When Brian Bresee became a father, he was a sixth-generation Mormon who believed that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a good faith tradition and environment in which to raise children. But when his 14-year-old son took his own life, Brian began to scrutinize the church’s teachings and practices. It was a journey that led him to a painful realization about the role the Mormon church played in his son’s death and perhaps the deaths of other LDS teens.
A NOTE FROM THE CHILD-FRIENDLY FAITH PROJECT:
In Utah, the leading cause of death among youths aged 10 to 17 is suicide. What’s more, Utah’s teen suicide rate increased by an average of nearly 23% each year from 2011 to 2015—nearly 4 times the national rate for that same period. In total, 150 youths took their own lives during that 5-year period. In 2018, Utah’s governor launched a task force to study the problem.
Given that nearly 70% of Utah’s population is made up of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Child-Friendly Faith Project has begun examining whether there is a connection between Utah’s unusually high teen suicide rate and the teachings and practices of the LDS Church. (Two other states with large Mormon populations, Idaho and Wyoming, also have teen suicide rates that far exceed the national average.)
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control published a report (see p. 38-9) on the Utah spike which showed:
Of victims’ cases in which there was documentation of the teens’ religiosity, 40.4% (59) were considered to be religious. Of those teens, 81.4% (48) were affiliated with the LDS Church. Perhaps more meaningful, of the more than half of the victims’ families who were identified as religious, 84.5% (71) were affiliated with the LDS Church.
We arrived at more answers in getting to know a father whose 14-year-old son had become one of those statistics. In 2014, Brian Bresee, a sixth-generation Mormon, learned that his son Samuel had killed himself. Brian lives in Nevada, the 4th-largest Mormon-populated state. Because LDS teachings are universal, the culture in which Brian grew up and in which he raised his son mirrors what exists in Utah.
Samuel’s death led Brian on a grief-stricken, unrelenting search to learn just what had driven Samuel to take his own life. When Brian started, he didn’t know what answers he would find. What he eventually learned turned out to be a truth that was difficult for him to accept—that the teachings and practices of his Mormon Church had, indeed, played a significant role in Samuel’s suicide.
Having just passed the fifth anniversary of Samuel’s death, we are honored to have Brian Bresee as a guest blogger. In this post, he writes about his path of discovery of what every Mormon parent, and anyone who cares about children, should know.
The homophobic teachings of the Mormon church killed my son
“Your son has died” were the words that changed my life forever. On that day, June 9th, 2014, from the time I heard them spoken by the emergency room doctor, I started on a painful journey to understand the reasons why Samuel, at the age of 14, had decided to take his own life.
My grief was beyond imagination. It filled my soul, as I asked, “Why . . . WHY?” For several years, I lay in bed for hours each day asking that haunting question.
I so badly wanted it to come down to one simple answer so that I could lay my beloved son to rest in my heart. Ultimately, my search—which would entail untold hours of researching just about everything that is known about teen suicide—would reveal that it’s a complex issue. I learned that when a person takes his or her own life, there are usually multiple contributing factors.
But I also came to understand that not all contributing factors are weighted the same. Some can be much more damaging to an individual’s mental health than others. By the time I finally came to grips with my son’s choice to end his own life, I learned that one contributing factor rose above the rest—one that, at first, was extremely difficult for me to accept.
What I learned was this: More than anything else, what led my young Samuel to choose suicide was the teachings and policies of our church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Growing up Mormon
As a sixth-generation Mormon, the LDS Church had been a big part of my life as a child and an adult. Yes, there were times when I had doubts about the church’s doctrines and policies, but I was willing to overlook them, as I had long believed in its strong emphasis on family bonds and “clean living.”
While I was a young father, I was a Cub Scout and Boy Scout leader, a responsibility that’s bestowed on certain adults who have been “called,” according to LDS policy. (Until recently, the church had adopted the Boy Scouts of America as its youth program for boys.) When my wife and I got married, I had no doubt that we would raise our children in the church and our family would benefit from LDS teachings.
