Mormons and Mental Illness: Suicide

This guest post on suicide was submitted by Arlene. If anyone wants to talk to Arlene she is happy for me to give out her telephone number. Please email me at ronan at jhu dot edu. No-one need suffer alone.

This is a sensitive subject: the Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on suicide represents the latest (compassionate) Mormon view on the subject. In short, suicide is a sin (in that mortality is part of God’s plan for us), but one for which some people may not be fully culpable. Only God can judge these matters, not us.

I’ve always been a suicidal person. I was the product of several generations of alcoholism, poverty, abuse, and depression and I passed it on. 1991 was a particularly hard year.

My four younger sisters, who are my best friends and the people I love most after my husband and kids, began to remember sexual abuse at the hands of my father. I didn’t remember anything and didn’t care what happened to me, but the guilt was overwhelming because I hadn’t protected my baby sisters.

I decided to take my life and set a date. Then I had what I call a vision. I had taken my life, but of course was still alive and conscious. I could see my family, in particular my five year old daughter, in deep anguish and grief. Worse, I could feel her grief, all their grief as if I were experiencing it. I longed to cross that gulf and comfort her, but I couldn’t. It was the most helpless feeling. I changed my mind and thank God for his mercy in allowing me to know what would have happened had I carried out my plan.

Two months later, my 18 year old son, serving in the Marine Corps in Silverdale, Washington shot himself. After years of speculation and searching, I know this was in part because I’d destroyed his self confidence and his resilience because of my alcoholic/abusive personality, which persisted in sobriety. There were other challenges in his life, the possibility of testicular cancer and a hold-up on his security clearance which made him think he might be sent home, but basically I know I failed my child.

I knew that day when those two Marines came to my door what my son was experiencing on the other side of the veil as I collapsed in agony. I knew he was sorry, that he regretted his act, that he loved me, despite my faults. It wasn’t enough to stop my pain, but I did know what he was going through.

I wrote in his obituary that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I wrote that we believed that his existence still had purpose and validity and he was beloved of God, not a sinner. Because I know how much pain a person can carry and how that longing for it to end can overwhelm one, I never felt angry with him.

A year after his death, his best friend did his temple work, just before he left for his mission. That same friend now has two beautiful little girls. There are poignant reminders, but I rejoice with my friends and family at their milestones. I don’t begrudge them. I drink them in.

Still, I cannot describe the pain, which persists fourteen years later. I was in survival mode for a long time. The eighteen month mark after James’ death was the hardest point, but I now have come to a point that I know I have to use my sorrow to help others.

One thing I did was lobby for a book on suicide for Mormons. I called Carol Lyn Pearson, who softly and lovingly told me it was my story to tell, then Deanna Edwards, who gave valuable advice and support. It took years, but finally I found a woman named Margie Holmes, who did a great deal of work. Margie eventually teamed up with Jaynann Payne and the Hidden Treasures Institute to put out a book called “Where is Our Hope for Peace.” This book contains stories, scriptural references, and input from Dr. Richard Ferre. Deseret Book declined to publish it because they said it wouldn’t be marketable due to the depressing subject matter; nevertheless, I have given away countless copies. Many people have been helped as they deal with the suicide of their loved one.

I know I will never be the same, this pain will be with me till I die. But I am learning–with the help of a merciful God, who has put up with my bellyaching all these years–to enjoy life and find fulfillment. There have been compensatory blessings. And at last, this year, I have been able to let myself feel my son, smiling and strong and happy–and let his love in without the awful regret. Sometimes.


  1. I feel an urge to say something sympathetic. But I’m not too good at that, so I’ll just offer some advice.

    In publishing, there are several pitfalls an author can fall into regardless of the quality of the book. There is a game to be played in getting a book published. For example, the reputation of your agent, and the size of the retainer you command may be more important for publication and distribution than the actual quality of the book (sad but true).

    There are several books out there on the subject of navigating the publishing world. I’d recommend reading around on the subject.

