When I was a child, I was told that if I sat too close to the television my eyes would go square, and I came to truly believe in and fear the power the TV had to change my physiology. Embarrassingly, I never really thought to question the idea, and it wasn’t until shortly before my 18th birthday that I realised it wasn’t true. (Much to the great amusement of the friends who were present when I had this great epiphany!) I had been warned about this consequence so often and so confidently that I came to believe it, even though there is no evidence to support the idea.
My experience is an example of how powerful our words can be. This particular example is quite funny, but other examples are much more serious and much more dangerous.
One of the most serious ways our words can be powerful is when we talk about suicide. There is good evidence that suicide can be a contagious idea, especially among younger people, and especially when it is talked about as being linked to a specific cause.1
If the claim is made that a particular event or experience can often be a trigger for suicide, this can easily plant the idea in the mind of someone in the same situation that suicide is their only way out or it can birth the fear that they are more likely to harm themself. This is why the Samaritans’ media guidelines for reporting suicide say that speculation about triggers or causes should be avoided. They also note that suicide is complex and rarely the result of one single cause.2 To make simplistic statements about suicide or suicide risk is therefore irresponsible.
To make simplistic statements about suicide or suicide risk is irresponsible.
And yet, sadly, often this advice isn’t followed in discussions about faith and sexuality. It is very common to hear sweeping statements about the risk of suicide facing LGBTQ+ people, and especially young people, if they are taught or discipled in line with the historic Christian sexual ethic.3 In the current debate about the government’s forthcoming ban of conversion therapy, suicide is sometimes being weaponised by those campaigning for a broad ban.4 Young LGBTQ+ Christians are regularly told that if they are in churches that teach the historic Christian sexual ethic, they are in danger because they might end up committing suicide.
Not only does this go against the evidence – it is true that rates of contemplating and attempting suicide are higher among LGBTQ+ people, but there is no evidence that this is the result of the Christian sexual ethic – but it also goes against the advice of the Samaritans and others. It is a dangerous and irresponsible claim to make. By making such a claim, those who say they want to safeguard young people are actually at risk of doing them harm.
It’s time for us to stop weaponising suicide. We do need to have conversations about how we best care for and support those of us who are LGBTQ+ and who also want to follow Jesus. Those are exactly the sorts of conversations we here at Living Out are seeking to foster. But when suicide is weaponised in this conversation, it is irresponsible and potentially harmful. Let’s dialogue, but let’s not weaponise suicide.
If you’re struggling and feeling suicidal, there are people ready and waiting to listen to you and to talk with you. They won’t judge or tell you what 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.
- ‘Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide’, Samaritans, p.7. Accessed 4 November 2021.
- ‘Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide’, p.7. Accessed 4 November 2021.
- E.g. this fictional illustration from a report calling for a broad ban on conversion therapy: ‘A teenager, M, is ashamed that she is experiencing attraction towards people of the same sex and confides in her youth group leader about her fears that she might be gay. She is told that she should accept that she suffers from these feelings but that she must never “act on them” and must either endeavour to have a relationship with a man or remain single and chaste for life. The minister offers to pray for M, and when doing so prays that she will have the strength to not ever act on her feelings. M leaves and later that evening tries to commit suicide as she believes that she will never know the joy of intimacy or love.’ ‘The Cooper Report’, Ozanne Foundation, Appendix I. Accessed 4 November 2021.
- E.g. ‘Jayne Ozanne explains why she quit the government's LGBT+ panel’, LBC. Accessed 4 November 2021.