And so coming to the conclusion that those teachings had significantly contributed to the death of my son did not bring the peace I desperately sought. On the contrary, it brought me further trauma and pain that culminated in me leaving the church.
My son was a cheerful, helpful child who could often make us laugh. He was a thoughtful kid, and he and I had many in-depth conversations over the years. He was also conscientious; it was second nature to him to make friends with children who appeared friendless.
Samuel’s good nature led to his fellow classmates electing him Sixth Grade Representative in a landslide over three other candidates. Throughout his childhood, Samuel showed no signs of mental illness or instability, although he occasionally experienced anxiety.
Around the time Samuel turned twelve, however, I noticed a change in his demeanor. It was subtle but concerning. This change occurred after he had participated in his first “worthiness interview.”
This practice involves church bishops meeting with children alone—some of whom are as young as 8 years old—and asking personal and inappropriate questions about sexuality, sexual identity, and masturbation. (Recently, the LDS church began to allow children’s parents to attend worthiness interviews but before that, the details of what was said wasn’t shared with the children’s parents.) Children are expected to undergo a series of these interviews over the course of their upbringing. Children who answer questions according to the bishop’s satisfaction are permitted to fully participate in church activities such as taking the sacrament, priesthood duties, temple work, and church dances.
For LDS teens, undergoing the worthiness interview is fraught with peril. Those who fail it are exposed as ‘unworthy’ when denied participation and risk being looked down upon by the congregation and mocked by their peers. All told, Samuel had at least four worthiness interviews which could have involved him talking to up to 9 different men about his sexual thoughts and activities.
Before the first interview took place, Samuel had been fairly comfortable talking about sex, but afterward, he became unusually troubled and grew increasingly evasive when the subject of sex arose. (Looking back on it, it’s hard to believe that I and so many other parents allowed our children to take part in such an inappropriate and creepy ritual. But, at the time, I was unable to see that the worthiness interviews could have been harmful.)
Then, two years later, I noticed a dramatic and disturbing change in Samuel’s behavior. In fact, I can pinpoint the very day that things took a turn for the worse. It was the afternoon of February 27, 2014, a few months before he died.
Joy turns to tragedy
In January, we had moved to a different neighborhood in our hometown of Las Vegas, and, as required by the LDS Church, we started attending the nearest Mormon “ward” or congregation. On that afternoon in February, Samuel and I were outside and noticed two boys his age playing street hockey about six houses away. I suggested he go and make some new friends, which he did.
The three of them had a great time, and so, later that day, when it was time for Samuel to go to a Boy Scouts meeting at our new church, I suggested he invite his new friends. The two boys weren’t Mormon but I still thought they might enjoy the activities. As the three boys rode off on their bikes towards the church, I could see a definite joy that comes with new friendship fill their faces.
But when Samuel returned home a few hours later, he told me that things had not gone well at the Scouts meeting. He said upon their arrival, one of the boys he had brought with him (I’ll call him Mark) became terrified and stood behind Samuel as if he were afraid of being spotted. When I asked Samuel why Mark did this, he said he didn’t know.
About a month later, we learned from Samuel that Mark was talking about wanting to kill himself. Samuel wanted to help Mark and our whole family joined in on the effort. We loved all kids and were concerned for Mark’s wellbeing. We reached out to Mark many times, asking him if he wanted to come with us to lunch or grab a soda at the store.
But Mark wasn’t the only one who changed for the worse after the Scouts meeting. I noticed that Samuel was becoming more and more withdrawn. He was no longer his usual open and cheerful self and showed no interest in doing the things he loved, such as riding bikes or playing outside.
At first, I chalked it up to him going through the typical changes of most teenagers. But as time went on, Samuel further isolated himself from his friends and family. When home, he spent most of his time in his room, where he’d lie on his bed and play video games or chat online with friends. I asked him why he didn’t want to go outside and play with his friends. ”I just don’t want to,” is all he would say. This seemed unhealthy to me, and so I began to curtail the number of hours he spent on his computer.
