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The most important — and difficult — thing to do is deliver this hard question: Are you having thoughts of suicide?

But it must be asked, insists Rachel Peterson, co-founder of LGBTQ Youth Continuum of Care.

"The first time you ask someone this, it will be scary," she says. "The fear is that you are putting an idea in their head, but, almost always, they are already having those thoughts."

Peterson offered this advice during volunteer training for Operation Safety Net, a new initiative aimed at preventing suicides among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.

What volunteers shouldn't do, adds Peterson, a counselor and researcher with expertise in LGBT youth homelessness, is minimize or dismiss the seriousness of someone's feelings.

"Don't say, 'Your life is not that bad,' 'You don't mean that' or 'Things could be worse,' " she says. "Acknowledge what they are feeling."

Tackling the issue of LGBT youth suicide is complicated and daunting, but it's a problem that needs attention in Utah and elsewhere, says Marian Edmonds-Allen, who shares Continuum director duties with Peterson.

After all, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and LGBT youths are four times more likely than their straight peers to attempt it.

In Utah, the numbers are equally — some say even more — dire. Health department data show suicide rates among the state's youths have nearly tripled since 2007. It is now the leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 17, more than double the national rate.

Officials don't know why these rates are climbing, but LGBT activists have long pointed to Utah's conservative religious climate as a contributing factor. While suicides among gay Mormon youths certainly occur, no state or national agency tracks those numbers.

Operation Safety Net grew from the heartbreak of those deaths.

During one week in late June, eight Utah youths who were reportedly gay or transgender with ties to the LDS community took their own lives. That news was widely shared on social media sites, prompting outrage and calls for solutions from scores of observers, many of whom have criticized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since November, when the faith unveiled a policy that labeled married gay members apostates and generally barred their children from baptism until they reach age 18.

"So many people are saying, 'What can we do?' " Edmonds-Allen says, "so we decided we needed to give them something."

Private talk, public action • Among those demanding action was Tyler Glenn, the Mormon-raised, gay singer from the band Neon Trees. He denounced the policy in a July 5 video posted on Facebook, challenged LDS leaders to reverse course and urged them to publicly embrace gay Mormons. "Your church is literally bleeding," Glenn said through tears after showing pictures of two young Utah men who took their own lives. "Their blood is on your hands. Please make a space for your gay members."

Critics have accused the faith's leaders of not doing enough to welcome LGBT members and help them feel safe. But, based on her conversations with LDS insiders, Edmonds-Allen believes Mormon higher-ups are worried about gay members.

"There are conversations that are happening now," she says, "that were not happening before."

In a statement, church spokeswoman Kristen Howey reiterates that LDS leaders see every soul as precious and believe suicide is tragic in every circumstance.

"Our hearts ache for those who face such a tragedy among those they love," Howey says. "The church is actively pursuing ways to help, including online resources and local leader training, and we encourage communities to continue to partner on prevention and intervention."

Operation Safety Net is making such an effort. Launched with a Facebook post, it aims to weave a web of volunteers in Utah and elsewhere who can connect LGBTQ youths or their families with services and support.

The response, Edmonds-Allen says, has been overwhelming.

Within days, hundreds had filled out volunteer forms. To date, individuals in 35 states and seven countries, including Argentina, China, Mexico and South Africa, have signed on.

"There are so many people that really care," says Edmonds-Allen, who is a minister and a former executive director of the Utah Pride Center. "They are just leaping at the chance to help."

The group's rolls, she says, include a "mix of active members, long-ago members, people who have resigned [their church membership] since November and a handful of never-Mormon folks."

The idea builds on a volunteer network Edmonds-Allen and others began assembling in 2012 to combat homelessness among gay and transgender youths.

About 5,000 kids end up on Utah's streets annually, she says, and the network, which led to the founding of the Utah County-based nonprofit Continuum, has helped many of them get housing and other aid.

