‘Our children are dying’ — Lawmaker urges state school board to update curricula on mental, emotional health

Education • Presentation by state Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, came shortly after school board voted to make health classes optional for middle school students.<br>

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy has sponsored several pieces of legislation aimed at reducing youth suicide, the leading cause of death for Utahns between the age of 10 and 18. Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, listens to a short debate about his bill, HB461 - Abortion Waiting Period - in the Utah House of Representatives, Monday, March 5, 2012. The bill passed easily.

Against a backdrop of surging youth suicide rates in Utah, the success of the SafeUT app — a new suicide-prevention and school-safety hotline — has “exceeded our wildest expectations,” Sandy Republican Rep. Steven Eliason said Friday. 

An average of 415 anonymous tips have came in through the app each month thus far in 2017, Eliason said, while the chat feature is used 680 times monthly to connect youths in crisis with professional help.

“The utilization by students was so high that it was overwhelming the licensed clinical social workers,” Eliason said.

Despite that success, suicide remains the leading cause of death for Utahns between the ages of 10 and 18. And with 36 youth suicides in Utah year to date, this year is on track to be the state’s worst on record for youths taking their own lives, according to preliminary numbers from the Utah Department of Health.

Comments from Eliason, who has been active on the issue on Utah’s Capitol Hill, came during a meeting Friday by the Utah Board of Education. He said more needs to be done to equip students with positive tools for emotional and mental health and urged the board to take action.

“I plead with you to put those things into our curriculum because our children are dying,” Eliason said. “Apparently what we’re doing is not sufficient to save our children’s lives.”

The SafeUT presentation came shortly after state school board members voted to make health classes optional for middle school students, prompting something of a swipe at her colleagues by board member Brittney Cummins.

Cummins said she was glad the smartphone application exists for students who may no longer receive mental health information in a classroom setting.

“They’re going to need it,” she said of SafeUT. “Our board just voted to make health an elective in seventh and eighth grade.”

The board voted 9-6 on Friday for a policy that lifts requirements on several middle school courses, including health, physical education and the arts. School districts now are required to make those courses available but have discretion over whether to require all students to participate.

Cummins said she agrees with the concept of giving flexibility to school districts and students. But many subjects, like math and English, are considered essential, she said, and it’s unclear whether health should be in that category.

“There are certain things that we have decided as a society are valuable for our students,” Cummins said. “We haven’t had that conversation about health, about computer literacy.”

Board member Linda Hansen opposed the new policy during a preliminary vote last month. But she said she was persuaded to support it after discussing the changes with school administrators.

“A lot of the [school districts] are going to require health because this is a huge concern of theirs, as well,” Hansen said. “It’s their decision instead of ours, and I trust them to make the right decision.”

On average, about 557 Utahns die from suicide each year, Utah Department of Health data show, and more than 4,500 Utahns attempt suicide. Youths ages 10 to 17 — who make up 13 percent of the state population — account for more than 5 percent of all suicides deaths and nearly 23 percent of all attempts in Utah.

Suicide deaths among this age group have been in the rise for several years, more than doubling from 17 in 2011 to 44 in 2015.

Board members questioned what is driving suicide trends, suggesting concerns like social media and cyberbullying, drug use and pornography.

And board member Lisa Cummins — no relation to Brittney Cummins — suggested the stress of excessive testing in schools negatively impacts student health.

“I’ve had other psychologists say it’s not just porn, it’s not just sexting,” she said. “[It’s] a lot of [post-traumatic stress disorder], a lot of anxiety, a lot of feeling like they can never succeed.”

Eliason said the drivers of suicide are “multifaceted and complex” but added that seasonal trends suggest a correlation between school-related stresses and self-harm.

He also said there are indications, such as web search trends, that the popularity of the recent Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,“ dealing with youth suicide may have created a sort of contagion effect with suicidal ideation.

“When one person dies by suicide, the likelihood of those surrounding them to die by suicide dramatically increases,” Eliason said.

Board member Alisa Ellis said her son described near-daily conversations about suicide at his school following the release of “13 Reasons Why,” a series based on the novel by Jay Asher.

“It was such a dark topic,“ Ellis said, “he had to get up and leave his friend group every day.” 

A new version of SafeUT launched in July, Eliason said. He touted the app’s ability to reach populations in rural Utah where access to mental health services are minimal. 

“The ability to get them into a clinical therapist is sometimes nigh to impossible,” he said. “The nice thing about this is, regardless of your geography, it’s accessible.”

But Lisa Cummins questioned the personal information collected by SafeUT and whether that data are appropriately secured.

“It could follow them for the rest of their life,” she said.

Eliason said SafeUT is anonymous, showing only the school a student attends when that person submits tips or initiates a chat. He said, in the worst-case scenario of a system breach, only transcripts of conversations with no names or identifying information attached would be available.

“We don’t know their name, gender, phone number or address,” he said.

—Tribune health reporter Kelly Gifford contributed to this report.