I noticed another big change: Weeks before he died, Samuel told me he wanted to stop going to church. Having no idea what pain lay behind this request, I responded with a lecture. I explained to him that parenting was a process of slowly letting go, where I made fewer decisions for him and he made more for himself the older he became. I told him that he would have to wait one year, when he would turn 15, to decide whether to continue to attend church.
Samuel was also reluctant to go to Scouts. One day, his mother Theresa dropped him off. When she returned, he was waiting outside and told her he had not gone in because he had a headache.
This change in demeanor concerned both Theresa and me. About two weeks before he died, I had a long conversation with Samuel. I asked him if anything was the matter, if I was doing anything wrong as a father, and apologized if that were the case. I told him that I hoped he would trust me enough to tell me if he was struggling with something. But he remained evasive, refusing to acknowledge that anything was wrong.
I was confused. Why was my son, with whom I had previously had such an open relationship, shutting down? I didn’t know how to break through to him, and, most tragically, I had no idea just how little time I had left to figure this out.
I was at work when the dreadful call came from my wife. “Samuel shot himself in the head,” she said with a tear-filled wailing in her voice. I lost all strength in my legs and fell to the ground. After I managed to stand up, I frantically raced to the hospital, consumed with feelings of fear, hope, and confusion as I replayed Theresa’s words in my head. When I arrived at the hospital, I was told to wait outside the emergency room.
My mind raced from thoughts of Samuel dying from a gunshot wound to what it would mean for him if he survived it. I wondered how our family could recover from either scenario.
Then a doctor came out and told me that Samuel was gone.
My search for truth begins
I was immersed in grief upon learning that Samuel had taken his own life, and yet that question of why? gripped me intensely and immediately. From the night of his death until early the next morning, I searched the internet for possible reasons.
What I learned was shocking and enlightening. I learned that there is a connection between teen suicides and worthiness interviews. Apparently, these “masturbation interviews,” as some critics call them, often result in shaming which is corrosive to the mental health of children.
The next day, I questioned family members for clues. My brother informed me that Samuel had said something to him about problems with other boys at church. After the funeral, my wife Theresa met with the two boys Samuel had brought to Scouts that afternoon in February. She learned that, when all three had arrived at the meeting, some boys there mocked them.
We paid a private investigator to comb through Samuel’s computer, and Theresa and I continued to question boys Samuel knew. Meanwhile, I continued researching the subject of teen suicide and one of the most prevalent risk factors—bullying. I was reminded of past incidents of boys acting aggressively toward other boys at church and how these incidents had troubled me. I wondered if the LDS Church had a bullying awareness and prevention policy. When I asked the church leader who supervises the bishops, he told me there was none.
A bullying epidemic
We learned a great deal of what our son had been through from Mark, the boy Samuel had befriended soon after we had moved to the new neighborhood. Mark told us that, prior to meeting Samuel, he had been mercilessly bullied by boys at school and much of that bullying was homophobic in nature. (Mark was frequently called “faggot.”) When Mark, Samuel, and the other neighbor arrived at the Scouts meeting, all three were made fun of by a boy who was there. Then Mark saw one of his bullies and became terrified, which explains why he hid behind Samuel.
Tragically for Samuel, he became a target by association for having brought Mark to the Scouts meeting and remaining friends with him. It wouldn’t be long before Mark’s bullies and other boys would mock and haze my son and start calling him “faggot” at church.
I would later understand that the church environment surrounding the issue of homosexuality is severely toxic. So much so that when children hear a child being called “faggot,” they will shun the victim to avoid also being targeted. And so Samuel wasn’t only being victimized by his abusers, he was also ostracized from most of the other children.