    Thanks for sharing your experience though. It would be a good subject to have addressed in book form.

    Seth Rogers

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    Thanks for this post. By the way, Margie Holmes is my aunt, and an impressive woman in more ways than I can count, and a true saint.

  3. Anon for this thread says:

    I find it sad that Deseret Book will not at least help with a book that could be very valuable to people facing suicide because it is “depressing.” I add to that the fact that the book “Confronting Abuse” was the number one book at Deseret Book for a couple of months, but is now out of print. I guess they see their mission as making money, not with providing products that could actually help people. I bothers me to go there anymore, since most of what they carry is fluff–but uplifting fluff.

    God bless you in your efforts. Before I met my wife, her high school boyfriend took his life. He left her a note, but waited until she came to see him before he put the gun to his head. Over 20 years later, she still wakes up screaming in the middle of the night.

  4. When I was young, about 10 or so, my uncle took his own life. He was a good man with a heart of gold. I think that part of the reason he did it was because his wife was abusive to him (mentally) and she would not have children. He wanted children more than anything. He was always so good to me. I don’t know where his place will be in the afterlife, but I hope it will be surrounded by children.

  5. not on this thread says:

    My suicidal ideations were accompanied by a deep sense of shame. I have a very good life. I have burdens and sorrows, of course, but why was I unable to just suck it up and get over myself?

    I’m glad I finally overcame that sense of shame and told a close family member how I was feeling. She gave me a vivid description of how my suicide would affect my family, and urged me into therapy. Between drugs and talk therapy, I’m much better, though not yet “well.” I still have periods when depression and suicidal thoughts squish out the sides of my psyche, but they are fairly predictable and mercifully brief.

    Folklore says that people who commit suicide don’t talk about it. I think that’s partly true. However, it’s not because the people who DO talk about it are just attention seeking, but because the people who don’t talk about it are ashamed. Also, the people who do talk about it are the ones who end up getting help.

    If you feel like killing yourself, tell someone about it. A friend, a doctor, a suicide prevention line, a family member – someone. Reach out. There are people who care.

  6. My initial judgment of suicides (before I convince myself not to pass judgment when I’m not qualified (which I never am)) is that the person is too selfish to consider the harm that he or she is doing to family and friends. But I don’t think that’s always the case, if it ever is. I think a lot of people that commit suicide convince themselves that they are doing their family and friends a favor. Which is why we need to remind the people that we love how much they mean to us. Arlene was blessed to have the Lord show her the effect her suicide would have on her loved ones. Like “not on this thread”‘s family member, we need to be the voice of the Lord in the lives of loved ones that are depressed and convince them that they are needed and loved.

  7. “I think a lot of people that commit suicide convince themselves that they are doing their family and friends a favor.”

    This is a very good point, Tom. And if those who are about to commit suicide have the capacity to convince themselves of things not true, there’s no reason the rest of us don’t have that same capacity.

  8. Eric, you make me laugh. Not in the sense that I think that what you say is funny or ridiculous. Not at all. It’s just that it seems like you have a really well-thought out take on mental illness that might be contrary to mine (although I don’t know if it really is) or to conventional wisdom, but you make your point little by little, out of context, in a way that makes it hard to evaluate and respond to your argument. I think you think this isn’t the right context for an academic discussion of mental illness, and if that is what you think, I think you’re right. I nominate you for a guest post here or somewhere so you can expound and we can all discuss it at length.

  9. Our son tried to commit suicide, thankfully he failed. The trauma is undescribable, the after effects last a lifetime. I literally would spontaneously cry at my desk at work, I sometimes still do when I think about the event. My wife has similar experiences. We now constantly worry about how he is doing, will it happen again.

    Our communication with him is better. His life seems to be better now. We pray for him daily. I cannot judge, I only know that I love him deeply.

