Utah Lt. Gov. Cox tells of his own brushes with suicide — and urges others to speak out on the subject

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox in the Utah Capitol Rotunda, as seen on February, 14, 2018. Cox posted a poignant essay on Sunday on his own struggles as with suicidal thoughts as a youth — hoping, he said, to spark a conversation on the topic.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox wants you to talk about the state’s suicide problem — even if it makes you uncomfortable.

In an essay posted Sunday on the online publishing site Medium, Cox said about two years ago he realized he needed to share his own story, despite an uneasiness he felt about the subject.

The 42-year-old lieutenant governor had gone to a suicide prevention meeting in Tremonton, he recalled, planning to demonstrate a general knowledge and concern about the subject.

Instead, as recounted in a Standard-Examiner article about the event, Cox spilled his own story publicly for the first time: How his parents divorced when he was 10. How he was bullied in middle school. How he began pondering “what it would be like if I wasn’t here anymore” — and how he would pull it off.

Cox said he had never revisited those “dark times” before that “life-changing” night in 2016. But it felt like the right thing to do, he said, and he drove home and talked about suicide with his teenage boys, too.

“I learned that we simply need to talk about it more, ” Cox wrote.

So he shared the same story again last month, at a high-profile event announcing the formation of a Gov. Gary Herbert-appointed task force to study youth suicide. Cox is co-leading the panel, which last week released recommendations on steps to combat the problem.

Utah’s youth suicide rate has recently grown at an annual rate almost four times faster than the rest of the nation. With the task force issuing its report on youth trends, Herbert has now assigned the group to study suicide in other age groups; Utah’s overall suicide rate is the fifth highest in the country.

The lieutenant governor even talks about suicide when student groups visit his office during Capitol tours.

“They don’t expect it,” Cox wrote on Medium. “And it’s a little uncomfortable at first. And until recently, I’ve wondered if I should do it. But then something happened.”

One time, after he gave his suicide talk recently, a middle-school girl gave Cox a hug. She whispered in his ear, “Thank you for talking about suicide. I’ve been thinking about if for a long time, and I needed to hear you say that today.”

Cox now says he’s going to continue talking about suicide, and he urges other Utahns to do the same.

The Republican from Fairview also urged families to lock up their guns; about half the youth suicides in Utah last year were carried out with a firearm. And Cox reminded young people to download the SafeUT mobile app, which lets them report suicidal behavior or chat with a therapist.

The Medium post garnered a widespread reaction on social media, including many people sharing their own intimate stories of suicide.

One woman said she planned to discuss the issue with her teenage girls. A man talked of his dad killing himself. Another mentioned a brother, while still another spoke of a son who attempted it.

One man mentioned he had a story about suicidal thoughts himself, not so different from the one Cox tells about his childhood. “These conversations are so needed,” the man wrote on Twitter.

“I’m so glad you made it through the dark times,” Cox replied.

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.