Friday, September 9, 2016

There is no "right" way to get through life...

This morning, I woke up to news that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has started a new suicide prevention Web site.  Although I usually have rather disparaging comments about the LDS church, today I will say that it's good to see the church recognizing that suicide is a serious issue.  In fact, Utah health officials have been grappling with a serious suicide epidemic.  According to the article from the Salt Lake Tribune that I just linked, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in Utah and Utah has the seventh highest suicide rate in the United States.  Every day, an average of two Utahns kill themselves.

Now...  I have never actually been to Utah.  I'm not LDS and never have been.  However, because my husband is a exMormon convert, I have been studying the church for years.  I also have master's degrees in social work and public health and have myself suffered from crippling depression, so mental health is an interest of mine.  Even if I had never met Bill, I would be interested in this story.

Since 2002, I have been following Mormonism on the Recovery from Mormonism Web site.  There have been several posters on that board who have killed themselves or have friends or family who have committed suicide.  While I know the reasons why a person might decide to commit suicide are very complex and sometimes have biological origins (for example, clinical depression that is chemical in nature rather than situational), I think a lot of the hopelessness and despair comes from communities that pressure citizens to "be" a certain way.

The LDS church places a lot of high expectations and imposes certain "standards" on its members.  There is a great emphasis on outward appearances and behaving in the "right" way.  Sometimes church members engage in a lot of shaming and shunning, which can be devastating to someone who is depressed.  Add in the fact that homosexuality and premarital sex are seen as horrible sins and you have a lot of young people at risk for falling into hopeless despair.  But while suicide is certainly a big problem for young Utahns, it's also a big problem for middle aged people.

I am going to speculate for just a few minutes about why I think more middle aged people are deciding that life is no longer worth living.  I am saying this as a middle aged person myself and these are simply my own observations.  Life has gotten very complicated for many people.  Sure, it was complicated in the past.  Years ago, people certainly had problems that today's people don't face.  Simple survival could be difficult.  But I think life is complicated on a different level nowadays.

I really think social media is a double edged sword.  In some ways, it makes communication easier.  I can "visit" with people I knew when I was in high school by hitting them up on Facebook.  I can send emails to anyone I want, whenever I want.  When I Skype someone, we can even set it up so that we can see each other, a la The Jetsons...

But... social media also isolates people.  If you can visit with them online, maybe you'd be less inclined to spend time with them in person.  Also, many people tend to present their best selves on social media.  You might see their vacation pictures or photos of their beautiful families and homes and wonder what you're doing wrong.   In a community where appearances matter, this pressure to look and behave in the "right" way can be very demoralizing.

Add in that it's much easier to get bad news today than it was before we had Internet and 24/7 news coverage.  Yesterday, my Facebook feed was full of negative political commentary.  Indeed, I think a lot of Americans are very worried about this year's election and who will end up running the country.  It's bad enough that people are getting into arguments online and friendships are being lost over politics.  Hell, my own uncle is sending angry drunken screeds to his loved ones because he's concerned that Hillary Clinton might win the election.  I can only guess he's doing that because he's truly bothered about what may lie ahead in the future.  I know he's not alone.  I know a lot of people worry that Donald Trump will win and someone else's uncle might be sending their family members drunken screeds over that possibility!  A lot of people think we're doomed over who wins the election.

There is often great pressure within church circles to have a beautiful, happy, clean, and moral family.  Once you get to middle age, things can get more complicated.   There's an expectation that you will have that amazing, beautiful family, a great job, and live comfortably in your own home.  But health issues can arise.  Marriages can fall apart.  Teenaged children can get into trouble or turn out in a way that parents find unacceptable, which causes stress on many levels.  People lose jobs and feel like they're too old to compete with younger candidates.  Finances can go south and it can seem like there's no way out of the quagmire.  The possibilities are endless.

What I find really sad is that many people want to talk about how awful suicide is.  They talk about it being a shameful, sinful, and selfish act.  But not a lot of people want to do anything to help people in need.  For example, people who are struggling with their bills are subjected to a lot of shame.  If they need welfare or food assistance, they are subjected to scrutiny as to how they spend their money.  There's an attitude that if you are poor and/or jobless, you deserve it.  Instead of offering compassion and/or real help like financial assistance and job leads, a lot of people offer judgment.