Like an unstoppable virus, the homophobic allegations spread to Samuel’s school, where many Mormon kids attended, including some of Samuel’s bullies from church. Soon, children at school were verbally assaulting Samuel with the words “faggot” and “gay” and on a social media website.
To protect himself, Samuel had to do something that went against his nature. The day before he died, the two boys he had brought to Scouts on the day they played street hockey were waiting for him at our house after church. These boys loved Samuel. To them, he was the coolest kid in the neighborhood. But Samuel ignored them and walked past them through the front door.
As the months went by, I steadily gathered more information that helped explain my son’s death. One source turned out to be quite surprising to me and the most painful—it was Samuel himself.
A victim speaks in life and in death
As I was uncovering new information about my son’s suicide, I remained intensely focused on my goal: to understand what Samuel had been thinking and feeling in the weeks leading up to his death.
I was able to find some answers from his online activities. The private investigator we had hired showed up chat logs of conversations Samuel had had with people he knew and met online. It turns out that, during all those hours he spent on his computer, he wasn’t just chatting with friends but also strangers.
Samuel had left behind a suicide note. In it, he included login information for his computer and two chat groups with a request to his brother to let his “once friends” know what had happened. With that information, we discovered that Samuel had been visiting two chat rooms. Even though they were both on websites for children, they often were not emotionally safe. In one, he communicated with people his age whom he knew in the real world. Here, he played video games but would also be the target of bullying and homophobic slurs. The other chat room was a more mature space in which children (and sometimes adults who infiltrated) talked about God, religion, and sexual topics.
A careful study of chats in the second group showed a definite shift in how Samuel talked about church. Before all this started, he wasn’t crazy about church but he never complained about it, either. In early chat logs, Samuel consistently talked positively about church and religion and even defended them when he was challenged about their benefits.
“‘[Religion] takes away a negitive [sic] energy anywhere you are. So yes there still should be religion,” he wrote to one online correspondent about a year before his death.
But within weeks after the bullying started, Samuel’s view of church became darker and darker. In one chat, he wrote to an online friend, “You were with me. My church tore me down [so] much to [where] it is a lot easier for me to give up on the church.”
He talked about how other Mormon kids looked down on him because he didn’t appear pious enough. On June 8, the day before Samuel died, he wrote, “Most of the Mormon youth treat you like crap unless you read the scriptures every day and night, pray every day and night, be like them every day and night.”
But Samuel’s chat logs show that most of the mistreatment was of a homophobic nature.
“I didn’t know you were gay bro : o,” wrote one.
“I know what you like,” in another. ”8==============D “(penis).
To which Samuel responds, “Girls. Not guys….”
A Revealing Suicide Note
Samuel’s suicide note was written on three index cards and spoke directly to how he had been harmed at church. In handwriting that was uncharacteristically sloppy and erratic for Samuel, he let out feelings of anger he had been suppressing for some time. Some of his comments were directed to Theresa and me.
“I have been in depression for almost a whole year. And you have made it worse,” he wrote. “I now feel it is time to put my depression to an end, thanks to religion and Brian and Theresa.”
I had never heard Samuel address his mother and me as anything other than “Mom” and “Dad.” Addressing us by our first names seemed to be his way of punishing us, his parents who had required him to participate in church activities he was now telling us deeply hurt him.
Samuel also had harsh words for the LDS church, as well as his bishop and a 14-year-old boy who was president of Samuel’s Mormon youth group. (The president was also one of the original bullies from that first Scouts meeting.)
My heart ached with unimaginable guilt knowing that Theresa and I had forced Samuel to do the very things that brought him anguish, such as making him go to church and attend Scout meetings. Add to that, we had previously subjected him to the worthiness interviews that we now believe negatively affected his self-esteem.
Our actions were done out of ignorance. However, such an explanation is not an excuse, but a condemnation. They were carried out without scrutiny, as Theresa and I simply followed along with what most LDS parents did and internally justified our decisions by assuring ourselves that we were fulfilling our church-mandated parental goals of “clean living,” a strong family, and the promise that, one day, we all would be “together forever” in the afterlife.