  10. I have a sister that made a couple of suicide attempts during her teenage years. I am very glad that she was not successful. She has never returned to church activity but I am always so sincerely glad when I see her enjoying life in any way. I’ll take it.

    I also know someone who has expressed some suicidal thoughts. He has had recommendations given to pursue counselling and perhaps medication, but it appears his pride will not allow him to do it. I try to help him see his value, but often I don’t know what to say.

  11. 10.
    Eric, I recommend that you don’t try to help him see his value, but try to help him feel the love you and others have for him. Maybe in that sense he has value to you, but a depressed person doesn’t need to feel they are valuable — which *increases* pressure because then they worry about losing that value. Feeling love — regardless of one’s value — and coming to trust it gives the security that’s missing.

    My own suicidal longings came from a feeling that I couldn’t get free of sins, hence was guilty and unlovable, and so doomed to loneliness. My recovery from those suicidal longings came from finally feeling unconditional love. In my case, it was in stark, surprising, welcomed contrast to the confession I’d just made to my SP about the very unlovable things I’d done. (More detailed relation of my recovery is here.)

    I believe this is the stronger reason that confession of sins is part of healing. The lesser reason is that we need to be honest, accountable, etc, etc etc. The greater reason is that until I laid out how unlovable I was, I couldn’t experience the healing release & relief that came from being loved by caring people and by God when I did *not* deserve it, when I did *not* have value that merited it. It was a gift of grace.

    Even if someone has not committed major sins, their suicidal feelings are best met with love *after understanding their feelings*. It was important to talk out where I was because otherwise I would have felt that the SP said he loved me, but he wouldn’t if he knew the darkness inside of me.

    Only after tasting this can we have the peace that removes suicide’s temptation. The angel in Nephi’s vision of Lehi’s dream told him that the love of God is the “most joyous to the soul” but frequently we need human agents to take us to it. Just as I needed my SP’s love before my heart opened to God’s love, we all can/should be the bridge for other troubled souls. I guess that actually is the heart of missionary work. But we are unsteady in our humaness and stability comes from the Lord’s love. As Elder Christofferson explained, “…once you have felt your Savior’s love for you, even the smallest part, you will feel secure…”

    But in all cases, the love we offer must be sincere. It can’t be some healing trick or reactivation tool but unconditional not only regarding what has happened but regarding what does happen now and in the future. I suppose this approaches Christlike love.

    As not-on-this-thread commented in #5, “If you feel like killing yourself, tell someone about it. A friend, a doctor, a suicide prevention line, a family member – someone. Reach out. There are people who care.” And their caring for you can bring the same surprise I had: not just freedom from pain and desire to end it all, but JOY in my life. I’m still surprised by it these years later.

  12. This is . . . a very important subject, and one that is . . . has been a major part of my life, this year.

    I kind of call it the suicidal summer, but it did not end with the summer. The bouts are more infrequent, now, and as we adjust the meds I hope they go away entirely.

    I do not need to prove to anyone that I am ill, and I also do not hear voices in my head, but I have had the urge and thoughts to kill myself, come from out of nowhere, for no reason, on days when I was rather happy (and not manic; I’ve actually been so euphoric, so happy in that state, I could die, as well). You have your conscious thoughts, that you direct yourself, and then the types of thoughts that just pop into your head, that you did not invite in. These urges and thoughts, kinda puzzled me because I was like where’s this coming from?

    Anyway, I have experienced so many different angles of feeling suicidal, that I am unfortunately all too familiar with it.

    Five weeks ago, I attempted to cut my wrist open.

    I didn’t get very far. And I told my psychologist as soon as I got ahold of him.

    Be assured, I am under the care of a psychiatrist and psychologist.

    Still, I have little to no one as a support system, which is partly why I end up in some difficult states, but one can’t wish up a support system, friends and such, from thin air.

    I have a post that I wrote recently about feeling so isolated in the church. Friends vs. family. And their roles in one’s life, in the church.