If your marriage falls apart, some people will wonder why.  If you're a man, many people might assume your marriage dissolved because of something you did.  If your kids end up shunning you, people might think it's because you deserve to be shunned.

If you're gay or transgendered, instead of offering understanding and kindness, many people expect you to try to change who you are.  They tell you God made you to be a certain way and if you deviate from that, you are a sinner who needs to repent.  If you have a mental illness, they might tell you that if you were "right with God", you wouldn't be mentally ill.  They expect you to pray away the sources of your pain rather than seek legitimate help and support from people who know what they're doing.  And, if you do seek that help, many people don't want you to talk about it.  Getting treatment for a mental illness is often regarded as a shameful sign of weakness.

It's not just the Mormons who are guilty of this stuff, by the way.  I grew up in the South in a family of protestants and encountered the same attitudes when I was suffering from depression and financial problems.  More than a couple of people were uncomfortable when I talked about being depressed and seemed to think it was an excuse for being lazy or not performing the way they thought I should have.  In fact, people in my own family expressed concern that using antidepressants was akin to using a "crutch".  Actually, if you think about it, that was a pretty rich statement.  If you seek medical care for a broken leg, wouldn't you expect to use crutches?  Why wouldn't you expect to use a crutch as you recover from a struggle with clinical depression?    

Realize that many people who have depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue often have financial problems.  They need help, but many times they don't get help because they can't afford it.  Or even if they can afford it, the prospect of accessing it is overwhelming.  I remember when I was depressed, I had just gotten my own health insurance.  I grew up using military healthcare and didn't even know how the civilian healthcare system worked.  I was overloaded with emotions and despair and the prospect of calling for help was terrifying.  Even with a decent health insurance policy that was affordable for me, I worried about how I would pay for the help I needed.  Fortunately, it all worked out... but I think that now, getting help may be harder than ever.

I can remember being in my twenties and thinking that should have been the best time of my life.  I wondered if, when I was in my twenties and in my physical prime, if I was feeling so badly, what would the rest of my life be like?  Was this the best I could hope for?  I'm here to say that things improved a lot in my thirties and became even better in my forties.  It can and does get better, but the struggle to move to that better place can be difficult and overwhelming.

More of us should have more patience, understanding, and compassion for our friends and loved ones rather than judgment and unrealistic expectations.  There should be less emphasis on materialism and living a certain way and more understanding that there is no "right" way to get through life.  Everyone is different and everyone deserves a break sometimes.

It's been a very long time since I last felt suicidal and self-destructive.  I have several people to thank for helping me get through a difficult time relatively unscathed.  I am luckier than some people, though.  I also realize that things can change very suddenly and quickly.  Sometimes I worry about falling into that pit of despair again and not having anyone care one way or the other.

Anyway... I am not surprised that suicide is a big problem in Utah because I think the LDS community, like other churchy communities, can put pressure on people to hide their problems and shroud themselves in secrecy.  They do this to avoid shame and being ostracized.  After awhile, the pressure, the sadness that comes from shouldering a burden for too long, and the exhaustion of trying to maintain an appropriate facade becomes crippling.  And sometimes people simply collapse under the pressure.

Life is tough.  There is no one "right" way to get through it.  I think sometimes, people lose sight of that.  Sometimes people are more concerned with winning, getting ahead, and living in a way that is socially approved, even if living that way is unrealistic.  Most people are doing the best they can with whatever tools they have.  Perhaps church is a useful tool for some-- they get strength and support from people within a church community.  Unfortunately, church "help" can also be toxic and debilitating, especially when there is an emphasis on prosperity rather than actually being Christlike.  I could be wrong, but I think in large communities where certain churches are given a great deal of importance, many people feel like square pegs trying to fit into round holes.  And that can be a truly difficult and exhausting existence that wears people down to the brink of suicide.


  1. I started to respond, but the particular response became unwieldy, so I converted it to a blog. It focuses more on what I would understand, which is why young people would end it all.


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