Connecting homophobia and teen suicide
I began my deep dive into researching the issue of teen suicide, by reading every story of teen suicide I could find. I soon discovered that there is a strong connection between homophobia and teen suicide. In fact, in about half of the stories I read, the bullying of males was of a homophobic nature with bullies commonly calling them “faggot.” (Many female victims were also called homophobic slurs, although the most common bullying they experienced had more to do with accusations of promiscuity, and so they were commonly called “slut” or “whore.”)
The statistics relating to LGBTQ+ teen suicides in the U.S. appear to affirm my theory:
- LGBTQ+ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost 3 times the rate of heterosexual youth.
- LGBTQ+ youth are almost 5 times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
- Each episode of LGBTQ+ victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.
- Suicide attempts by LGBTQ+ youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires medical treatment, compared to their straight peers.
- LGBTQ+ youth who come from highly rejecting families are more than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGBTQ+ peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
Once I realized this connection, I had to face a startling truth: that the church of my upbringing—the faith that seemed to have defined my family going back generations—had been, and continues to, embrace homophobic messaging that has led to the emotional abuse, bullying, and suicide of its young people.
A church trafficks in homophobia and other forms of shaming
For generations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has prided itself on being “pro-family.” It considers children to have been sent by God to be taken care of by parents who love them. But, in fact, the church’s “love” is conditional, for when it comes to LGBTQ+ children, the church historically has turned a cold shoulder to them and promoted a hate-filled, toxic culture throughout the world.
This toxic culture is one that I remember well growing up. As a young child, I was taught that homosexuals were Sodomites whose sins were so great, God destroyed their city. I was taught that homosexuality was a choice and God did not make “mistakes” at birth.
In his now infamous 1976 sermon nicknamed “The Little Factory Talk,” Mormon Apostle Boyd K. Packer preached that masturbation was a habit that can leave the child “feeling depressed and feeling guilty” and “is not pleasing to the Lord.” Furthermore, Packer proclaimed, masturbation can lead to homosexuality.
On the subject of homosexuality, Packer stated that the idea that people are born gay is “a malicious and destructive lie” and “of the devil. . . . There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits. Boys are to become men—masculine, manly men—ultimately to become husbands and fathers. No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers.” Packer even implied that boys and men should respond to a gay person who makes them uncomfortable by resorting to violence.
The sermon was published by the LDS Church in 1980 as a 14-page pamphlet entitled “To Young Men Only,” and it was required reading for males aged 12 to 18. For years, those words were drilled into me at church (and into my son, too, for that matter). The pamphlet was taken out of circulation in 2016 (two years after Samuel died), but by that time, its language, along with worthiness interviews, had done great damage to the psyches of boys around the world. Some suffered from feelings of shame and self-hatred, engaging in self-harm, agonizing about suicide, and, as in the case of my son, fulfilling that desire to make the agony go away, permanently.
The LDS Church goes so far as to imply that young people should choose suicide rather than engage in homosexuality, as well as other “sins” such as sexual acts outside of marriage, masturbation, and the viewing of pornography. Violating these rules, the church proclaims, is a sin “next to murder.” Going back decades, church leaders have held true to the mantra, “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean.” In fact, one of the first online articles I read hours after Samuel’s passing was one about a 16-year-old boy named Kip Eliason who killed himself in 1982 to be rid of guilt and shame tied to him having masturbated. Kip wrote in his suicide note: “The strange feeling of darkness and self-hate overpowers all my defenses.”
The homophobic teachings in the LDS Church, however, haven’t stopped with just what is said to children. When I turned twenty-five and was about to be married, I was given to read “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a 1995 statement that defines the church’s official position on family, marriage, gender roles, and human sexuality. The church makes clear that love between two people of the same sex isn’t godly, as it states that “marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.”
