Lawmaker’s personal tale of son’s suicide helps propel bill
HB501 • The measure would provide training for Utah teachers.
Published: March 2, 2012 06:28PM
Updated: March 2, 2012 11:41PM
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Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, speaks publicly for the first time about the suicide of his son as he calls for support of HB501, providing prevention training for teachers. The bill passed 65-4.

Not a day goes by without Rep. Mark Wheatley thinking about his son’s suicide. He thinks about the pain. The anguish. The what-could’ve-beens.

So when he spoke on the House floor Friday — at times barely able to keep his composure — in support of a bill that would require teachers to get an additional two hours of training to recognize suicidal tendencies among youths, the lawmakers sat and listened raptly.

Wheatley’s mind went back to Dec. 1, 2009.

“I’d received a call at 1:14 from my wife, who told me my son was in the hospital with a faint heartbeat,” Wheatley said. “I don’t even remember leaving the Capitol. I just remember going to the University of Utah Hospital, and I arrived too late. My son was already gone.”

Wheatley still isn’t completely sure why. He said he was depressed. He’d lost his job. His marriage was suffering. Wheatley pored through his son’s MySpace account searching for answers.

He lost his composure when he came across an entry that said his son’s hero was, in fact, his dad.

His son was 29.

So when Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, proposed HB501, Wheatley co-sponsored it and — with the addition of his powerful testimony — helped get it passed 65-4 and sent to the Senate. The action came just one day after the House narrowly passed HB420, requiring school districts to offer annual seminars for parents on substance abuse, bullying, Internet safety and mental health.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said that before Wheatley spoke, there were a lot of lights on her board for lawmakers who wanted to speak. When he was finished, all of the lights were dark, she said.

Utah ranks ninth in the nation for suicides, according to a University of Utah study. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 24 — exceeded only by traffic accidents, according to the Utah Department of Health.

“Has it escalated into one of the biggest problems that we have with our youth in the state?” Hutchings asked. “Yes, it has.”

The measure will fold the training into teachers’ and administrators’ regular training when their licenses are renewed.

But not everyone felt the Legislature should be mandating the training.

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said it was overreaching by the state.

“So, if accidents are the leading cause of death, shall we not require school districts and the school board to provide training to prepare our teachers to deal with those inevitable losses?” Nielson asked. “The state school board and elected body and local school boards ... have the responsibility and authority, and we should respect that.”

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said there was a funeral happening Friday for a student who had killed himself, and he pleaded with the House to pass the proposal.

But it was Wheatley’s words — the first time he had ever spoken publicly about his son’s suicide — that echoed through the chamber.

“One’s heart never heals when you lose a child,” he said.

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero