Rep. Ben McAdams joined Utah health experts to discuss the steps being taken, and the work that still needs to be done, to intervene on Utah’s suicide crisis at a news conference Monday.
Utah has the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country, according to 2017 data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and suicide is the leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 17. McAdams emphasized the importance of both research to better understand suicide and support for those at risk for committing suicide. As mental health becomes less stigmatized, resources must be available for those who need them, he said.
“As risk factors like depression and crisis become something we don’t hide in the shadows, as they become something we talk about, that’s such a good thing, but as people talk about it they are looking for somebody to talk to,” he said. “We want to make sure that those resources continue to be there and to be available to people who need them.”
Unfortunately, suicide is a difficult problem to combat because the underlying reasons are complicated and multilayered, according to University of Utah psychiatrist Doug Gray. Gray described suicide as an “epidemic” in Utah and throughout the United States. The University of Utah is conducting research to look at the genetic components that play into suicide, said Gray. There is also research which suggests that altitude might play a role in suicide rates, which could help explain why suicide rates are elevated in Rocky Mountain states. Dealing with the issue will require time, cultural change and multiple different interventions, said Gray.
McAdams is pushing for intervention at the federal level. Last month he introduced and passed an amendment to add $2 million to the CDC’s Injury & Prevention Control suicide program as part of a bill funding the Health and Human Services Department. McAdams also cosponsored an amendment to increase funds for the Garrett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention grant program. Although the money will not be targeted at Utah, McAdams said research and prevention groups operating in Utah can apply for grant money.
Ross Van Vranken, executive director of the U’s University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI), said that more attention has been paid to suicide as a health problem over the past six years. He praised local leaders for their efforts, including Gov. Gary Herbert who created a statewide suicide prevention task force last year.
“We are making progress,” he said. “It’s not fast enough.”
UNI provides several resources to community members struggling with mental health problems, including a 24/7 Mobile Crisis Outreach Team which is accessible through the institute’s crisis hotline number. The outreach team will send a therapist and a peer specialist, someone who has experienced their own struggles with mental illness, to provide a face-to-face intervention to any Salt Lake County resident. Van Vraken said there is also a mobile team for the Davis and Weber County area and one in Utah Valley. The institute is trying to obtain funding to assemble four more teams for rural Utah, he said. Van Vraken said UNI can help connect people with resources for funded therapy and long-term help.
Another resource available in Utah are “Hope Squads,” peer counselors trained through suicide prevention program HOPE4UTAH to recognize the risk signs of suicide and connect fellow students with help.
One Utah student who has benefited from the Hope Squads is 17-year-old Julie Ludlow who spoke at the press conference. Ludlow attempted suicide in ninth grade after struggling with depression for years. Her best friend, a Hope Squad member, intervened on her suicide attempt and saved her life.
“My best friend found me,” Ludlow said, her voice cracking. She stopped speaking for a moment as she began to cry. “My best friend found me … and she asked me if I was OK and that’s all that it took.”
Ludlow said she immediately told her friend everything, and her friend helped connect her with appropriate resources. At the news conference, Ludlow made a plea for more funding for resources for people struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“These measures need to be taken or people are going to die,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicidal thoughts; the individual also described a process of recovery. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 800-273-8255.
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.