalized Homonegativity on Resiliency for Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Emerging Adults’, Developmental Psychology. Although the study speaks of religious faith in general, the vast majority of respondents who identified with a faith were Christian. Unhelpfully, the individuals’ and their religious community’s beliefs about LGB experience and relationships were not recorded. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- Caitlin Ryan et al., ‘Parent-Initiated Sexual Orientation Change Efforts With LGBT Adolescents: Implications for Young Adult Mental Health and Adjustment’, Journal of Homosexuality. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- Caitlin Ryan, ‘Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults’, Pediatrics. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- Caitlin Ryan, ‘Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Children’, Family Acceptance Project, p.8. Accessed 11 March 2021. See also, Heather Sells, ‘Southern Baptists Push Back Against LGBT Activists’, CBN News. Accessed 11 March 2021: ‘[Caitlin] Ryan says what's most important is not a family's religious beliefs but the behaviors that families exhibit towards members that are LGBT.’
- Ron de Graff et al., ‘Suicidality and Sexual Orientation: Differences Between Men and Women in a General Population-Based Sample From The Netherlands’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour: ‘This study suggests that even in a country with a comparatively tolerant climate regarding homosexuality, homosexual men were at much higher risk for suicidality than heterosexual men. This relationship could not only be attributed to their higher psychiatric morbidity.’ Interestingly, this finding was only for men and not for women. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- Robin M. Mathy et al, ‘The association between relationship markers of sexual orientation and suicide: Denmark, 1990-2002’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- ‘Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide’, Samaritans, p.7. Accessed 11 March 2021.
- Samaritans offer ‘10 top tips for reporting suicide’, along with more substantial ‘Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide’ and ‘Guidance for Reporting on Youth Suicides and Suicide Clusters’. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- ‘If you’re worried about someone else’, Samaritans. ‘Suicidal thoughts – How to support someone’, Rethink Mental Illness. Accessed 20 April 2021.
- ‘ZSA Training’, Zero Suicide Alliance. Accessed 20 April 2021.