Jude Husselbee: I lost my brother to suicide. Utah must do better for its LGBTQ+ community.

Editor’s note • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for 24-hour support.

On April 24, 2010, PJ Husselbee completed suicide. He was 20 years old, a return missionary, a “Lord of the Rings” fanatic and my older brother. Six months after he died, I found out that he was gay. I had no clue. He played football in high school and made chain mail suits for fun. He was nothing like the stereotypes I saw on TV.

Before he died, PJ had told less than a handful of people this secret that filled him with so much pain that he felt his only option was suicide.

The suicide rate in Utah is consistently higher than the rest of the country. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021 was the first year that Utah has not ranked in the top 10 states with the highest suicide rates for nearly 20 years. In a state where the suicide rate is consistently above the national average, the risk for LGBTQ+ folks is even higher.

So what do we do? In the face of such overwhelming numbers that quantify the pain of so many people, how do we help?

The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition released their Utah LGBTQ+ Suicide Prevention Plan in 2020 with concrete goals and objectives to decrease the rates of LGBTQ+ suicide in Utah. One goal, “Increase social norms supportive of help-seeking and recovery in the LGBTQ+ community”, would have helped people like my brother so much.

The objective includes promoting training on warning signs for people in the LGBTQ+ community and promoting social norms of acceptance and inclusivity. Few people knew that PJ was gay, and even fewer knew that he was suffering.

As a 28-year-old mental health professional, I look back on my 14-year-old memories of the day before he died and can see red flags in his behavior and temperament. He was cleaning out his room and giving away his belongings. He spent weeks cycling rapidly back and forth between being overly excited and uncharacteristically quiet and subdued. If even one person in his life had been trained to see the warning signs, then maybe I would still have my brother today.

I try not to blame my parents, or his friends, or his church leaders — because they didn’t know. None of us did. We were ignorant, and we paid for it dearly. Until the public at large starts taking suicide seriously and learning the warning signs, we will continue to pay for it.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please dial 988 for the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. If you are LGBTQ+ and need someone to talk to, you can call the Trevor Project Suicide Hotline 1-866-488-7386.

Jude Husselbee

Jude Husselbee is a southern Utah native and a current master of social work graduate student at the University of Utah.