Operation Safety Net will train volunteers to perform a variety of jobs, including answering hotline calls and making referrals to counseling, crisis help or support groups. They also can serve as "buddies" who spend time with kids or their families.

The volunteers will be supplied with state, local and national resource information — from groups such as GLSEN, the Trevor Project and San Francisco State University's Family Acceptance Project — so they can provide educational assistance to families, schools or religious groups about specific issues and challenges.

For example, research shows gay and transgender youths are over eight times more likely to attempt suicide if they experience "highly rejecting" behavior, including being excluded from family activities or physical or emotional abuse. LGBTQ kids also experience higher rates of homelessness, bullying and school setbacks, according to Operation Safety Net training materials.

Utah training events began July 25, the day the state celebrated the arrival of the Mormon pioneers, with about a dozen people attending the first session at an Ogden-area library and another 50 or so participating via a live internet feed.

The program is being funded, Edmonds-Allen says, through a recent $10,000 donation to Continuum by a Utah businesswoman.

Training eventually will be available on Continuum's website, as will handout materials and short videos from experts in mental health, education and other fields — all targeting their information to the needs of LGBTQ youths and their families.

'What it means to be a gay Mormon' • Dorothy Milne has signed up to volunteer from her home in Johannesburg. A grandmother and a Mormon convert with a gay granddaughter, Milne says she left the faith in the fall over the policy and is devastated by the loss of young people.

"Teenagers have a hard enough time getting through teenage angst," she writes in an email. "Being gay sometimes becomes the dumping point for the ignorant, poorly informed and bigoted members of the church and the community. I thought, if [suicide] is happening over there, where this church culture originated, it must be happening here."

Milne plans to participate in the remote training and then investigate the level of need in her city. She hopes to reach out to lay LDS leaders, pastors from other denominations and support groups.

"I would like to be a safe place insofar as I can," she says. "Even if it's just a sympathetic ear."

Brian Jensen hopes to provide similar outreach in Southern California.

Jensen says he understands how emotionally complicated and isolating it can be for individuals and families to wrestle with the disconnect between faith and sexual orientation. His own life was upended when he came out three years ago; he left his marriage, his job at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and Utah three years ago to restart his life in his mid-30s.

Finding resources and support that include an understanding of Jensen's core Mormon values has been difficult away from the Beehive State, and that cultural awareness is vital, he says, especially for those trying to hold on to their "Mormon roots, but also understand who [they] are what it means to be a gay Mormon."

Jensen contacted support resources near his Long Beach home to see what services they offer.

"I'm sure they have an understanding of religion in general," he says. "But to specifically understand the cultural aspects of Mormonism? I wouldn't think so — so I hope to be a resource on their lists."

As a parent who watched her gay daughter curl up in the fetal position with anxiety over church, Shauna Sorensen Jones believes the network could provide a critical lifeline for Mormon families.

"People are looking for resources," says the Boise-area mother, who has signed up to volunteer. "The church is woefully lacking in resources."

Jones' daughter, Annie, came out to her family three years ago and publicly last fall after the church policy was announced. Annie and her father resigned their membership. Shauna Jones and her younger two children remain in the faith, she says, although it's not always easy.

"A lot of people say, 'If you can stay, if you can make it work, you should, because the church needs safe people.' " says Jones, who belongs to Mama Dragons, an LGBT support group for Mormon families.

The need for Operation Safety Net was underscored by the string of suicides in June, which Jones says hit close to home.

One of the teen boys who took his own life in June — a 17-year-old from Davis County — was a friend of Annie, and the loss has taken an emotional toll.

"My kid has struggled with feeling worthy or feeling like life is worth living," Jones says. "So having a support system [for LGBT youths] is critical to their survival."

How to help and get help

• For more information or to volunteer with Operation Safety Net, go to http://www.lgbtqyouth.org/operation-safety-net">http://www.lgbtqyouth.org/operation-safety-net.

• The Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 800-273-8255.

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