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Op-ed: Misuse of Utah suicide data makes it harder to address

First Published      Last Updated Feb 07 2016 07:44 pm

Reported suicides among LGBTQ youth in Utah have received increased attention over the past few weeks. Because every suicide is a heartbreaking tragedy, increased understanding regarding contributing factors is needed in order to prevent future deaths. Unfortunately, some recent commentaries have misconstrued available facts.

Some may not realize that Utah belongs to the so-called "suicide belt" along the Intermountain Corridor. Suicide rates throughout this region are considerably higher than anywhere else in the country save Alaska, where rates are more than double the national average. Within this geographical context, Utah is not unique with regards to suicide.

Thus far, identifying the cause of this regional phenomenon remains elusive. Other regions with high rates of religiosity and availability of guns do not show similar patterns of suicide. Some research has suggested that lowered oxygen availability at higher altitudes affects brain chemistry in ways that increase vulnerability for depression and suicide, but this is not likely the only factor, and this and other possible causes are still being explored.




Surveys have shown that LGBTQ adolescents nationwide have a heightened suicide risk. Recent anonymous reports suggest that LGBTQ youth in predominantly LDS cultures have an increased risk beyond that. These reports contradict data from the Utah Department of Health, calling into question their validity, but the reality of the suffering of these youth still needs to be addressed.

The "silent stories" series published by an unofficial, off-campus group of students at Brigham Young University provides detailed information about individual cases of discrimination, depression, and suicidality experienced throughout their lives. While shame and guilt are associated with talking about these topics, such willingness to share these stories publicly can help make the topic a more urgent concern in the community.

An important question is how to use data collected from individual case reports to develop to a broader understanding of and solution to the problem. Experts recommend adding a place for information regarding sexuality concerns to suicide reports in the National Violent Death Reporting System administered by the Centers for Disease Control. I encourage Utah to embrace such recommendations.

Increased awareness of the problem can help all members of society "to reach out in an active, caring way to all, especially to youth who feel estranged or isolated" (LDS Church statement of Jan. 28). Family support and acceptance is critical for preventing depression and suicide in LGBTQ youth. (See, for example, guidelines from the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, including materials especially for LDS families). All youth should be made aware of existing, confidential community resources for those with questions about sexuality. Media are encouraged to follow responsible reporting guidelines that do not spread suicide contagion.

In 2014 the Utah Legislature reduced roadblocks regarding privacy concerns so school personnel can more easily approach youth who may be considering suicide, and school-based programs such as Hope 4 Utah have shown success at reducing suicide in teens.

Research conducted in Canadian schools indicates that explicit policies and education about homophobia, including active formation of gay-straight alliance groups in schools, decreases suicide risk for all students. Such efforts could be built into existing prevention programs in Utah.

Suicide is a major health concern for all youth in Utah, and may be a particular concern for LGBTQ youth. Recent misuse of suicide data in Utah for political purposes makes discussions about this topic more difficult. Such conversations should rely on verified information and address the hard questions about emotional and cultural experiences related to depression and suicide.

Mikle South is an associate professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University and lives in Orem. His views are not intended to represent the views of BYU or the LDS Church.

 

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