Friday, December 06, 2013

The Price Of Emotional Literacy

My first exposure to suicide was when I was six.  It claimed the life of a rancher with a place north of the ancestral spread where I was born and spent my early years.

As we drove up to close down his ranch and take care of his livestock, my dad explained that his friend from school had never been the same after returning from WWII nine years earlier.

Dad called it combat fatigue a euphemism for “neuro-psychiatric” disorders that hospitalized a million soldiers during WWII.

An Army general and psychiatrist noted that these disorders claimed nearly all members of rifle battalions who were not killed or otherwise disabled during that war and suicide rates among WWII vets are double now what they are among soldiers returning from recent wars.

Today, more than 38,000 people commit suicide each year among more than 959,000 attempts annually in the United States.  That’s nearly one every 30 seconds.

Suicide attempts, including two more that were successful, have come even closer to me on six other occasions over the intervening sixty years since that rancher took his life including:

The wife of a grade school friend just days after childbirth -my best friend in high school a few years after graduation – an LGBT friend in college - and three other people over the years who are even closer to me in relation or to people with whom I am close.

I haven’t been keeping a tally, and I doubt I am considered among the average of six people each, or 1 in every 6 Americans in a given year who re counted as survivors of suicides.

But it feels like it when those who have touched my life cross my mind, as they do from time to time, such as when I came across some very interesting information over Thanksgiving.

First was an article published near that holiday a year ago.  It was about a study reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health where researchers almost inadvertently learned that 40% of kids who attempt suicide first try in elementary or middle school.

Something I recollected while listening and viewing a November TED presentation, which was put online over the holiday, is that since the early to mid 1990s, researchers have been aware that a third of teenagers at-risk for suicide are LGBT.

The speaker is a successful tech-executive-turned-PhD candidate in Psychology who helped researchers at Utah State University and Brigham Young University conduct a study released last year of LGBT Mormons (considered America’s most conservative faith.)

It found that the average age when these folks felt different was 9.6 years old or fourth grade.  The study also found that the average age when that “difference” was identified as same-sex attraction was 14, which is before the vast majority experienced romantic relationships.

The American Association of Suicidology reports that suicide attempts by high school students are 3.4 times more likely among those who are unsure of their sexual orientation and 8 times more likely among those who experience severe family rejection.

One of the researchers on the Mormon LGBT study, Dr. Bill Bradshaw, began teaching at BYU when I was a student there, two decades before another Idaho native John Dehlin the TED presenter attended BYU (he was raised in Texas.)

Dehlin eloquently describes that being an ally for those facing social injustice such as that which is experienced by people who are LGBT, makes the most difference when you have something at risk socially.

It made me think about whether I paid any price for standing up as a student more than forty years ago on this and other issues of discrimination and injustice.  I don’t think I paid a price other than being subject to a few rumors.

My price was self-exile forty years ago.  I walked away to preserve my personal spirituality while still respecting and honoring my Mormon cultural heritage.  Many others have stayed active and are pursuing change within, some of whom have paid a price.

Dr. Bradshaw is an expert in microbiology and molecular biology.  He has written and lectured on the evidence for a biological origin for homosexuality for a decade.  I am sure some have tried to make him pay a price.

However, Mormons have always been more resilient and adaptive and far more diverse of opinion than is perceived.  There have always been internal ideological and theological struggles.

Voices among those who are still active and outspoken within the faith are getting traction, as LGBT acceptance is across the nation.  Numerous websites and blogs promoting dialogue have emerged, including one by the church itself.

It has always been a very caring and evolving Christian institution and I agree with others that its stance regarding sexual orientation is evolving and may be far ahead of perception as evidenced by the church’s response to the changes with Boy Scouts which it clarified:

“Sexual orientation has not previously been – and it is not now – a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint scout troops.”

If what surveys show to be America’s most conservative faith can evolve, lets hope North Carolina where I live will soon follow.

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