Son's death spurs Utah lawmaker to urge suicide prevention training

Published: Friday, March 2 2012 3:22 p.m. MST

Representatives Lynn Hemmingway (right) and Mark Wheatley talk at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Monday, Oct. 3, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Mark Wheatley choked back tears during a House debate over a suicide prevention bill while talking about the death of his son two years ago.

The Murray Democrat said he was in his office at the Capitol on Dec. 1, 2009, when his wife called telling him their son was in the hospital with a faint heartbeat.

"I don't even remember leaving the Capitol," he said. "I got to the University of Utah Hospital and I arrived too late. My son was already gone."

A hush fell over the House floor Friday as Wheatley spoke publicly for the first time about the day his 31-year-old son Mark Gregory Wheatley took his own life.

"I was deeply touched by it," House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said of Wheatley's emotional speech. "He is just a genuine, genuine man."

Even though his son was well beyond his teen years, Wheatley urged his colleagues to support a bill that would require public school teachers to undergo two hours of suicide prevention training every two years. The House passed the measure 65-4.

"There's not a day that goes by that you don't think about your children," he said.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Utah behind auto accidents, said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, sponsor of HB501. "Anyone who has a kid in school understands how remarkably disturbing something like this can be," he said.

"As we work on this bill right now there is a funeral going on at my high school for a young man who took his own life," said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. Two Clearfield High students committed suicide this past week. Utah has the ninth highest suicide rate in the country.

Ray called the proposed teacher training "extremely important. That life that is saved could be your own child. It could be a neighbor. It could be a grandchild."

Several House members opposed the bill because they consider it an unnecessary mandate.

"Can't schools do this on their own?" said Rep. Jim Neilson, R-Bountiful.

Hutchings said they can but they haven't. "I don't know why they haven't. That's why I'm running the bill."

After the House recessed for the morning, Wheatley said he wrestled with publicly talking about his son's death even as the bill made its way up the board for debate. Even after he started speaking, he paused to keep his emotions in check. He said he decided to talk about it, hoping it would help someone else.

His son took his life after he became depressed over losing his job, his house and struggling in his marriage, Wheatley said. He was the father of two children. Searching on Mark's MySpace after his death, he said he came across the entry, "my hero: my father."

Wheatley said that if the legislation has any chance of saving a life, it should pass "because one's heart never heals when you lose a child, you just learn how to deal with it."

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

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