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Utahns think about suicide more than other Americans, study shows

Published: Friday, Oct. 21 2011 6:48 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — One in 15 Utah adults seriously considered suicide in the past year, the highest rate in the nation, according to a new report.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found 6.8 percent of Utahns ages 18 and older had suicidal thoughts. Georgia had the lowest rate in the country at 2.1 percent, or 1 in 50 adults. The report is the first to present state-level data regarding suicidal thoughts and behavior among adults in the United States.

Mental health professionals didn't have ready answers for Utah's ranking.

"As I looked at the study, it was really hard to come up with any conclusions," said John Malouf, a Valley Mental Health psychologist with 37 years experience. "There was nothing really obvious like of course this state or this region would have a higher rate of suicidal thinking because of this or because of that."

The CDC study, based on data from the 2008-09 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, attempts to look at suicide in the planning stages. It found that young adults ages 18 to 29 had the highest rate of suicidal thoughts, planning and attempts.

"It points out the difference between suicidal thinking and suicidal behavior," Malouf said. "People who complete suicide have thought about it. A lot of people think about suicide who would never actually do it.

The prevalence of serious suicidal thoughts was significantly higher among women than  men, according to the study. That proved true in Utah where the report found 8.1 percent of women and 5.6 percent of men contemplated taking their lives.

One reason Utanns might be thinking about it may have something to do with the economic downturn, said Lenora Olson, director of the Intermountain Injury Control Research Center at the University of Utah.

"Utah did not have a good year this year," she said.

Suicide rates have consistently been higher in Western states, especially the Rocky Mountain states, including Utah.

In the CDC report, which looked at nonfatal behavior, the pattern was mixed: adults in the Midwest and West were more likely to have thoughts of suicide than those in the Northeast and South. Adults in the Midwest were more likely to have made suicide plans than those in the South, and suicide attempts did not vary by region.

The study showed 1.5 percent of Utahns planned to commit suicide, while .5 percent attempted it. The former is slightly higher than the national average; the latter is at the national average.

"This report highlights that we have opportunities to intervene before someone dies by suicide. We can identify risks and take action before a suicide attempt takes place,” CDC director Thomas M. Frieden said in a statement. “Most people are uncomfortable talking about suicide, but this is not a problem to shroud in secrecy."

Olson said the study could suggest Utahns did talk about it and somehow worked through their problems.

"It might be that we have community support for people who reach out," she said. "It appears they get help."

Rebecca Glathar, executive director of the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said Utah's ranking didn't surprise her.

"No one is immune from suicidal thoughts, so it's not specific to a population or socioeconomic level," she said.

"In my world this is something we deal with all the time and we know that it's a serious concern. So, is it surprising? No. Is it something we need to address and be talking about? Absolutely."

The Utah Department of Health tracks emergency department and hospitalization data for suicide attempts.

During the same period as the CDC study, there 5,594 emergency room visits and 2,771 hospitalizations for suicide attempts in the state, which comes out to 11 per day. Also, in 2008-09 there were 827 completed suicides, about one per day. Utah had an overall suicide rate of 16 per 100,000 population for that time period.

The most recent statistics released in 2010 show Utah with a rate of 14.3 per 100,000, 15th highest in the nation, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The CDC's findings for suicidal thoughts in the state aren't dissimilar to health department data gathered in from 2005 to 2007.

In that period, 4.6 percent of Utahns over 18 reported thoughts of hurting themselves or that they would be better off dead. Men and women age 85 and older had the highest prevalence at 8 percent and 12.4 percent, respectively. They were followed by men and women ages 18 to 24 with 7.1 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively.

Mental health professionals say people who talk about suicide should be take seriously and should seek help.

The University Neuropsychiatric Institute at the U. as has 24/7 crisis line at 801-587-3000.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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