Curing Utah's 'silent epidemic'

Finding a solution to teen suicide

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 5:40 p.m. MST

David Phan's father, Nhuan Phan, left, is emotional during a press conference about David Phan, a young man who shot and killed himself on an overpass near Bennion Junior High, on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In 1997, Greg Hudnall was contacted by police and asked to identify the body of a student who had committed suicide near the school where Hudnall served as principal.

"It was the most traumatizing thing I've ever gone through," Hudnall said. "I walked back to my car and threw up and sobbed for probably an hour. Driving home I made a promise to myself that I would try to do something to prevent suicide in my school."

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Utah's youth and each day, two children ages 10-17 are treated for suicide attempts, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The harrowing facts about Utah's mental health, particularly among children, has motivated several state lawmakers to address the issue head-on this year. Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, has described suicide in Utah as a "silent epidemic" and has introduced legislation that would require school districts to hold annual parent seminars on suicide prevention, bullying and internet safety.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, worked with the family of David Phan to draft SB184, which would require schools to notify parents if a student threatens to commit suicide or is involved in an incident of harassment, bullying, cyber-bullying or hazing. Phan shot himself in front of several classmates on a pedestrian overpass near Bennion Junior High School in November. Reports from friends and family members suggest he was the victim of frequent bullying.

Robles said the current requirement to notify parents is broad and has led to some inconsistencies in the way districts apply the policy. In the case of David Phan, there is some dispute between the family and Granite School District as to how much and what information was relayed to the family prior to his death.

"It was heartbreaking to see parents saying that they were never notified," Robles said. "Somehow there was a miscommunication."

Robles' bill – as well as a nearly identical House bill sponsored by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville – would set a statewide standard for when schools are required to contact parents about safety threats to their child. It would seek to get ahead of a problem before it claims the life of a child and also ensure that parents understand the gravity of what is being reported to them by requiring parents to sign a statement acknowledging that they were informed of an incident by educators.

On Tuesday, after the Senate Education Committee unanimously advanced Robles' bill, Phan's family released a statement expressing their thanks to the lawmakers who sponsored suicide prevention and anti-bullying bills.

"We are grateful that David's memory and the tragedy that our family is surviving are being addressed," the family said in a prepared statement. "Our family is pleased that the people of Utah have taken the issue of bullying seriously and have moved our legislature to bring anti-bullying legislation to the floors of both the House and Senate." 

But with Utah's rate of suicide among the highest in the nation, the question remains as to whether a phone call home is enough to avert tragedy.

Next steps

Hudnall, who now serves as associate superintendent of Provo School District, said that contacting parents about concerns is a crucial and necessary first step, but effective suicide prevention can't stop there. During the past decade and a half since his experience in 1997, Hudnall has been instrumental in creating the Utah County HOPE Task Force, a comprehensive partnership between educators, law enforcement officials, mental health professionals and community organizations geared toward getting students the help they need.

"For us it's a multi-faceted approach and suicide is not an option because we work diligently with agencies and community volunteers," he said. "We believe it takes a whole village to save a child."

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