    I actually ended up in the ER from a suicide attempt, 10 years ago, a month before I met my future husband.

    Anyway, I’m fighting as hard as I can, although it is as an addiction; suicidal ideation can become addictive. I’m NOT going to accept having those thoughts and urges for the rest of my life, though, as, sadly, a person in a support group I went to twice was told she’d never be rid of such things. Anyway, I’m FIGHTING. And still here.

    And I have no desire, whatsoever, to kill myself.

    Although, I must say, my state of mind could shift drastically at any moment. It isn’t just my moods that shift; the very state of mind in which I base the way I interact with the world, the basis for my decisions, can shift in the blink of an eye, it seems; it then invalidates many of the decisions and interactions I had made in the previous state of mind. It is like having the rug pulled out from under you, over, and over, and over.

    It sucks.

    Anyway. I went over that last, because while I now have no desire to commit suicide, I am “sore afraid” as the scriptures would put it, of experiencing that state of mind and emotions again. And, I don’t know that I have any control over that shifting, but I AM learning things in therapy that are helpful to cling to in the storm.

    I had a very good therapy session today, in fact.

    And have been so bouyed by the thought that my descriptions might help someone, somewhere, possibly understand a little bit more about what it is like . . . that would be my hope, anyway.

    I felt inspired to post certain things over on a recent thread at A Bird’s Eye View, here. As it turned out, there may have been someone who needed what I had to say, and I am just so humbled and grateful that I could have possibly been of assistance to anyone. If I can use my suffering to be of help to anyone else, it makes it a little easier to endure. Anyway, I try to convey helpful descriptions and things, but I dunno if I have. Still, I appreciate the welcome I’ve felt here in the ‘naccle, and that people will read and listen and comment, and stuff.

  13. I want to add something to the wonderful things people have said here. Sometimes there are no illusions at all about the effect one’s suicide will have on one’s loved ones, but in the face of truly unbearable pain, it can be a trade-off one feels one has to make. It’s too bad for them, and one knows they will be deeply affected for life, and yet, there seems no other way to end the excruciating agony. It’s certainly true that friends and family grow deeply tired of sharing the sufferings of a loved one, and their concern and care can become exhausted. So in some sense it will be a relief to them, one feels, along with the undeniable pain.

    One source of healing in the midst of mental agony is the connection one feels with Christ in Gethsemane. If one understands that in some secret unspoken way, one’s suffering is somehow relieving others, relieving Christ of some tiny bit of the pain of the Atonement (which is ongoing because it pervades all the time and space that is the universe), or sharing it with him, then there’s a lifeline there. We bear one another’s burdens that they may become light. When one imagines or sees that one’s suffering is a gift given in order to spare another, one’s anguish grows instantly less. It can become almost a sort of painful joy. I do not understand these things, but they are true. I have lived them.

  14. My struggles with post-partum depression too me to some really horrible places. I never went so far as to attempt suicide, but it was certainly in my thoughts.

    It’s so strange to be on one level totally consumed by pain and horrible thoughts I couldn’t control, thoughts I couldn’t stop, couldn’t avoid, couldn’t escape. And yet on another level, to know that this was not me, that I was in there, trapped. That the happy reasonable side of me existed somewhere just below the surface if only I could find her again. And then the fear that I would lose myself completely, because if I had lost myself to this degree, what was to stop me from disappearing altogether? And this crazy, obsessed, unhappy, unreasonable, fragile, frightening thing to take over.

    I escaped that fate. But it so easy now for me to see how that could happen.

    I’m so glad we are starting to understand these things better, and I’m so glad the dialogue is opening up to these issues. Best of luck with your book. I think you should pursue it further.

  15. 13
    …pondering Tatiana’s 2nd paragraph — it pulls together feelings and thoughts I’ve walked around in for awhile — I’ll have something to say later…

    Lisa’s 2nd paragraph is the opposite of my past. I had always been alone and feared that joining with people would cause me to disappear because I largely defined myself by what was unique. I had this image/dream/vision of myself lifting away from the earth and about to break free of it’s/people’s pull and finally soaring out into space where I would be free of all the world’s pain and confusion, out there in *empty* space.

