Lindsay Hauptman: Youth suicide is on the rise. We need to address mental health challenges earlier.

We can’t wait until a child takes their own life to act.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Utah Mental Health Translational Research Building, part of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023.

Editor’s note • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for 24-hour support.

In 2020, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17 and 18 to 24. With one of the highest suicide rates in the country, one might think we would implement more solutions that are preventative rather than remedial, but this is not the case. Youth suicide rates in Utah are soaring, yet we overlook the place where prevention should start — our classrooms. Instead, most officials elect to wait until after a child takes their own life to take action. By then, it is far too late.

I have struggled with depression. I know how heavy it can feel and how isolating and overwhelming it is. The stigma surrounding suicidal thoughts can be debilitating and prevent one from seeking help, but we can no longer afford to wait until a life is lost to address this crisis. We must start the conversation before these thoughts emerge, creating an environment in which seeking help is not only accepted but also encouraged.

Some might argue that Utah has done a lot of work regarding preventative action. For example, our politicians helped to build the foundation of the national suicide hotline for the national suicide hotline (988). We have the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition and its statewide campaign called “Live On.” We have allocated millions of dollars to fund these efforts.

While these efforts are commendable, they are far from enough. Our schools lack a crucial component in their curriculum: mental health education.

In our formative years, we learn about puberty, sexual health and the dangers of substance abuse in health classes. However, mental health, a topic that permeates every aspect of our lives, is often left out of these discussions. Most K-12 schools have school social workers or psychologists with whom children can visit when there are behavioral or emotional issues. The social worker should, however, come to the classroom before the issues that cause a child to be sent to their office take root.

Research on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) interventions shows the impact that these school programs can have. Studies have shown that SEL interventions lead to increased social and emotional competence, positive attitudes and improved academic performance. While some may fear that teaching about mental health will introduce children to concepts like suicide prematurely, studies have consistently shown positive outcomes. School-based mental health interventions can enhance attitudes about mental health, encourage help-seeking behaviors and expand mental health knowledge.

Considering the gravity of the situation, it’s clear that we must address this issue head-on. While efforts were made to address mental health challenges in our state, there is a critical gap in our approach. The current focus on post-crisis intervention is insufficient when we could proactively provide our youth with the necessary skills and knowledge to navigate the complexities of their mental well-being. To make a difference, we need to shift our process from merely responding to mental health crises to preventing them from occurring in the first place. We can start by engaging with our local representatives, attending community forums and participating in school-related meetings. We can emphasize the urgency of implementing comprehensive mental health education programs in our schools by voicing our concerns. Let’s collaborate with local mental health organizations, learn from their initiatives and advocate for mental health interventions in our educational institutions.

By taking these actions, we can create a safe and supportive environment for our youth, reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and, ultimately, save lives. Delaying action until after a tragedy occurs is no longer acceptable. It is our collective responsibility to prioritize the well-being of Utah’s youth population and provide them with the tools they need to thrive emotionally and mentally.

A preventative-focused mental health education could have taught me that I was not alone in my struggle and may have educated my peers and teachers on what to look out for as warning signs before I attempted to take my own life. Let’s work together to ensure every young person knows there’s hope, support is readily accessible and that suicide is never the answer.

Lindsay Hauptman

Lindsay Hauptman, originally from New York, is currently in her first year as a master of social work student at the University of Utah. Lindsay has previously worked as a certified case manager and peer support specialist at two different mental-health-focused non-profits in Park City.

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