For decades, Utah’s suicide problem was always there, but not always talked about. More importantly, there was no real sense of urgency to do much to stop it.
Of course there were therapists and psychiatrists, overworked school counselors and researchers who were spread too thin. But it was not something that the state’s top policymakers did much about.
“For 15 to 20 years, it felt like we were wading through mud,” said Doug Gray, an expert who studies the causes and effective deterrents to suicide at the University of Utah.
That started to change about five years ago, in the midst of a rapid 33 percent increase in Utah’s already high rate of suicide, when some in the Legislature set out to try to curb the problem.
Every year since, lawmakers have enacted a series of bills and earmarked millions of dollars toward getting more training, awareness, resources and prevention programs in place, stitching it all into a safety net hoping to catch as many people in need of help as possible.
“To me, the progress in the last five years has been exponential,” Gray said.
Last week, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the latest set of four bills, building on the foundation in a meaningful way.
Perhaps the biggest is HB373, which provides $27 million in state funds to enable school districts to hire counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses. The districts have to match the grants, meaning even more local money will go to the effort.
More than 300 schools already have some level of school-based mental health available, said Kim Myers, suicide prevention coordinator at the Utah Department of Human Services. With this bill, there could potentially be a mental health professional in every school in the state.
To meet the increased demand for trained psychiatric professionals, HB174 adds up to four (only two were funded this year) new psychiatry residents at the University of Utah’s medical school.
HB17 builds on a prior program requiring gun stores to provide a gun lock when they sell a firearm and offers subsidies to people to buy gun safes, an important step when one considers that firearms were used in half of all suicides between 2006 and 2015.
And HB393 helps pay for doctors to consult with a trained psychiatrist if they worry a patient might need help and sets up a grant fund to help low-income families that lose someone to suicide cover expenses like bereavement counseling, funeral costs or even simple clean-up costs.
All four bills were sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Cottonwood Heights, who has led suicide prevention efforts in the Legislature for several years. “He is really a champion for us,” Gray said.
Voters may have taken the single biggest life-saving step, however, when they went to the ballot box last November and passed Proposition 3 (even if legislators scaled it back substantially). “If we could do the one biggest thing to prevent suicide, it’s probably Medicaid expansion,” Gray said.
That’s because people suffering from any illness who don’t have insurance and can’t afford a doctor risk their ailment getting worse. Depression and mental illness are no different. Getting into a doctor’s office could mean getting them the help they need and that could mean saving lives.
Lawmakers dropped the ball on one key suicide prevention measure, Rep. Steve Handy’s bill that would allow family members and law enforcement to seek a court order to take away firearms from those considered a risk to themselves or others. Studies show these red-flag orders can prevent suicide, Gray said, but gun-rights groups kept it from even getting a hearing.
Overall, the actions taken by state leaders have been positive.
“We see mental health and suicide prevention continue to be a policy priority,” Myers said. “That’s a good thing and it shows an ongoing commitment.”
And most importantly, the steps appear to be working. In 2016 and 2017, Utah’s suicide rate leveled off and preliminary data for 2018 shows that the rate may have declined, Myers said.
The bad news is that about every 14 hours a Utahn takes his or her own life. That’s a number that must change. So expect Eliason, Gray, Myers and the rest of the advocates to be back next year, working to get people the tools and the resources they need to save lives.
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, and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.