There is no template for teens at risk for suicide, according to a Latter-day Saint Apostle.
Youths at risk may play the trombone, sing in the choir, compete on soccer teams or bag groceries after school. Some regularly attend church. Others have set aside religion.
But there are common threads, said Elder Ronald A. Rasband in his sober, yet hopeful, message to Church Educational System employees, missionaries and their spouses.
Those threads might include disappointment, a botched quiz, a break up, a string of bullying, academic stress or perhaps what can aptly be called adolescent misery.
But never forget, divine assistance and ministering is found through the Savior.
“A greater understanding of Jesus Christ will help those who are spiraling down,” said Elder Rasband, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “His love for them and the profound and exalted place He has prepared for them in the eternities is a message of hope. He loves them. They need to know that.
“The scripture states, ‘I the Lord am with you, and will stand by you,’” (Doctrine and Covenants 68:6).
The Church, he emphasized, takes teen suicide seriously. Seminary and institute teachers can help those at risk by utilizing love and the many Church-provided suicide-prevention resources. In doing so, they further fulfill their calling as “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2).
Elder Rasband began his “An Evening with a General Authority” address — which was broadcast live from the Salt Lake Tabernacle at Church headquarters to a global audience — by noting the “life-changing” influence CES instructors have had on his own life.
“To this day I can see my teachers’ imprint on how I study the scriptures and, in particular, how much I love the Book of Mormon.”
Seminary and institute also offered young Ronald Rasband “a safe place” to hang out with friends gathered together in a gospel setting. “I particularly looked forward to taking Melanie Twitchell to the institute dances. Melanie is now my beautiful, wonderful wife.”
The Lord continues to look for those who can help a student who struggles or perhaps is declining in testimony and understanding.
“He has prepared you to step forward in teamwork with parents and Church leaders. You stand before your students and reaffirm the truth that Jesus Christ lives, that our Father in Heaven loves each one of us, and that we have a place in His eternal plan. And best of all, you believe it.”
The weight of lifting, teaching and encouraging youth can be almost more than one can bear. Bringing souls to Christ can be hard — and the adversary is aggressively targeting those of the rising generation.
“Some students get derailed, but with the Spirit of the Lord, you can help put them back on track,” he said. “Remember the words of Paul: ‘We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed,’ ” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
Never forget, the “cause of Christ” beckons with an everlasting promise: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The Lord lifts His servants, telling them to be of “good cheer.”
“To be of good cheer is to trust Him when things don’t work as we planned,” he said. “It means to soldier on when difficult twists take us in unexpected directions, when tragedy and hardship shatter our dreams.”
Elder Rasband acknowledged that his days as a student in seminary were unburdened by today’s internet content that can undercut beliefs in God, religion, revelation and prophets.
Additionally, many of today’s seminary and institute students have had their lives overtaken by stress, temptation, crisis and disappointment.
Students fear not being accepted by friends. They fear academic performance, pressures and problems at home they can’t solve. They fear they can trust no one — and no one trusts them. They fear being alone, and fear being in groups. They fear there is no solution or relief to their pain.
Discouragement, despair, anxiety and depression are all products of such fears.
“Fear in its many forms is manifest unfortunately in the cruelest of conclusions — suicide,” he said.
Elder Rasband spoke of serving on the Utah governor’s task force that is charged with addressing the surge in teen suicide. It has proven to be a daunting responsibility.
“I have learned no one is immune,” he said. “Teen suicide is a crisis reaching all around the world. Statistics show that suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among youth ages 15 to 24.”
Everyone must face the issue of suicide, he said.
“As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we must commit to do everything we can to reshape the thinking that suicide is an answer, a response worth considering. We must talk to teens about suicide and love them out of considering suicide as a solution to their pain.”
Start by following the example of the Savior, who rescues through the Atonement and continues to love and heal His loved ones.
“We can express love if that is what youth need; find them a friend, listen to them, and seek them out with a kind word or gesture. We may need to work with their parents and bishops to get counseling services for struggles, depression, or another mental illness.”
Youth and young single adults who struggle with gender issues are particularly vulnerable, he added.
