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Suicide rates in Utah are high — but COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made them worse, study says

Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition issues its latest five-year plan, mapping out what can be done to lower the rates.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The rates of deaths by suicide and accidental drug overdose in Utah have not changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Utah Department of Health reported on Oct. 21, 2021 — though the suicide rate remains high, researchers said.

Editor’s note • This article 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.

Utah’s rates of suicides and drug overdoses have not changed significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the state’s health department reported — though, with one Utahn dying by suicide every 13 hours, the rate remains high.

In an annual report, the Utah Department of Health said Thursday that the number of Utah deaths due to suicide and accidental drug overdoses stayed constant from March 2020 — when the pandemic started in Utah — through June 2021.

And those rates, roughly between 50 and 70 deaths by suicide every month, are consistent with levels going back to 2015, said Michael Staley, suicide prevention research coordinator for UDOH.

“Suicide rates in Utah were high going into the pandemic. That has not changed,” Staley said in a virtual news conference to present UDOH’s findings. “There is still a great deal of urgency when it comes to preventing suicide.”

According to the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition — in its five-year statewide suicide prevention plan, also released Thursday — an average of 640 Utahns die by suicide every year, and another 6,500 are treated in hospital emergency departments for suicide-related reasons.

Suicide touches nearly every Utahn’s life, the coalition reported. An estimated 91% of Utah residents surveyed said they knew someone who died by suicide, attempted suicide, or talked about thoughts of suicide.

“The work of preventing suicide will never be over until that number is zero,” Staley said.

National trends have shown increases in suicide attempts during the pandemic in other parts of the country, the report said. It cited a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said suicide attempts by adolescent girls, ages 12 to 17, increased by 51% in the first three months of this year.

The UDOH data showed that the number of suicide attempts in Utah — as measured by people who went to an emergency room after making an attempt — stayed level from January 2020 through August 2021. Similarly, the number of people who went to an ER because they had thoughts of suicide also stayed consistent in the same time period.

Those metrics are imperfect, Staley noted, because they don’t measure the number of people who might attempt suicide or think about suicide and don’t end up in an emergency room.

Even divided by age groups, the researchers saw “no statistically significant changes” in the number of Utahns who have died by suicide since 2018.

Staley noted a “modest” downturn in deaths by suicide among the 18 to 44 age group from January to June of this year. However, he added, “it’s far too early to say that teen suicide will decrease in 2021, but any decrease is welcome.”

The number of deaths caused by accidental drug overdoses in the first half of 2021 was roughly between 40 and 60 a month, said Megan Broekemeier, opioid fatality research coordinator for UDOH. That’s in the same range as the previous three years. (Those figures also cover the less than 2% of overdose deaths where the state’s medical examiner could not find enough evidence to determine whether the death was accidental or by suicide.)

Similarly, Broekemeier said, the number of people going to a hospital’s emergency department to be treated for a drug overdose remained constant from January 2020 through August 2021. Also, there were no significant changes in those figures when broken down by age group.

One bright spot in the UDOH findings, Staley said, is a gradual but steady rise in the number of calls being made to the Utah Crisis Line, the state’s suicide prevention lifeline — at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The number of calls has gone from roughly 5,000 a month in early 2019 to nearly 9,000 calls a month this summer.

Staley said the upward trend for the crisis line started well before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He said the increase could be attributed, in part, to efforts by the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition to promote the line, “so more Utahns were aware of the lifeline than ever before.” Also, several counties have consolidated their crisis lines with the statewide service, so their lines were covered at all hours.

Other crisis services the state of Utah offers — such as the “warm line” for noncrisis calls, and the SafeUT app — have remained generally constant over the same period, the report said.

The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition’s five-year statewide plan, the third such document the public/private group has issued since forming in 2012, lays out goals for bringing down the rates of suicide deaths and attempts from 2022 through 2026.

The 73-page plan describes the state government’s infrastructure for prevention, presents data on suicide deaths and attempts, identifies risk factors, and suggests actions that people, families and other groups can do when someone shows the signs of contemplating suicide. It is available on the coalition’s website, liveonutah.org/about.

The plan “really outlines what we can be doing on a community level, on a state level, and in different businesses across the state,” said Allison Foust, the coalition’s co-chair and a suicide prevention program administrator for the Utah Department of Human Services. “But we always, as individuals, also have a role to play in prevention.”

Foust urged people — in their homes, workplaces, schools and congregations — to watch for warning signs. Those include: Talking about suicide, expressing feelings of being hopeless, withdrawing from friends and activities, showing depression or anxiety or changes in mood, sleeping too much or too little, or “just starting to say goodbyes and tying up loose ends.”

Everyone can do their part to prevent suicides, Foust said, by checking in on friends and family members, recognizing the warning signs, and familiarizing themselves with the mental health and crisis resources in their area.

For more information about suicide prevention in Utah, and what to do if you or someone you know may be thinking about suicide, go to liveonutah.org.

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