As Utah’s youth suicide rates grows at an alarming pace, state could be doing more to combat the trend, new federal report says

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) An emotional Mindy Young, development director for Equality Utah, talks about suicide advocacy during a news conference to address new suicide data released by CDC researchers, at the request of Utah officials, at the Utah Department of Health offices in Salt Lake City Thursday November 30, 2017. Suicide rates of youth 10-17 more than doubled from 2011 to 2015; same with ER trips for self-harming and reports of suicidal ideations among youth.

Utah could be doing significantly more — including using programs proven to work — to help prevent youth suicide, which has increased each year nearly four times faster than the national average, a new federal report says.

None of the three Utah programs most widely used in schools have received “rigorous evaluation” for their effectiveness in preventing suicide, and all three have a “relatively narrow focus,” the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in its study released Thursday.

It recommended increasing access to evidence-based mental health care, using comprehensive and coordinated prevention programs backed by data and working to help youths feel connected to their families, schools and communities.

“The existing suicide prevention strategies in Utah could be complemented by other programs, policies, and practices that focus on primary prevention,” the researchers wrote, adding the federal government offers “multiple resources” that Utah could rely on, but doesn’t.

Utah’s five-year Suicide Prevention Plan will likely be adjusted based on the CDC’s findings, said Kim Myers, suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services.

“We understand the scope of the problem here,” Myers said at a Thursday news conference in Salt Lake City announcing results of the study.

“We are implementing strategies in almost every area outlined in the [CDC’s] recommendations,” she said. “But to really make a dent in this problem, we are going to need to do more of all of it.”

As one example to help increase “connectedness,” she suggested creating more places where lesbian and gay youths can meet up and talk.

Seeing the rate of youth suicide in Utah continuing to increase, state health officials had asked in January for help from the CDC.

Two months later, a strike team of researchers descended on the state for two weeks to pore through federal and state databases, extract details from law enforcement reports and hospital records, and examine the state’s prevention policies.

The broad themes of what they found, according to their 140-page report released Thursday, confirmed what Utah health officials already knew: The state’s suicide rate among young adults ages 10 to 17 had more than doubled from 2011 to 2015. It had grown at an annual clip nearly four times faster than the national average.

In all, 150 youths died by suicide over the five-year period.

The researchers also unearthed new information about the deaths that may — with additional study — be useful in preventing suicide, including data on self-harming, religion, technology and sexual orientation.

Based on available data, sexual orientation could not be determined for the majority of the 150 youths. But it could for 40 individuals — and six of them were identified as gay or lesbian youths, according to the report.

Michael Staley, suicide research coordinator with the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, said that figure should “have lots of caution flags around it,” considering it was such a small sample size.

Still, he said, “it’s the first time anybody has actually put a number” to the number of young gay and lesbian Utahns dying by suicide.

The CDC researchers also determined 59 of the youths were religious, based on church attendance and information from their families. Eighty-one percent of those — or 48 young people — were affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Religious youth were “less likely to consider and attempt suicide compared to less religious youth,” based on data the CDC collected from Utah’s Prevention Needs Assessment.

Staley said the data also raise additional questions he plans to dig into.

“It seems like religion was a protective factor,” he said. “But we don’t know a lot of details about that. It could be a protective factor for those who feel included in their religion — but not for those who don’t. We don’t know that.”

The researchers also explored data on young Utahns who were suffering from mental illness but did not die by suicide. The rate of youths seeking help at emergency rooms across the state due to self-inflicted injuries doubled between 2011 and 2014, the CDC found. So did the rate of young patients who said they had been thinking about suicide.

The three programs most commonly used in Utah schools are Question, Persuade and Refer or QPR, a training program; Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer outreach effort; and Hope for Tomorrow, focused on mental health education.

Mike Friedrichs, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, acknowledged the programs — despite being well-intentioned — were not “science-based.”

He pointed out that Utah’s youth suicide rate had continued to increase in 2016, and preliminary numbers showed 2017 could be another record year.

“I hope we do a more rigorous evaluation, and identify what’s not working,” he said of the state’s prevention programs.

Other findings from the report:

  • Of the youths who died by suicide, 75 percent were between ages 15 and 17, with the median age 15.3. Most were male (77 percent) and white (81 percent).

  • Some 35 percent had been diagnosed with a mental health issue; 84 percent of those had been receiving mental health treatment at the time of their death.

  • The most common methods of suicide were suffocation (46 percent) and firearms (45 percent).

Taryn Aiken Hiatt, regional director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, challenged Utahns to show up and participate in suicide prevention training and awareness efforts.

She encouraged people to “be nosy” and “ask questions” when they see someone is suffering. More access to mental health treatment is needed in the rural parts of Utah, she added.

Hiatt, who said she survived a number of suicide attempts as a teenager, offered hope that Utah’s trends can be reversed.

“Our brains get sick,” Hiatt said. “But here’s the beautiful part: They can also get better.”

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.