Lawmaker teams with Huntsville mom to push suicide prevention bill

Saturday , January 31, 2015 - 9:27 AM

SALT LAKE CITY -- Winter weather battered northern Utah that March day in 2013 when the car in which 15-year-old Hannah Warburton was riding spun out of control in an Ogden intersection and got slammed by another vehicle that could not stop.

According to her mother, Laura Warburton, doctors did not immediately recognize the concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI) that her daughter sustained that day. But the gregarious and keenly intelligent Hannah Warburton was never the same after that.

In ninth grade, Hannah Warburton had been a straight A student and also served as a student body officer. But the TBI affected her memory, causing her to wrestle with frustration and depression.

On June 19, 2014, Laura Warburton found her daughter dead after she’d hung herself in her bedroom. A few days later, 1,500 friends and family members attended the teen’s funeral to bid farewell to someone they’d held dear.

“One or two of her friends had an indication she would do this,” Laura Warburton said of her daughter’s suicide, while others said they had no clue, and if they had, they would have reached out to help.

“She wanted to be normal, she fought to be normal, but she was losing her mind,” Laura Warburton said, adding that Hannah’s doctors eventually wrote a letter saying that the TBI concussion caused her death.

Rising from despair

That fateful June day set Laura Warburton, an activist by nature, on the long journey to find healing, and ultimately to help others. This Legislative session, Warburton spends her days on Utah’s Capitol Hill fighting for HB209, a bill sponsored by Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden which will require individuals to complete a suicide prevention course in order to obtain or renew a license in a behavioral health profession.

“In 2013, we had 570 suicide deaths in Utah,” Warburton said, which ranked suicide as the state’s 6th leading cause of death. But even more stark is the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death among Utah youth, ages 10 to 17.

“This is how we lose our youth,” Warburton said, her voice cracking with emotion.

The Huntsville resident acknowledged that training in suicide awareness and prevention will never completely eradicate the problem.

“We’re not going to be able to stop every suicide, but we have to try and we have to pretend that we can,” Warburton said. “We’ll stop some of them.”

But she believes that none of that will happen until people become aware of suicide and its early warning signs.

“We’re underdiagnosed, overmedicated and undermanaged,” Warburton said, “ and we simply need to start talking about it and bring it out in the open.”

The training gap

Kim Myers, suicide prevention coordinator for Utah’s Department of Human Services, declined to comment on the bill early Friday afternoon, because it had yet to be numbered and published on the Legislature’s website.

But she did acknowledge a well-documented gap in training for mental health and general health care professional who regularly encounter individuals at risk for suicide.

About 18 months ago, Myers said her department conducted a survey of several different licensed professions in Utah to see how many felt they had received the training needed to assist individuals at risk for suicide.

Of that group, 36 percent felt they had the necessary training while 64 percent did not, Myers said, and 38 percent felt they had the necessary skills while 62 percent said they did not.

“We see a huge gap in skills and training for suicide prevention and that’s a big problem,” Myers said. “It’s the most common psychiatric emergency but we’re not being trained adequately.”

But Myers is careful not to blame individual clinicians for this void.

“They’ve made great effort to assist people who are struggling,” Myers said. “This is a system failure.”

Strengthening the system

“It’s such a critical issue and the statistics in Utah on suicide deaths are staggering,” Fawson said of HB209

As with Warburton, this fight is personal for Fawson, a military veteran who served in the Utah National Guard after 9-11.

“Last year, I was involved in the Fallen Soldiers event, and the majority of those fallen soldiers were suicides,” Fawson said “These are men and women who need our support, they need resources, and frankly they need people around them who recognize those signs.”

For the most part, though, people have been hesitant to even broach the subject. But Warburton and Fawson both believe it’s time to dispel the stigma surrounding suicide.

“We need to tackle it, we need to be familiar with it. We need to be able to recognize the signs, and we need to be working on fixing it,” Fawson said.

While mental health professionals are on board with his bill, Fawson said he’s encountered some pushback from medical professionals and at present, they are not included in HB209’s mandate.

“They also recognize there’s a problem,” Fawson said, “and they’ve agreed to work with us on making these same modules available to physicians, and educating them through their magazines and other association communications.”

Fawson is hopeful that his bill, which was unnumbered until late Friday afternoon, will soon get a thorough discussion in the House and Senate.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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