Given this history of homophobia, it was no surprise to Mormons when, in 2008, the church became a vocal and staunch proponent of Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage. As recently as 2015, the church continued its aggression against the LGBTQ+ community by forbidding children of same-sex couples from being baptized and partaking in other church rites, which I and many others believe contributed to an uptick in Utah teen suicides in recent years.
A cycle of abuse and shame
There is no doubt in my mind that when a powerful church whips up a cocktail of guilt and shame that’s deeply rooted in homophobic teachings, all children—even those who aren’t gay—are at grave risk for being bullied and possibly suicide. Once I realized the shame-homophobia-bullying-suicide connection, I came to understand with precise clarity just how the LDS Church had severely damaged my son’s mental health to the point that he would go through with suicide and his friend Mark seriously considered it.
Homophobic bullying is one type of damaging fallout as a result of this shame. Used as a “go to” means that young people wield to gain control over others, victims are made to feel sinful and powerless. Becoming a target may have nothing to do with whether a child is actually gay. In fact, I believe Samuel was straight since he showed an interest in girls.
For bullying victims like my son, the homophobic teachings of the LDS church can be fatal, not only because of the bullying that they generate but because they leave victims vulnerable and unprepared when the abuse occurs. It’s no wonder that Samuel, who had grown up in this Mormon culture of homophobia and shame, felt that he couldn’t have turned to me, a church leader, or anyone else in our Mormon community for comfort or support. Instead, his embarrassment to discuss his homophobic abuse left him to suffer in silence.
The anti-LGBTQ+ teachings, as well as the sexually explicit “worthiness” interviews, have the effect of controlling and shaming children rather than improving their wellbeing and feelings of self-worth. In fact, these influences (which are not evidence-based) have been criticized by mental health professionals from both outside and inside the Mormon community as inappropriate and harmful. Critics point out that most, if not all, bishops who conduct worthiness interviews have had no training in child development or psychology and put children at risk by failing to “do no harm,” one of the American Psychological Association’s general principles.
Rather than build up children and empower them to be the best human beings they can be, these influences in the LDS church foster a toxic culture that tears down the mental health of young people and their connectedness with the people they love.
From the abusive and inappropriate interviews to its homophobic teachings the church all but ensures that Mormon children throughout the world are, tragically, consumed with shame and self-loathing. And then when they become parents, they pass on those destructive and unhealthy feelings to their offspring.
A father’s repentance
The Mormon church’s indoctrination of frenzied homophobia formed my young mind to think of gay people as depraved and evil. As a teen, I never called anyone “faggot” but I laughed when others did. I have never been directly unkind to a gay person, but I sneered at them in private. I called Ellen DeGeneres “Ellen Degenerate.”
But during the years as Samuel was reaching adolescence, I had begun a very slow process of unlearning those toxic teachings. I had made clear to my family that it’s wrong to call someone “faggot” or outing people as gay before they had a chance to make that public themselves. Sadly, my awareness had not developed enough to be able to offer Samuel safety when he desperately needed it.
The truth is that, even while Samuel was being victimized, I still harbored some of the church’s beliefs about homosexuals. I am tormented by the fact that, had I been further along with my own growth as a parent and human being, Samuel likely would have opened up to me, and I might have been able to ask better questions to save him from going down that dark path.
But I also know that if my son and I had grown up in a loving and affirming church community, one that embraced people for who they are rather than filling them with shame and self-loathing, everything—my sense of wellbeing, our family relationships, and my son’s mental health—would have been better. Much better.
I know that if we had been part of a church that instead focused on protecting children from abuse, neither Mark nor my son would have suffered their homophobic bullying, Mark wouldn’t have had suicidal thoughts and Samuel would be alive today.
