For Jamie Lopez, Saturday’s youth suicide prevention conference was a very personal event. She was there with her 13-year-old daughter, who has “made recent attempts” to take her own life.
“She had a lot to say because she disagrees with some of what they had to say,” Lopez said. “But she said she really appreciates everything they’re doing here.
“And there are a lot of other kids we should be concerned about. My 13-year-old had an 11-year-old friend that committed suicide. So it's really close to home for her.”
The “community conversations” at the Sorenson Unity Center featured comments from elected officials; panels on how to recognize those who are in danger and what to do for them; and open discussions about the issues surrounding suicide.
“There are far more people than we realize who have been touched by suicide,” Salt Lake City Councilman Andrew Johnston, a licensed clinical social worker, told the more than 100 people in attendance. “But it doesn’t get talked about. We just don’t say anything. We assume we’re the minority. And the reality is, when you talk to people one-on-one, you find out you’re not.”
Those with personal experience included Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski, whose office sponsored the event. “I come from a family where several relatives of mine have either thought about suicide, attempted it or succeeded at it. It is devastating to a family,” she said.
On her mother’s side of the family, “there is mental illness in every generation,” Biskupski said. “We, as a family, are very aware of what is happening. But that doesn’t mean we’ve been able to save everyone.”
State Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, pointed to legislation she’s tried to get through the state Legislature and encouraged those in attendance to vote yes in November on a proposition to approve Medicaid expansion in the state. She joined the chorus of those who said they were spurred to action by personal experience — in her case, meeting with the family of a boy who, in 2012, took his life outside the Taylorsville junior high he attended.
“Meeting those parents and having to listen to their story as they were coping with this loss and the lack of information they had as they were processing the loss of a son — I can’t explain it,” Escamilla said. “It was truly a life-changing moment for me.”
Johnston echoed Escamilla's comments on the need to find a way forward despite political differences.
“We need to do something,” he said. “Let’s start from that place. We may not agree on exactly how to do it or the price tags of those things, but we can agree that this is fundamentally important enough that we should talk about it, and we should start working through it.”
The hashtag for the event was #starttheconversation, but there was concrete information from experts like Taryn Hiatt, the Utah and Nevada area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who said she’s “tired of creating awareness.”
“We are aware. We should all be aware that this is an issue. We need to take action. We need to not wait until it happens to us. Not wait until your family’s been affected before you become educated about this health issue.
“And we have to start there — we treat it as a health issue.”
That was a continuing theme of the conference — that health-care organizations and health-insurance companies need to treat mental health the way they treat physical health.
“We’ve got work to do, because right now [mental-heath care] is not available and accessible to everybody,” said Hiatt, who lost her father to suicide and attempted to kill herself several times when she was a teen. “That is a problem.”
Biskupski advocated for insurance companies to cover mental illness the way they treat physical illness.
“We want people reaching out to their health-care provider and demanding parity,” she said. “I feel like if health-insurance companies just accept mental illness into their programs and allow for that mental-health treatment to occur, as other health treatment is occurring, there’d be so much less suicide.”
And, she said, if mental health care were more readily available, both individuals and “the community as a whole would be more stable. … We have a lot of work to do. And we’ve got to wake up the insurance companies and get them to the table.”