“They need to be encircled in the arms of their Savior and know they are loved. So often the Lord calls on us; He expects us to be His welcoming, loving arms. We need to encourage their friends to do the same.”
Hope in Christ
Suicide is often connected to the pain of unanswered questions, sorrows, griefs, what-ifs and what-nows, he said. Suicide levels have reached such tragic proportions that people much reach out in new and more effective ways to counsel, care for and support vulnerable youth.
“Try just saying the name ‘Jesus Christ’ in a perilous setting with one who has lost hope. Just calling upon Him by name, with reverence, can make a difference in a difficult moment.”
Elder Rasband also warned of suicide “clusters,” where one teen takes his or her own life and others see it as an option and follow.
The Lord’s sustaining promise to “stand by you” is not reserved for those “who are squeaky clean” or hold a seat on the seminary council.
“He will stand by each one of our youth, each one of us for that matter, in our darkest hour. That is the power of the Atonement, and we need to teach it with such force that it reaches those who are suffering.”
Elder Rasband counseled seminary and institute teachers to help their students identify a “protection scripture” that they can call upon whenever they are in a perilous situation or in need of strength. “ ‘Be of good cheer, and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you’ is a good one.”
Be of good cheer
Life has always been filled with challenges and no one is immune. Trials come to all — they are part of the mortal experience to make one strong.
“The blessing is that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ we can still be of good cheer,” he said.
Teachers should ensure that academic rigor or gospel instruction never “get in front” of the power of the Spirit to touch and encourage students. Prepare them to receive inspiration and personal revelation — and then act upon it.
“When they do, they will experience the miracle of the Lord’s direction and guidance, a very real form of His love,” he said.
Seminary and institute teachers are in the corps of “first responders” for young people at risk and, tragically, believe life has no purpose for them.
Life is fragile and uncertain. Homes that practice family prayer, scripture study and family home evening offer precious tools for young people.
But Elder Rasband warned that even youth who come from gospel-centered homes might be at risk. “One young man responded to a family home evening activity that asked each member to write down one thing that was important to them. The 14-year-old, seemingly on top of his world, wrote, ‘To know there is someone there for me.’”
Gospel teaching in seminary and institute is especially vital for those students without a gospel support network at home.
“They may be the ones who privately ask a question just to engage in further gospel discussion because it is the only time they have that spiritual connection in their day. Treasure those opportunities, and make time for them.”
Throughout time, Christ has unceasingly demonstrated His love for all.
“He will be with us, He will comfort us, and He will heal us if we come to Him and draw upon His power to save us,” said Elder Rasband. “Most often He heals the wounded heart. How does it happen, we ask? By the power of the Atonement exercised in our lives today, not at the end before the final judgment, but every day as we seek to be like Him, to love what He loves, to follow His chosen prophets.”
Like the angel that comforted the Savior during the unfathomable pain of Gethsemane, the Lord’s teachers can be angels of comfort for those in their charge.
Elder Rasband challenged seminary and institute teachers to help students know of God’s love while developing an understanding of the Atonement. Encourage them to find joy and purpose by serving others and serving in the temple.
“Encourage your students to always hold a temple recommend … and then to share their feelings about being in the temple, the revelation and inspiration that comes as they reach beyond this life ‘for the things of a better’ serving those who cannot do the ordinances for themselves.”
Elder Rasband then shared a hope-driven teaching from the Church’s presiding Apostle, President Russell M. Nelson: “When the focus of our lives is on God’s plan of salvation … and Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening — or not happening — in our lives.”
Christ’s influence, impact and reach are all encompassing. “He loves us in our brightest and our darkest hours,” he said.
Sustaining power also comes each week by renewing sacred covenants and partaking of the sacrament. “Let the blessing of the sacrament, to ‘always have His Spirit to be with us’, be something you talk about so that drawing upon the healing power of Jesus Christ, through His Atonement, is real.”
Elder Rasband concluded with an apostolic witness and reminder of the Savior’s loving power to lift and heal all who are in need.
“Jesus Christ is always the answer. In understanding His mission and His gospel, our love for Him, and our belief in and reliance on Him gives us strength.”
Elder Kim B. Clark, a General Authority Seventy and Commissioner of Church Education, introduced Elder Rasband and made brief remarks.