A bill requiring Utah doctors to regularly attend suicide prevention training — to spot vulnerable patients and refer them for help — received broad backing from lawmakers and moved forward this week in the Utah House.
So did a separate measure that would expand the number of mental-health crisis response teams around Utah; require school districts to adopt youth suicide prevention programs; and give the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner authority to gather a broad array of data so officials can better study Utah’s rising suicide numbers.
HB87 and HB370 both align with recommendations released earlier this week by a task force convened by Gov. Gary Herbert to study the state’s youth suicide problem. The panel included legislators, community leaders and mental-health experts.
“This is a huge problem,” said Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, sponsor of HB87. “This is a problem we’ve been trying to address for years.”
The task force and related legislation are a response to Utah’s fast-climbing suicide rate, which as of 2016 ranked fifth-highest in the country by the federal Centers for Disease control and Prevention. State officials are especially worried about rates of youth suicide, which have recently grown four times faster than the national average.
Preliminary data from the state Department of Health suggest 42 Utah youths died of suicide in 2017.
Legislators expressed deep concern about those trends, at separate committee hearings on the bills Thursday. They unanimously passed both HB87, on doctor training, and HB370, with its range of other prevention measures, on to the full House.
The version of Fawson’s bill passed Thursday out of the House Business and Labor Committee has a provision allowing doctors to obtain a waiver to opt out of the training, which he legislator called “not ideal.”
But the original bill failed to pass earlier after drawing pushback from medical groups about adding another training requirements for doctors, who already have many responsibilities.
Michelle McOmber, CEO of the Utah Medical Association, said that although the group will not oppose the revised version of HB87, the association believes physicians are already “very well trained in this area.” Adding more burdens to doctors would not be good for their own mental health, McOmber argued — possibly raising the risks of physician suicide.
Fawson and McOmber offered diverging numbers on whether doctors needed the training. Fawson said 80 percent of Utah physicians have reported not having training in suicide prevention, while McOmber claimed 98 percent of physicians, polled in a recent informal association survey, said they were already knowledgeable on the subject.
Nonetheless, experts say that better training for physicians in spotting those who are suicidal will save lives. One 2014 study found more than 80 percent of people who commit suicide had received some form of health care in the year prior to their death.
A spokesman for Herbert also urged passage of HB87.
“I would submit that if we had something like a virus in our community that each year was infecting 15,000 people with 600 deaths, we would see that as a public health crisis where we would say: ‘Let’s get the appropriate training for every health care practitioner, to know how to deal with that contagion,’” Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff to Herbert, told committee members.
“When our primary care physicians have an opportunity to help — why wouldn’t they?” said Taryn Hiatt, with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “I would hope that nobody would opt out of this.”
Meanwhile, HB370, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, sailed through the House Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday.
The bill would fund five new mobile crisis outreach teams around the state — which respond to a person’s home — at a cost of about $500,000 each, Eliason said. It would boost spending on community-based mental health crisis training, and expand required suicide prevention and training in schools to address underage drinking, family issues and “strengthening a youth’s relationships in the school and community.”
HB370 also would create a state suicide prevention fund, where individuals or organization could donate to the cause. And the bill allow suicide researchers with the medical examiner’s office greater access to data of those who died by suicide, including education levels and court records.
“We all know we have an issue” with suicide in Utah, Eliason said. “HB370 seeks to put major policy changes in place to reduce these numbers.”
Eliason is backing two other suicide prevention bills, both now in the Senate. HB41 funds the state’s mental health crisis lines to ensure no caller ever goes to voicemail. HB42 orders state officials to seek federal Medicaid funding for crisis lines and the mobile crisis outreach teams.