A painful lesson for the church
Recently, the LDS Church has been making minuscule strides toward gaining more awareness of LGBTQ+ and sexuality-based shaming issues. For example, Mormon leaders today acknowledge that some people are indeed born with same-sex attraction, a dramatic reversal from their previous position that people choose homosexuality as a perversion. Just last month, LDS church leaders, after having faced intense pressure from LDS church members, reversed its 2015 policy that prohibited children of same-sex parents from being baptized.
That said, the church still refuses to validate same-sex marriages and maintains a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuality. That is, homosexuals who aren’t closeted are prohibited from participating in temple rites of the church. This prohibition is extremely harmful to the mental health of LDS LGBTQ+ people and their loved ones—which includes heterosexuals—since Mormons believe that they can only remain as a family in the next life through the LDS Temple rite of ‘Sealing’.
Church leaders are hesitant to reverse previous decisions and make them more LGBTQ+-friendly because doing so would contradict the church’s commonly stated assertion that an LDS prophet is infallible. This fallacy was established as early as 1890 when Wilford Woodruff declared that “the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray.” It’s a declaration that church leaders continue to use today as a way to manipulate congregants into doing what they’re told.
Pulling aside the curtain and exposing the truth—that church leaders have frequently made decisions that were not only poorly thought out but harmful to congregants—would have financial repercussions for the church. Not only would it likely lose tithe-paying members who resist change, but it would also risk being sued since changing a policy could be perceived as an admission that the old ways were harmful.
Finding healing in advocacy and a nurturing faith community
It took four years following Samuel’s death for me to finally start to make sense of my suffocating grief and faith crisis. A parent never gets over the death his or her child, especially when the child died of suicide. But I am starting to live again, thanks to the support I received from my parents and friends. It has also been cathartic to become an advocate and teach others about issues related to LDS teachings, bullying, and teen suicide.
On May 23, 2016, I formally left the LDS Church and later joined a faith community that respects the worth of all persons and has fully embraced every member of my family, regardless of where each of us is on our faith journey. Six months after Samuel died, my wife Theresa founded The Stop It Foundation which aims to reduce teen suicide and support families whose lives have been impacted by it. Once I had had sufficient time to focus on my emotional healing, I joined her in that advocacy effort.
Mark misses Samuel but he is no longer a victim of bullying. After Samuel died, Mark’s bullies immediately stopped abusing him. One of Samuel’s abusers, currently on his LDS Mission, recently sent me a private Facebook message in which he acknowledged the dangers of his actions and asked for my family to forgive him. On behalf of the Bresee family, I told him we had forgiven him. After all, his mistakes were made in juvenile ignorance and his views had been formed by the LDS church in which he was raised.
The powerful leaders of the LDS Church, on the other hand, see the damage that their policies cause and yet express no regret or remorse. In 2015, LDS President Dallin H. Oaks refused to apologize for the church’s homophobic rhetoric. “We look forward, not backward,” he said. The church doesn’t “seek apologies,” Oaks added, “and we don’t give them.”
But while church leaders defend the church at all costs, I now see that I, a parent who has lost a child who was at the mercy of LDS teachings, must do all I can to oppose those harmful practices.
Prior to Samuel taking his life, I had failed to see how this powerful institution had impacted my life, our family, and my son’s mental health, but Samuel’s death got me to see how the church’s teachings and policies have been, and continue to be, poisonous. Meanwhile, its leaders are still willfully negligent in failing to adopt bullying awareness policies, do away with worthiness interviews, and end discrimination against LGBTQ+ members.
Remarkably, despite all what he had been through, Samuel, at the age of fourteen, knew just what we all were up against. One line in his suicide note struck me more than any other. Amidst his anger and pain, Samuel’s conscientious side seemed to peek through. It was a simple piece of advice for Theresa and me, written in the margin as if it was his final, departing thought:
“It would be best to leave the church.”
To learn more about bullying and teen suicide, please visit these websites:
Stop Bullying (US Health & Human Services)
Watch Brian’s Facebook live video here.