Mental Health

Arm Wrestling for Our Lives

by Rev . Katherine Katsanis-Semel

Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide and depression

As our collective consciousness was recently focused on the themes of depression, suicide and suicide prevention, I wish to express what many of us in our community know: LGBTQ+ people are at an increased risk for dying by suicide. Along the same lines: Here’s my story of self-destruction, spiritual obedience and renewal, which I share with the intention of inspiring others to also break down stigma. As we speak up and share out, we collectively dissolve stigma related to mental health, mental illness and everything in between. Additionally, I wish to instill hope in those who have experienced a suicide attempt and/or an aborted suicide attempt. Recovery is possible.


Raised in a family that was immersed in a conservative, faith-based culture, I struggled with many secret questions related to my sexual orientation. Ironically, it didn’t help that my gender identity and expression were about as cisgender as it gets…I looked like the other girls; why couldn’t I truly be like them? An ongoing life narrative of almost belonging (yet not quite belonging), emerged and took shape. From the ages of 18 to 20, I arm wrestled for my life – barely sleeping, often not eating, struggling day in and day out – with depression. Finally, feeling worn down from the fight against a cognitive distortion that told me I was a burden to my family, I started giving in. Little by little, I stopped fighting as hard. I incrementally stopped using my boxing gloves. Didn’t want them anymore, especially since I was never asked if I wanted them in the first place. Soon after, I was sent home from my college of choice on a “mental health leave,” with my academic mentor trusting that downtime would help me to regain perspective.

In a disturbing crescendo of events, I found myself very much alone a few months post my 20th birthday. This was prior to “coming out” to loved ones, and prior to even fully coming out to myself. With my will to fight still wearing thin and a shroud of stigma clouding my internal vision, I experienced an aborted suicide attempt. What in the world is that? “An aborted attempt” is a clinical term that means that a person took concrete steps to end their life, and then took steps to reverse any damage done. In my case, I took action to self-harm (an unusual move for me, as growing up I wasn’t one to self-harm), and as I was about to go further, I changed course.

What made me stop? I heard that “still, small voice” – that I identify as God’s voice – speak to me. Yes, folks, I heard it. (And that’s part of why I love God to the best of my ability to this day.) When I heard “the voice,” it wasn’t an instruction coming from the outside, which could have been an auditory hallucination. Rather, the message consisted of personal words coming from within me; the words were calmer than my swirling emotions. These unforgettable words prompted me to stop hurting myself.

Generally, when I heard from God in the past, it came after engaging in prayer – what I call “contemplation time.” However, on that unique day, I wasn’t in a prayerful state – to say the least; yet, God knew I was in a vulnerable state and God demonstrated mercy. To this day, I consider hearing “the voice” at that moment a huge outpouring of mercy. And although it wasn’t the result of prayer work in that moment, perhaps it was the fruit of a young life steeped in prayer since my earliest years. I’ve heard of cases where God intervened when someone was about to die before their time, so I don’t think I’m special. I do believe that God generally speaks to those whom he knows will be receptive. And God knew I would be receptive. His interjection didn’t violate the law of free will, which he honors. Most of the time, it’s: “Ask and ye shall receive.” This time, it was: “Act and I’ll set you free.” Honestly, this phenomenon was and is mysterious. I didn’t talk about it for years because I felt guilty. I felt guilty that others finding themselves in the same place as I’d been in hadn’t heard “the voice,” and went through with the suicidal act. I won’t pretend to understand it, yet I cannot conceal what happened to me any longer.

In the moment after hearing from God, I was immediately receptive. I stopped poisoning myself,  called for help and went to the bathroom to throw up as much of the poison as I could. I still needed to be rushed to the emergency room, where I spent time getting my stomach pumped and rehabilitating. It was a nightmare which I’m committed to never repeat. The wonderful outcome is that due to God’s grace, paired with my efforts in both secular and pastoral counseling, I haven’t wrestled with suicidal ideation since then.

As I came out and came of age in the LGBTQ+ community, I learned that I was not alone with my struggles. I wish that I was more alone in this regard, yet that’s just not true. According to the Trevor Project, “LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.” ( Statistics related to suicidality and transgender youth are often more devastating. The self-loathing that led to my experience of circumstantial, major depressive disorder is still common among our youth. We’ve seen recently how wrestling for our lives is too common in both the LGBTQ+ community and society in general. Irrespective of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression, suicide is a real issue for so many. Depression, regardless of its causes, hurts and if left untreated, it can be deadly.

On a victorious note, last year I trained to become a suicide prevention and intervention specialist. I offer free Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) classes, as an aspect of my work with the Suicide Prevention Council (in the County of San Diego). QPR Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention is an evidence-based, nationally recognized curriculum, which instructs class participants in how to look for suicide warning signs and appropriately intervene. Now, I reach out to the public; I offer these classes as part of a secular ministry geared toward being pro-living. Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum and irrespective of how we feel about women’s reproductive rights, we can all agree on preserving the life that’s already walking, living and breathing among us.

During these tumultuous times, let’s nip what therapists call “suicide contagion” in the bud. Let’s write, post, chat and otherwise speak out about mental illness and its repercussions in our communities. Part of that mobilization might include inviting a speaker who specializes in suicide prevention to your place of worship or community center, such as a Pride Resource Center at your local university. Perhaps consider training to become a QPR instructor yourself!  Part of generating the true spirit of Pride is keeping ourselves and our vulnerable community safe. For more details, visit

If you or a loved one is considering suicide, please reach out to the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Your life is worth the fight. 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Photo by: Broo_am (Andy B)

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Comments (1)

Valerie Nash

Thank you for writing this. I

Thank you for writing this. I’m neither religious or LGBTQ but your message and call to action resonate with me, as I hope they will others. Keep up the great work. 

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