The senseless and horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has left us shaken and is a call to action. Mass shootings have a profound impact on communities where they happen and our country, leading to widespread grief, anger and fear, and a recurrence of trauma for the survivors of previous events.
Any solution to this complex and seemingly intractable problem will require many components. I believe that we in Utah may be able to contribute in a small but meaningful way towards developing a multi-faceted solution to school shootings and gun violence.
Some, but by no means all, of the cases of gun violence and mass shootings are perpetrated by angry, alienated and isolated young people, many of whom have suffered from bullying. Such individuals are more prone to two courses of violence than their peers: their most common action is to die by suicide, and the less frequent course of action is to kill others in the prelude to their “death by cop.”
SafeUT was created through bipartisan legislation and is supported by a commission chaired by the Utah Attorney General’s Office in response to suicide becoming the leading cause of death for people aged 10-24 in Utah. The app provides free two-way communication with a licensed counselor 24/7, 365 days a year.
While primarily a mental health support system, SafeUT also provides a limited school and public safety service. The app allows students, parents and educators to send a confidential “tip” to report concerns about suicidal behavior, acts of bullying or potential threats of violence. In the latter case, SafeUT counselors work to gather as much information as possible, triage safety risks and coordinate with school administrators and law enforcement to act on credible school safety concerns.
Last year, crisis counselors engaged in 26,005 chats with young people, educators and caregivers in a K-12 and higher education setting. From July, 2021, to May 25, 2022, SafeUT received 8,428 “tips” – 1,567 about a potential suicide, 984 tips related to bullying and 778 potential school threats or acts of violence, including 145 tips about planned school attacks.
On average, one life is saved every day in Utah from a suicide attempt because of the app and system of care.
I believe that our SafeUT app and system of care could make a small but significant contribution to a solution to the complex problem of gun violence. SafeUT is a mechanism that can contribute to proactive prevention, pre-emptive intervention and as part of the healing safety net for this intractable problem. The 24/7 two-way communication with a counselor can decrease death by suicide, with guns being one of the leading means youth use to kill themselves.
The tips feature of the app serves several important functions. When bullying circumstances are identified, and we can intervene effectively, we may decrease the prevalence of desperate young people who believe that their misuse of guns is the best way to exact revenge against the world. This intervention might also reduce the frequency that these young people seek solace from provocateurs on social media and the web.
Tips are also a valuable tool in identifying and pre-emptively intervening to prevent an act of violence. And in the case where a tragedy has occurred, Safe UT is a resource available to students, parents, and anyone involved in the education community who needs crisis support after the event.
SafeUT is a wonderful example of “the Utah way.” It is an example of how the community, state government, and leaders in education and law enforcement have partnered with mental health professionals to create an effective system of care to support children and families in Utah. I believe our model could serve as an example of the type of program that benefits the entire nation.
Mark Hyman Rapaport, M.D., is CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, the William H. and Edna D. Stimson Presidential Endowed Chair and is a professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Utah School of Medicine