New report shows Utah’s suicide rate declined slightly — but don’t celebrate yet, experts say

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

For the first time in more than a decade, the year-to-year rate of suicide in Utah has decreased, although officials warn the reduction isn’t statistically significant and doesn’t constitute a trend.

The Utah Department of Human Services released the finding in its 2019 Suicide Prevention Program report, which noted suicide was the seventh leading cause of death in the state.

According to the report, from 2014 to 2019, Utah’s age-adjusted suicide rate was 21.79 per 100,000 persons — or an average of 620 deaths a year — but noted that the rate dropped from 22.7 in 2017 to 22.2 in 2018.

“While stabilization of suicide rates at very high rates is not the success story we need," the report said, “we do recognize the opportunity to now double down on efforts in order to continue trending in the right direction.”

Public health experts typically look for consistent reductions over three years to confirm a trend, said Kimberly Myers, the state’s suicide prevention and crisis services administrator. But she said the decrease in 2018 is in line with statewide changes that began around 2013 to improve coordination among health care workers, schools and state agencies on mental health interventions. The Legislature provided funding for officials to develop a unified strategy.

“We, for the first time in many, many, many years, pulled together a group of stakeholders and wrote a state suicide prevention plan,” Myers said. “If you look at the science of prevention, it suggests once you start reducing risk factors, having a strategic plan and implementing it ... it’s usually about a three- to five-year process to when you start seeing reductions.”

For example, Myers said, Utah patients may have noticed they are more likely to receive mental health questionnaires during doctor visits in the past three or so years. That was an effort taken up by state agencies in conjunction with Utah’s major health care systems and smaller clinics to standardize depression screenings to more quickly identify patients most at risk of suicide.

“That can open up the door for interventions and support,” Myers said.

Utah’s suicide rate was the sixth highest in the nation as of 2017, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State-by-state comparisons have not yet been released for 2018.

Research produced this year by the nonprofit Mental Health America showed Utah ranked No. 50 in a national analysis that measured each state’s rate of mental illness and access to mental health care for adults. Recent statewide surveys of students show rising indicators of distress, with more than 28% of adolescent girls reporting they had seriously considered suicide in the previous two years.

Fewer than 44% of Utah adults with a mental illness received care in 2015, according to federal data parsed in a report this year by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Utah Hospital Association.

“While suicide is a leading cause of death and many people report thoughts of suicide, the topic is still largely met with silence and shame," the report stated. "It is critical for all of us to challenge this silence using both research and personal stories of resilience and recovery.”