    Fortunately, loving intervention opened my heart before I found a literal way to leave this world and the people in it. I hope now to help others find the peace and relief and healing and joy and calm and love I found.

  16. #1 Seth, the book is published and available on-line, or you can call that organization. It was hard to get it published, it was even harder to market. Even my little bookstore in town, which gets asked to order it all the time, will not stock it.

    Jonathan, we have to talk, really. I’ll be in touch in a week or two. Margie is one of my favorite people. I’m fairly certain I am one of hers, as well. I just cracked myself up, as I often do your aunt.

    Manean, Sarebear, Tatiana–me, too. Although I am not beyond my feelings. Just better than I was. There’s a saying, “I ain’t what I should be, ain’t what I could be, but praise God, I ain’t what I used to be.”

    Eric, Tom, sometimes I’ve felt such self-hatred, I’ve thought I would be doing the world a favor. Sometimes my emotional pain has been so unbearable. The “vision” I experienced negates the action I might take on that feeling, because now I know I will feel worse. If I didn’t have a testimony, I’d be so out of here.

    Sometimes I’m just so very tired.

    The strange predicament of being suicidal and dealing with the terrible anguish of losing a child to suicide creates some real emotional knots at times.
    Thanks, Ronan, thanks, you all, for your kindness and tact.

  17. Last year we lost quite a few students at UVSC to suicide. check out this article to learn more:

  18. Tom, thanks for the nomination. I agree that my vague comments probably do little good. I have actually begun writing down my thoughts on the issue, but I’m already over ten pages and I’m not even halfway through. Instead of submitting a guest post, I’m thinking of doing some more research and submitting it to the Archipelago E-Journal.

    By the way, Ronan, is there a first issue coming out any time soon?

  19. Eric,
    We’re still in set-up phase. We would welcome a submission at Archipelago.

  20. May the God of love, in whatever guise, bless all of us.

  21. Jonathan, I talked to Margie the other day. If you send me your e-mail, I’ll write you. Me and Margie are buds.

  22. Anon for this topic says:

    I just needed to tell someone–even anonymously. Last night my wife was hospitalized so she would survive through Christmas. The saddest part (for me) was the she was more worried about ruining my Christmas than she was about her own safety.

  23. I’m so sorry. God bless you.

  24. Anon,
    Our prayers are with you.

  25. Anon for this topic says:

    Thank you. This series has been a godsend.

  26. Thoughts and prayers with you, Anon. From a sometimes suicidal person, this may sound scary, but I COMPLETELY understand, since I have myself had the feelings of, “But I don’t want to ruin their birthday, holiday, day off, etc.”

    It’s one example of how skewed the thinking gets, if THAT is the main concern about killing oneself. I am sorry to say I understand her thinking there all too well.

    And it was very helpful to me to see YOUR view of it. How it would be in reality, from the spouse’s point of view, instead of from my own skewed (when in that state) point of view.

    Hugs, and prayers, for you both and your family.

  27. Anon for this topic says:

    We finally got the insurance company to pay for my wife’s going to a hospital that specializes in her diagnosis. I spent about 45 minutes Thursday talking with the caseworker. By the time we were through, the caseworker was asking for the phone number of the hospital.

    The drive was about 14 hours, including stops for lunch, potty breaks, etc. But that was probably the best 14 hours we have had together for a long time. We really used the time to talk, and she finally gave me useful suggestions for things I could to to support her. We both have a long way to go, but that drive brought us much closer together. The program is usually between 2-4 weeks. She was so worried about ruining Christmas, but what really happened was we got a much better shot at a better New Year than we have had for a long time.

  28. I am so glad to hear that. I hope all goes well.

    On a personal note, I myself was somewhat suicidal tonight.

