This is the first in a three-part series about the problem of teen suicide.

Teenagers ought to be stressing over prom dates, who will win the big football game and filling out college applications.

The fact that a 16-year-old might be thinking about ending his or her life is unthinkable — yet the unthinkable happens 20, 30 or even 40 times each year in Utah.

Suicide was the leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 17 in Utah in 2013, surpassing motor vehicle accidents, which have traditionally held that title but have recently been on the decline thanks to a variety of safe-driving campaigns.

Every day in the Beehive State — part of the nation’s Suicide Belt — two young people are treated for suicide attempts, said Kimberly Myers, Utah’s suicide prevention coordinator for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health in Salt Lake City.

Teen suicide is the focus of a new 2015 Standard-Examiner initiative that kicks off today. During the coming year, the newspaper’s Every Life Matters project will feature articles to raise awareness of the scope of this problem in the Top of Utah and to provide information about resources available to youth, parents and citizens to prevent such deaths.

“The reality is suicide has been this huge hidden issue that people have sort of dealt with in silence. ... It’s something that’s been very hush-hush,” Myers said.

Yet Utah’s suicide rate for teenagers — and adults — has consistently ranked in the Top 10 for states nationwide for at least the past 15 years, said Andrea Hood, spokeswoman for the Davis County Health Department in Clearfield.

“That’s an unfortunate Top 10 to be in,” the community health educator said.

Sobering statistics

Any death by suicide is tragic but Kristy Jones of Ogden’s McKay-Dee Hospital, which created the NUHOPE suicide prevention program in 2007, said losing young people in such a manner gives us pause.

“They have so much life left and they make a decision based on pain or being in agony of some kind that is irreversible,” Jones, community benefit manager for the hospital, said. As prevention experts often note, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” she added.

Since 1999, the national rate of teen suicide has remained fairly steady, Jones said, while Utah’s rate has been climbing steadily upward, although there have been occasional downturns in certain years.

In 2013, there were 5 deaths by suicide for 15- to 24-year-olds in Davis County and 9 in Weber County, according to statistics from the Utah Department of Health. From 2009 to 2013, 33 young people in that same age group were lost to suicide in Davis County and 36 in Weber County.

The state suicide rate for 10- to 19-year-olds for the five-year period was 173 deaths, or 7.6 deaths per 100,000, Myers said.

“When it’s your child, one in the whole state is too many; when it’s in your community, one is too many,” the suicide prevention coordinator said.

However, local experts say one misconception about teen suicide is that it is an epidemic.

“People think that youth have the highest rate of suicide in the population but they actually have one of the lowest rates. Adults in middle-age, 45-54, have the highest rate,” Myers said.

But, she added, “There is something obviously extra difficult about losing a young person to a self-inflicted injury.”

Utah’s picture

Utah ranked fifth in the nation for youth suicide in 2012, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is one of several Western states that make up The Suicide Belt, the region of the country with the highest suicide rate for all ages.

Exactly why this is so is not known and theories about the phenomenon abound, the experts explain.

Gun ownership is more common in the West, Hood said; if a person experiencing suicidal thoughts has access to a firearm, he may be more likely to use that highly lethal means as a way to end his life.

The rural nature of Utah and other Western states might also be a factor because outlying areas have fewer health care providers. Ninety percent of those who die by suicide are known to have mental illness or substance abuse problems yet Myers said in some parts of the Beehive State, “There’s not a provider in 100 miles in any direction.”

Isolation may not only be geographical but also social. Some folks hold to that Old West philosophy that people must rely on themselves and solve their own problems, Myers said, “So does that contribute to people not seeking help?”

A lower minority population in the West may be another part of the equation. The age group with the highest suicide rate of all — nearly five times that of teens — is Caucasian working-age men, Hood said.

Maybe these individuals feel they have no support systems to turn to, Hood said, or maybe cultural ideas about how to handle crisis play a role as well, as in, “It’s not OK to admit you have a problem or you need help.”

Altitude or religion?

Utah’s high altitude was also pinpointed as a risk factor for suicide in a recent study by a University of Utah neuroscientist who found that thin air affects brain chemistry, changing the level of chemicals that regulate feelings of happiness.

Is the state’s strong conservative and religious climate also a factor?

Higher suicide rates are found throughout the West, Hood said, so, “We can’t say necessarily that there’s something different about Utah that’s putting us above the rest, because it’s all the Rocky Mountain States ... it has to be something more complex than that.”

Neighboring states like Colorado or Nevada have very different cultures than the Beehive State, Myers added, yet share a higher number of deaths by suicide than the rest of the nation.

Overall, religion is considered a positive, protective factor in people’s lives, Hood said, because it can provide a sense of community and connection that helps folks be resilient during a crisis.

Yet Tara Aiken, chairwoman of the Utah Chapter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said Utah’s strong religious focus can put a lot of expectations on youth and some of them worry about what happens if they “screw up.”

“People have this perfection standard,” Aiken, of Pleasant Grove, said. “We’re not very tolerant, we’re not very accepting.” Also, some of those kids who aren’t part of the predominant culture “feel left out and not accepted,” she said.

And certain subgroups in the population may be adversely affected by Utah’s conservative and religious nature, such as LGBTQ youth, who one national study says are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as heterosexual teens.

“We need to acknowledge there are some higher risk populations that we need to look after,” Jones, at McKay-Dee Hospital, said.

Hope on horizon

Prevention programs in Utah’s communities and schools — which will be the topic of future articles in the Standard-Examiner’s 2015 series — are targeting the issue of teen suicide and working to end the stigma associated with this type of death.

Educating the public about mental illness and how to get help, for example, is the focus of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Aiken said.

Teens also need to learn effective coping skills to get them through hard times, Aiken said, and to know that, “Hey, your brain can get sick but if it does, there’s help and hope and this is how we find it.”

Our state needs a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention similar to educational campaigns targeted at safer driving practices and reducing motor vehicle deaths, Myers added.

“Kids shouldn’t die — kids should be healthy and live and experience life,” she said.

The troubling issue of teen suicide is the focus of the Standard-Examiner’s 2015 initiative. Through the year, the newspaper will explore the complex problem through a variety of stories, videos, photographs and graphics. The aim of the Teen Suicide Initiative is to raise awareness in our communities and to provide information about resources available to youth, parents and citizens to prevent such deaths.

Contact reporter Becky Cairns at 801-625-4276 or bcairns@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @bccairns or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEbeckycairns.

MONDAY: Suicide doesn’t just go away. Teen suicide is affecting people all over Utah and something needs to change.

TUESDAY: Resources available for parents of suicide teens

IF YOU NEED HELP

• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

• UNI CrisisLine (University of Utah) – 801-587-3000

• Davis Behavioral Health – 801-773-7060

• Weber Human Services – 801-625-3700

• Bear River Mental Health, Box Elder County office — 435-734-9449

More information on suicide and suicide prevention is available at:

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

www.utahsuicideprevention.org

www.afsp.org

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