Paula Smith: Utah’s mental health needs include more for prevention

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Peter R. Huntsman and family members wipe away tears as Huntsman pauses while talking about how mental health affects everyone on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. The Jon M. Huntsman family gave a $150 million to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute to bolster the existing University Neuropsychiatric Institute and psychiatry department.

The Huntsman Family Foundation has blessed the University of Utah with a phenomenal gift of $150 million to establish a mental health institute. This institute will be the first of its kind in the state with the laudable goals of, “advancing knowledge and relieving suffering through research-informed treatment of mental illness with a strong focus on improving mental health services for college-age adults, increasing access to mental health services in rural communities across Utah and identifying the genetic underpinnings of mental illness”.

Many at the University of Utah and throughout the state are celebrating the gift and all that it means for supporting people suffering with mental health issues. As a long time sufferer of depression, I was celebrating.

But, I am also worried. I am worried that preventing these mental health challenges will be pushed aside, favoring treatment over primary prevention. For the past several years, Utah has been at or near the top in the U.S. for suicides among youth. Indeed, suicide continues to be the number one cause of death among youth ages 10-17 in our state.

The SafeUT hotline is a great mechanism for ensuring that anyone who is currently in the midst of a mental health crisis has a safe space to talk to someone who can guide them out of crisis. But, what happens for those thousands of youth who won’t pick up the phone, who sit in our state’s classrooms lonely and isolated, who don’t understand or know how to effectively deal with the mental health struggles they have.

Ask any teacher in our K-12 schools how often they are trying to deal with mental health problems in their classrooms. Ask any administrator how many times they’ve had to cancel important school-related events because they’ve had to deal with youth and their parents regarding a mental health issue.

What’s worse, ask any coach, teacher or administrator how many funerals they’ve attended for youth who have committed suicide in the past several years. At my count, they’ve attended over 200.

Primary prevention seeks to decrease the impact of the risk factors associated with health compromising behavior and enhancing the protective factors that help youth be more resilient in the face of adversity. Primary prevention is effective because it changes those factors in a youth’s life, family, school or community that might make the youth more likely to consider suicide and strengthens those factors that enhance the protections that can help youth make healthier life choices, like seeking help.

We need evidence-based primary prevention training, like Youth Mental Health First Aid, for our teachers, parents and religious leaders as they help youth navigate the today’s tough issues. Youth need trustworthy adults who know the signs of mental health problems and where to refer youth for professional help. We need more counselors, social workers and psychologists in schools to aid with the burgeoning need of youth with mental health issues.

Targeted funding is needed for evidence-based primary prevention programming in schools, afterschool settings, seminary classes, mental health centers, and other places where youth are.The power of prevention is at your disposal.

Let’s make sure that primary prevention is our first line of defense in the battle against mental illness and that Utah becomes a leader in providing primary prevention to combat mental illness. Let’s make sure that our status at 51st of all 50 states and the District of Columbia with regard to mental health resources and access is changed and that we actively fight to forever change our infamy of having suicide as the number one cause of death for youth 10-17.

Prevention works!

Paula Smith

Paula Smith, Ph.D., is chair of the Utah Prevention Research Group.

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