    Sometimes, silly though this may sound, the littlest of things, the silliest of things, can break through when nothing else can.

    Tea posted a comment on my blog, and swore like @$%#$% left and right, cartoon style. So, in an effort to further remove myself from the dangerous mood, I declared today Cartoon Swearing day, @#$@# it. So I apologize in advance, but I’m going to be @#$@# and %$%^$ and even (shockingly) $%^$%&* wherever I may happen to post and comment, today.

    And I invite others to do the same (would help me feel less silly, and possibly feel a connection with others that might be helpful, but ONLY if you want to; I wouldn’t want you to feel like you HAD to because I was in a dangerous mood; participate at your own @#$@#$ risk. It’s #$%#$$% contagious! Infectious, rather.)

    So. If cartoon swearing therapy is what I need today, so be it, @#$# it all to #$%#$%.

    This is working for ME, right now, at any rate. Wierd how the tiniest of things can make the biggest difference. I think possibly it may have been Tea’s expression of anger, on my behalf, saying beat this if only to not let the %#$%$ win, that really, really touched me.

    Thanks, Tea. @#$@# you. Teehee! I mean that fondly . . .

    For the rest of you who just can’t understand my silliness today, or who think I’m juvenile or whatnot, well, yeah, I often am, but . . . what the @#$%. Hee.

  29. Oh, and just to make sure people know, I am under the care of a psychologist and psychiatrist, and I told the former tonight of my feelings and situation.

  30. Anonymous, I really hope things work out for you guys.

    I’ve experienced emotional ups and downs, many connected with my son’s death, and I think it’s very hard on my husband.

    Sarebear, cussing doesn’t get my frustrations out because I cuss all the time. I have found sobbing hysterically for hours makes me feel better.

  31. Anon for this topic says:

    Thank you for your wishes. We haven’t been in our new hometown very long, and so don’t have any real friends yet. The Bloggernacle is as close to friends that I feel right now, and I think things are starting to look up for the first time in a long time. Even though it has been hard, I can see that we have been led to this point.

    Very early yesterday morning, my wife woke up from another nightmare, and when the staff at the psychiatric hospital she is in couldn’t calm her down, they sent for an ambulance. Chest x-rays in the ER found fluid around her heart–more than likely congestive heart failure. She is now in one of the finest hospitals in the country, getting world-class health care, care that she could not have gotten in either our new hometown or our old one. I am one of those who believes that coincidences are miracles in which God wants to keep anonymous. This has been one for us.

  32. Anon for this topic says:

    I know this thread is dead, but I figure if I put this out there, I’ll be able to get this off my chest and I’ll feel a little better.

    For weeks we had been looking forward to my wife coming back home this weekend. She is still too suicidal to come home, and, because of the demands of the insurance company, the hospital is going to have to play games by transferring her to a different ward to show change, if not progress. We are still waiting until she comes home to have Christmas. I’m getting worn out waiting.

  33. Jay Baadsgaard says:

    After my son’s horrible experience with side effects from antidepressants for anxiety, we found out that he is hypoglycemic. Hypoglycemia can cause depression and anxiety. I would expect high hypoglycemia among my sugar eating fellow saints. Diabetes (hyperglycemia) is ramant and so is hypoglycemia. Take a look at and scroll through the article index. Even other drugs can cause deppression. It’s been wonderful seeing the change in my whole family without drugs and less sugar in our lifes.

    Jay Baadsgaard
    Washington State Director for ICFDA


  1. […] A mother is quoted as saying, “But I cannot deny that the culture of high expectations this belief system generates around itself can be so deadly to its youth.” This anecdotal but understandable concern is not supported by data from the studies cited. The second half of the article has a nice survey of official LDS concerns on this sensitive topic and some of the measures that have been taken in recent years to educate local leaders about depression and suicide.For an interesting Bloggernacle discussion on this topic, see BCC’s Mormons and Mental Illness. […]