Saving a few young lives isn't enough. We need to save all of them

Sunday , December 03, 2017 - 4:30 AM

STANDARD-EXAMINER EDITORIAL BOARD

Youth suicide rates in Utah exceeded national levels as far back as 1999. But in 2012, something started to go tragically wrong.

Children ages 10-17 started killing themselves in greater numbers — 5.9 per 100,000 population, the highest rate in a decade.

And then the numbers exploded, hitting 8.1 out of every 100K in 2013, 8.5 in 2014, and a staggering 11.1 in 2015.

Even though the national rate also climbed, it increased by less than 1 per 100,000 between 2011 and 2015. Utah’s rate increased by 6.5.

  • RELATED: “Better data, more inclusive culture could help reduce youth suicides in Utah”

We all bear responsibility. Because as recently as this year, we still refused to acknowledge some young lives matter as much as others.

As youth suicide became a crisis, the state tried to intervene. Yet the Utah Suicide Coalition’s 2013 strategic plan failed to reduce the youth suicide rate through 2015; in fact, the numbers increased dramatically.

State health officials knew they needed help, so they asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze Utah youth suicide data. Among the findings, announced Thursday:

• Between 2011 and 2015, 150 Utahns ages 10 to 17 committed suicide.

• Most — 78 percent — were male.

• Most often, they killed themselves with guns.

• Slightly more than a third had received a mental health diagnosis, and about a third were depressed.

• Of the 40 cases that included information about the youth’s sexual orientation, six belonged to “sexual minorities.”

Finally, as the crisis peaked, Sen. Daniel Thatcher sponsored a 2015 bill creating the SafeUT app, allowing students to easily connect with mental health counselors. A year later, Rep. Brian King authored a measure requiring a study of suicide and guns. And in March, legislation by Rep. Steve Eliason created a position in the state Department of Health to study suicide deaths. The bill also established a grant program to fund youth suicide prevention programs.

Only one thing’s still missing — a clear understanding of suicide among Utah’s LGBTQ youth. But maybe we’re finally ready to save their lives, too.

Every two years, as part of a CDC initiative, states administer a Youth Behavior Risk Survey to their high school students. The Utah Health Department, desperate to understand more about the state’s youth suicide crisis, proposed adding a question about sexual orientation as part of the 2017 survey.

The Davis and Cache school districts said no. Effectively, since the survey needs to be taken by at least 60 percent of the state’s students in order to be statistically valid, they killed the initiative for two years.

  • RELATED: “Two N. Utah school districts just hurt the fight against teen suicide”

At what cost?

“We’re a science-based organization and we can’t describe what we can’t measure,” Michael Friedrichs, lead epidemiologist for the Utah Health Department, said at a Thursday news conference on the CDC youth suicide report. “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.”

Friederichs said he’d recently spoken with an official at one district “very opposed” to asking about sexual orientation on the 2017 survey, and he’d changed his mind.

“I’m making progress . . . I really believe we‘ve turned the corner where we can no longer not collect this information,” Friederichs said.

Collecting that information never should’ve been an issue. Not in 2017. Not in Utah, where we lost 150 children to suicide in five years.

We’ve finally committed to saving young lives. But saving a few isn’t enough.

We need to save all of them.

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