The idea that some churches could drive some nonconforming youth over the edge — or over the ledge — is one that is seldom contemplated. After all, the “suicide is a sin” (or “suicide is murder and murder is a sin”) message should suffice to make the church’s stance — and conscience — clear, right?
No one seems particularly keen to examine just how churches contribute to creating the perfect storm with tragic results for young adolescents. It would take a tough-minded soul to be capable of that amount of self-scrutiny within the church, and often ignorance really is bliss.
Those in the fold are unlikely to find topics such as spirituality, suicide and sexuality that palatable — especially in combination. And so there is a collusion of silence and denial of this powerful influence.
Ironically, many churches do create a haven for ostracised and marginalised teenagers with messages of how it’s okay — even good — to be different from the “world” and the “worldly”. They’re almost by definition bully-free zones, advocating voluntary membership, prosocial behaviour and love, love, love.
They are a safe space away from the taunts and aggression of overtly gay-hating bullies. Not to mention lots of singing and fanfare, affirmation and self-esteem-enhancing messages, a sense of belonging and sometimes a bit of colourful cross-dressing (cassocks and frills are still very much in fashion in many congregations today).
So an expectation is set up. Hope is offered. Connections are made. Relationships are forged. Time is spent. And then one day, when the young person least expects it, hope is dashed. As any psychologist will tell you, hopelessness is a very dangerous state to be in for too long.
Few but the most ignorant churches these days proffer the idea of “praying the gay away” — of changing sexual orientation — with glib assurances such as “nothing is impossible for God”. Too much of the research and experience of the so-called ex-gay ministries over the past three decades has shown that sexual orientation cannot be changed.
This leaves as an option an entire life of involuntary celibacy (read: loneliness, frustration, isolation, desperation, no future family, fewer friends, no sex and despair).
But if that isn’t bleak enough, and even if the churches’ promised support through all this hardship-without-end could be believed, there are other worrying factors that these churches add to the mix.
They go on about “sins of thought”. So even if they are as chaste as a virgin, every time they find a person attractive or have a fantasy the adolescent is told they are “sinning”.
This must be draining and disheartening. Imagine being told you are in effect “hurting Jesus” every time you do what comes naturally. With no improvement possible and no end in sight (and no solutions suggested), how much guilt must you accumulate? And what must that do to your sense of self and your future?
In addition, many churches teach that suicide is not the “unforgiveable sin”. This means that desperate young Christians may start to see suicide as a viable and reasonable way out of their misery and sin.
That should start alarm bells ringing. But having conversations about these kinds of taboo issues is almost nonexistent in many churches, and so the young person is left to struggle, ruminate and fend for themselves without any support.
Given the potency of issues such as sexuality, “sinfulness” and suicide, these could quite easily become thoughts that are difficult to escape. They could, and do, become overpowering and painful. The victim can end up in a relentless downward spiral. It can feel like one has lost control over one’s thinking. This is the overwhelmed state experts in suicidology refer to as “ruminative flooding”.
Given the pervasiveness and intensity (especially during adolescence) of one’s sexuality and the immutability of sexual orientation, it could be expected that the youngster is experiencing an entrapment that has no exit, as if cornered — a state in which one feels simultaneously frantic and hopeless. In such a state one feels defeated and experiences a heightened state of anxiety and inner agitation. This is a state experts in suicide have termed “frantic hopelessness”.
Combine these two states (ruminative flooding and frantic helplessness) and you have someone at risk of imminent suicide.
If you are responsible for inducing these states in someone by placing them in a hopeless situation, you are responsible for making them suicidal.
Given this, churches needs to realise the dynamics they are creating within many young members. They need to sort out their contradictions, own up to their deficits, and realise that mercy triumphs over judgment.
Churches need to sing a different tune to young people who don’t adhere to the sexual norm. If churches cannot offer them hope then they need to realise they have to change — not the adolescents.
Lance Heath is a clinical psychologist