With youth suicides at ‘epidemic proportions,’ Utah panel calls for expanding mental-health support, outreach and encouraging more gun locks

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Val Potter, R-Logan, is joined by Deserae Turner as they release 25 doves on the front steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, representing the number of attempts for every suicide death. Turner, a Utah teenage girl who survived being shot in the head by two boys was there to bring attention to bullying and its connection to suicide.

Utah needs to expand programs to identify and help young people exhibiting mental health issues that could lead to suicide, a panel convened by Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday — including wider use of a mobile app that lets youths report suicidal feelings.

“We know it’s at epidemic proportions for our young people,” Herbert said Tuesday of youth suicide, at a news conference at the Utah Capitol. “And the challenge we face is: What can we do to make it better?”

Formed last month in light of the surge in youth suicides in the state, Herbert’s 14-member task force acknowledged in a report that it lacked enough time to fully study the issue. The members wrote they have “not reviewed every program available” in Utah, “nor attempted to brainstorm new approaches.”

Instead, they said they hoped to identify existing “off-the-shelf” programs that may make a difference. Key among their recommendations were better training for health care workers; expanding use of outreach teams targeting those in mental-health crises; and wider use of SafeUT, a mobile app deployed two years ago for young people to report mental health issues in themselves or friends.

Herbert, meanwhile, said the group of community, religious and mental-health leaders will continue to meet. But now, he said, they will have a wider mission to develop prevention recommendations on all suicides in Utah.

The Republican governor announced the task force Jan. 17, after 2017 numbers emerged showing Utah youth suicides had spiked again — to a preliminary 42 — after dipping slightly in 2016. The Republican governor had set a deadline of Feb. 15 for the group to deliver its report.

“I appreciate the work of the task force,” Herbert said Tuesday, “and I will take their work to analyze it with our senior staff.” The governor said he would also consult with legislative leaders on new laws and spending items that might work in tandem with the panel’s recommendations.

After Tuesday’s announcement, officials set free 25 doves from the Capitol steps, meant to represent the roughly 25 people who attempt suicide for every suicide death.

Herbert’s task force met four times in the past month, including a final meeting Thursday. The group is led by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who has made suicide a legislative priority, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who has shared accounts of his own suicidal thoughts during a difficult time as a youth.

Details on the task force recommendations include:

• Expanding use of the SafeUT app, a mobile application for young people to report mental health or other behaviors they are experiencing or may observe in their peers, or chat confidentially with crisis counselors based at the University of Utah. Officials said they hoped to see the app rolled out on the state’s college campuses — and would ensure that all school districts in the state were pushing its use.

According to recent U. data, there are a monthly average of 819 tips and 1,493 chats with counselors through the app. The majority of tips dealt with bullying and suicide, and to a lesser degree, with depression, forms of self-harm such as cutting, and illicit drugs. Eliason also said Tuesday officials have received more than 60 tips related to some form of school violence via the app.

• Encouraging health care institutions to adopt a “Zero Suicide” framework, with training for all health workers in how to identify those at risk for suicide — and how to respond.

• Expanding the number of of Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams. They are essentially a “mental health ambulance” service, managed by officials at the U., which can respond to a person’s home and help in a crisis, Eliason said. He said the service is currently centered on Salt Lake County; the task force recommends expanding the teams statewide.

Panel members also said they would continue to push the distribution of gun locks and safes as a way to reduce a leading risk factor for suicide, as part of the ongoing “Is Your Safety On?” public awareness campaign. About half the youth suicides in Utah last year were carried out using a firearm.

The group also urged the Utah Board of Education to include more training on coping skills for teens as part of standard health instruction. And panel members said they were encouraged by the promise of peer-to-peer mental health outreach programs in place in some Utah schools, such as Hope Squads.

“Too many youth die after some sort of crisis has occurred in their life,” Eliason said, “and if they were to better understand that this is temporary, that there are ways to cope with this, and that life will get better, we know that can help so many of them.”

The Sandy Republican has introduced House Bill 370 this session that would make data collection easier on those who have died by suicide, and mandate schools to put in place youth suicide prevention training programs in classes. The bill would also set up a fund to collect suicide prevention grants from local governments and the state, along with private groups.

Other recommendations by the task force — including funding of the mobile crisis teams statewide — likely will also be included in a new version of HB370, Eliason said in an interview.

Task force member Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, an LGBTQ rights group, said he and fellow members “realized early on we couldn’t accomplish everything we needed,” considering the tight deadline.

But Williams said he was encouraged that the task force’s work would continue, and he plans to keep the spotlight on the vulnerability of LGBTQ people for mental health issues and suicide — including with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Another member of the task force is Mormon apostle Ronald A. Rasband.

“It’s important that we’re having this dialogue together,” Williams said. “The more that we can sit down together, open up and share each other’s experiences is truly critical.”

When the task force first met, officials began their work at a “very educational level,” explaining the data and trends to some members, said Kim Myers, who is suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services. But that drew more influential voices into the discussion — such as Rasband and Gail Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz.

“You bring in additional leadership, hopefully additional resources, and then you sort of widen the audience — who you’re talking to about [youth suicide],” she said. “I think that’s a positive thing.”

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, did not participate in the task force, but joined Herbert and other officials at the Tuesday announcement, mentioning legislation he is pushing to create a national 3-digit number — similar to 911 — to prevent suicide. Hatch, a seven-term Republican, called youth suicide “one of the most critical issues facing our country and our state.”

Hatch said it is important to remind children “how much they matter, how much we love them, how much they mean to all of us.”

“Teenagers face unimaginable pressures and challenges in this day and age,” he added. “We have to fight back against bullying, we have to promote love and understanding. And above all, we have to care.”

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide. Those who want a gun lock to secure their firearms can email gunlocksUT@gmail.com.