Springtime is now upon us. The bluer skies, brighter sun and singing birds offer a welcome relief from the long winter. But the joy of spring doesn't touch everybody. In fact, suicide rates in the U.S. are highest this time of year.
In recent months, suicide has received increasing attention in Utah. Higher education and K-12 officials are placing new emphasis on mental health. A recent report from the Utah Foundation, “Getting to Tomorrow: Addressing Suicide in Utah and the Mountain States,” laid out the landscape of suicide in our region and explore possible interventions. And during the just-completed legislative session, a raft of new bills aimed at suicide prevention passed.
Among other provisions, the new laws will expand telehealth options, enlarge the pipeline for mental health professionals, bolster K-12 mental health supports and promote firearm safety.
These laws directly address some of Utah Foundation’s key findings, which called for action across multiple fronts. To begin with, our report revealed that the highest suicide rates clustered in five contiguous rural counties: Carbon, Emery, Sevier, Beaver and Duchesne. Expanding telehealth options provides new possibilities for reaching further into rural areas, which tend to be underserved.
With that said, our report also revealed that the state as a whole is underserved. In 2016, the Utah Medical Education Council reported that there were 5,026 full-time mental health professionals in Utah, which equates to 209 providers per 100,000 people. This is significantly lower than the national average of 311 providers per 100,000.
According to another measure, Utah has less than 50 percent of the psychiatrists required to meet the needs of the state’s population. Our report pointed out that suicide intervention ultimately requires individualized care – access to highly trained mental health professionals. Enlarging the pipeline of new mental health professionals in Utah is therefore critical.
While both public schools and higher education institutions have heightened opportunities to promote mental health, offer suicide prevention training and provide intervention, efforts vary greatly among institutions in Utah. Expanded intervention in schools opens new opportunities to reach out to students, potentially helping them today and later in life. To fund these efforts, the Legislature has approved $26 million per year going forward.
Although the session yielded key changes, there is still much to be done. One bill that did not pass would have provided for deeper study of opioid overdose deaths. Examining the effects of opioids is essential. We found that the Utah counties with the highest suicide rates also tend to have high opioid prescription rates.
It is also important to remember that suicide is not a Utah-specific issue; rather, it is a problem particular to the Mountain States. Seven of the group of eight – Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – are among the top 10 states in the nation in terms of suicide rates. Arizona is not far behind. Various factors may relate to the higher suicide rates found in these states. Among them, high average elevation stands out as consistent, and research is ongoing as to the effects of elevation on mental health.
Such research is necessary because suicide remains a poorly understood phenomenon. There is often a lack of clear data on successful intervention and prevention strategies. For that reason, policymakers must identify a range of promising options and engage in suicide prevention on multiple fronts. These include ensuring that various professionals, from educators to law enforcement, receive adequate training; educating the public about warning signs and options to seek help; and investing in high-quality mental health services.
Suicide prevention and intervention efforts should not be undertaken for their own sake, but to yield results. It is therefore vital to carefully measure the outcomes of suicide prevention efforts. After all, better approaches aren’t just an effective use of taxpayer dollars. They may also save lives.
Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.