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Expert challenges Utah to make suicide "everybody's business."

Published April 15, 2013 12:33 pm

Mental health • Utah embarking on plan to combat state's high suicide rate.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Melanie Puorto-Conte took the job as New York's suicide prevention director, she faced cutbacks and could have targeted resources to those most at risk.

Instead, she spent her $1.5 million budget casting a "zero suicide" net across the state's entire population of 8.2 million by making suicide "everybody's business." The strategy worked, reducing the state's suicide rate by 10 percent from 2009 to 2012.

"We need to make suicide prevention, everybody's business," she told hundreds of mental health professionals at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Monday. "Whether you're here today professionally or personally, you can help save lives."

Puorto-Conte's remarks at the Generations Mental Health Conference come just as Utah embarks on an effort to tackle its disproportionately high suicide rate — 10th highest in the nation in 2010.

The number of suicides in Utah has almost doubled over seven years. In 2005, there were 350 suicides in Utah; preliminary state Department of Health data shows 540 suicides in 2012.

It's a long standing problem shared by other western states and past efforts to combat it, from task forces to awareness campaigns, have failed to move the needle.

Utah doesn't have a suicide prevention budget, said Doug Thomas, director of the state's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. But lawmakers this year funded two statewide prevention coordinators; one at the state Office of Education and another within Thomas' division.

The coordinators will be hired this summer. Thomas said the plan, following New York's lead, is to have them embed suicide prevention in the community by training teachers, youth group leaders, clergy, police and family doctors how to spot the warning signs, and what to do about it.

"Suicide is one of the most preventable forms of death," but mental health and substance abuse professionals can't shoulder the work alone, said Puorto-Conte.

Puorto-Conte was touched by suicide at the age of five when she walked in on her grandmother's attempt to hang herself. Her 20-year-old stepson also lives with suicidal thoughts and mental illness, she said.

Today, she sleeps with her cell phone under her pillow in case she gets an email from someone in crisis.

One of the first things she did in New York was take the $1 million the state spent on a splashy ad campaign and invest it in training to deputize community leaders to be suicide police.

"Research shows billboards are just that. They give you all the facts, but don't go deep enough or tell you how to save lives," she said.

Today she oversees a corps of hundreds of trainers.

They teach grief counselors research-backed tools for consoling school children in the wake of youth suicides. They urge primary care doctors to avoid automatically hospitalizing patients, a decade-long practice that frightens many from seeking care, Puorto-Conte said.

And they work with hospital psych wards on better discharge planning. Hospital staff generally review medications and arrange follow-up therapy visits, but rarely address underlying problems with patients, often sending them back into the environment that made them sad in the first place, she said.

"We need to educate all levels of community on how to identify and refer friends and loved ones to community resources."

kstewart@sltrib.com

Suicide in Utah

In 2010, Utah had the 10th highest rate of suicide in the nation.

Males had higher rates than females in every age group.

Men, 50-54 years of age, have the highest occurrences.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-17.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Source: Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health