Better data, more inclusive culture could help reduce youth suicides in Utah

Thursday , November 30, 2017 - 10:30 AM1 comment

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more information from Thursday’s press conference and will continue to be updated through the day.

SALT LAKE CITY — Youth suicides in Utah went up 141.3 percent from 2011 to 2015, dramatically outpacing the nation’s rate and prompting state health officials to seek outside help to better understand how to address the problem.

For youth ages 10 to 17, Utah’s suicide rose from 4.6 per 100,000 people in 2011 to 11.1 per 100,000 in 2015; the U.S. rate was 3.4 per 100,000 in 2011 and 4.2 per 100,000 in 2015.

“These statistics are more than just statistics — each and every one of those children are someone else’s entire world,” said Cathy Davis, suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education at a Thursday morning press conference announcing the findings.

During that session, Taryn Hiatt, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s area director for Utah and Nevada, chose to abandon her prepared comments and speak from her heart.

“As someone who survived multiple (suicide) attempts as a teenager, I can tell you how grateful I am today to stand before you alive, how grateful I am I found the support from those who loved me most, to help me get through the challenges that I was experiencing,” Hiatt said. “And we need to do better.” 

Those lifelines need to be extended “one conversation at a time,” and within a culture that cares about mental health, Hiatt added. She also recommended being nosy and having the courage to ask questions, particularly about having suicidal thoughts..

“By recognizing the warning signs, we have the opportunity to intervene. I wanted someone to ask me that question. I would have told you everything that was going on in my life,” Hiatt said. 

RELATED: Resources for mental illness and education

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided short-term epidemiological assistance, analyzing data from the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Utah Violent Death Reporting System, the Prevention Needs Assessment survey, emergency departments and hospitals, and school-based suicide prevention initiatives. Findings from the CDC’s investigation were made public Thursday at the Utah Department of Health. 


  NEED HELP? 

 Those thinking of harming themselves have several resources available:

Davis Behavioral Health 24-Hour Crisis Response Line, 801-773-7060

National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255

National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah, 801-323-9900

Family Counseling Service of Northern Utah, 801-399-1600

Intermountain McKay-Dee Hospital Behavioral Health, 801-387-5600

Davis Hospital: Behavioral Health Unit and Emergency Room, 801-807-1000

Lakeview Hospital: Behavioral Health Unit and Emergency Room, 801-299-2200

Live Hannah’s Hope: Empowering Youth. 


Kimball Gardner, suicide prevention director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Utah branch said, “We have a really unique opportunity today as Utahans to look ourselves square in the eyes and ask what we value most. We value life. That’s why we’re here today.”

During the five year period, 150 Utahans ages 10 to 17 died by suicide, with firearms and suffocation the most common methods.

 FROM THE ARCHIVE: Utah mom shares painful story of teen son's suicide

Of that 150, 78 percent were male, 35 percent had a mental health diagnosis, 31 percent were depressed at the time and almost 30 percent had a history of suicidal thoughts or had previously attempted to take their own lives.

Fifty-five percent experienced a recent crisis, 24 percent had let someone know of their intent within the past month, 47 percent left a suicide note, 20.5 percent had a history of cutting, and almost 13 percent had been restricted in technology use prior to their deaths.

Of the 40 cases where sexual orientation was known, six were identified as sexual minorities.

Mindy Young, development director for Equality Utah, spoke to the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ youth in a culture where they might be receiving mixed messages about their self worth.

“We must work even harder to create a culture that tells all young people they belong. When all sectors of society — including schools, churches, government and families — foster a culture of deep belonging, it truly saves lives. This is the most powerful and effective way we can reduce suicides in our state,” Young said, reading from a statement written by Troy Williams, the organization’s executive director.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Salt Lake City Democrat who described himself as “grandpa of the gays,” underscored the need to gather school data about sexual orientation and gender identity “so we uncover what the real facts and figures are and stop shying away from the issues that are affecting our young people.”

“I think the Legislature, the governor, the state and the culture is simply somehow not ready to be truthful and honest and to deal with our LGBTQ kids,” Dabakis said. 

Some school districts have not allowed questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on student health surveys, which hindered the gathering of that data.

“We’re a science-based organization and we can’t describe what we can’t measure,” Michael Friedrichs, lead epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health, said Thursday. “They (the CDC) combed through the records and could only find information on the sexual orientation for 40 of the 150 kids who had lost their lives by suicide. . . they only reported on what they knew for sure. Of those they found six of the 40 they could positively identify. One of the recommendations they made is that we collect better data.”

Friedrichs reported recent progress in that direction.

“Two months ago I met with one of the school districts that was very opposed to us including sexual orientation on school based surveys — he said he was fully on board for next time,” Friedrichs said. “I’m making progress . . .  I really believe we‘ve turned the corner where we can no longer not collect this information.”

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Too many young lives lost to suicide; Utah ranks 5th in nation

Bullying, both at school and online, put youth at risk for considering and attempting suicide, as did substance use within the past month. Other risk factors included being female, in the 10th grade, non-white and having parents with low education levels.

The 140-page CDC report recommended:

* Increasing access to evidence-based mental health care for youth

* Strengthening family relationships

* Promoting broad social connectedness

* Identifying and providing support for vulnerable youth

* Preventing other forms of violence within this population

* Reducing access to firearms and other lethal means

* Teaching coping and problem-solving skills

* Implementing suicide prevention programs that can address multiple risk and protective factors

* Evaluating suicide prevention programs frequently and comprehensively.

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

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