Tribune Editorial: Utah’s new anti-suicide campaign is a heartless sham

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune The SafeUT Crisis Text and Tip Line is a statewide service that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting and a confidential tip program -- right from your smartphone. Tuesday December 27, 2016.

If Utah’s leaders really want to do something about our community’s skyrocketing suicide rate — one that has left taking one’s own life the leading cause of death for our teenagers — they are going to have to have a much better understanding of the plague they are dealing with.

They will have to understand that putting up a platoon of billboards and launching a fleet of tweets, basically asking people to pretty please not kill themselves, is worse than worthless. It’s cheap, and it’s cruel.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox led a covey of state officials, health care providers, business and religious leaders the other day to announce a new $2 million, three-year campaign to use advertising, social media and the like to encourage people who are in need of help to leave behind any social stigma they might feel to seek it out.

Well, the resistance to presenting oneself for mental health care, even when in extreme pain, is indeed a problem. Here and around the world.

But $2 million? Half from a legislative appropriation and the rest from donations from businesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some leading businesses?

A study to do a proposal to draw blueprints for a bridge costs more than that. And, apparently, is of more value to official Utah and its allies.

Taking a Sharpie and adding, at least, two zeros to that figure would be a decent start. The state has the money. So does the LDS Church.

Suggesting that people at risk of suicide reach out for help only makes sense if there is help for them to reach out to. And, for far too many Utahns, there just isn’t.

The state can pat itself on the back for offering an old-fashioned suicide prevention hotline and a 21st century mobile app. But, as was made clear by a legislative audit back in April, the human beings who are necessary to answer the phone and respond to the texts are woefully understaffed and overworked.

Even if they weren’t, emergency outreach to people at risk for suicide is just the first step. Real, ongoing mental health care, which takes time and money, is all too hard to come by in Utah, especially in rural areas.

Between 1999 and 2016, Utah had the fifth-highest overall suicide rate at 25.2 per 100,000. That’s an increase of 46.5% over that time.

One astoundingly obvious step that Utah has failed to take, of course, would be to accept the expansion of Medicaid, as offered by the federal Affordable Care Act nine years ago, demanded by the passage of Proposition 3 last year and actively resisted by the state’s ruling Republicans at every opportunity ever since.

Squeaking about one’s distress over Utah’s suicide rate while ignoring that failure is appalling.

But there is still more at the root of this epidemic.

The increase in deaths due to suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse is a phenomenon that has been labeled the “deaths of despair.” It has been noted, and decried, on the left by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and on the right by Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

Causes include, but are far from limited to, mental illness. Debt, poverty, homelessness, lack of educational and employment opportunities, being shut out of affordable health care and violence are all part of the root system of this national tragedy.

All of that needs to be faced if we are to have any hope, any claim, of curbing the number of tragedies we face.

And that’s going to cost a heck of a lot more than $2 million.


If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.