Curing Utah's 'silent epidemic'

Finding a solution to teen suicide

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

The task force, which is comprised of some 40 different agencies, got its start in 1997 after Hudnall sent out invitations to various organizations to participate in a round-table discussion on suicide. Nearly every group he contacted sent a representative and over several years, and after extensive dialogue, strategies were devised and plans were formed.

Between 1999 and 2005, Hudnall said there were between one and two youth suicides in Provo each year as the group grew and coalesced. In 2005 the task force seemed to hit a critical mass and since then, Hudnall said, there have been several suicide attempts and many hospitalizations, but not one youth's life has been lost to suicide in all of Provo School District and Provo City.

"This is our eighth year," he said. "We keep trying to put out the word. It's not a focus on suicide prevention, it's a focus on getting help for kids."

Finding solutions

Several of the task force's practices mirror recent action on the state level. For example, every teacher in Provo School District is required to go through suicide prevention training, similar to a bill passed last year requiring Utah's educators to undergo training every five years.

Provo district also holds a series of events aimed at training parents and community members to identify the warning signs of bullying and suicide, not unlike Eliason's bill requiring an annual parent seminar on suicide, bullying and internet safety.

But the HOPE Task Force, which stands for Hold On, Persuade and Empower, employs a greater breadth and depth than most school district communities and the state as a whole. Hudnall said the task force works with businesses and religious organizations to train parents, clergy and youth leaders and the school district hosts suicide walks and informational community events on an ongoing and nearly perpetual basis.

"We've trained 16,000 people so far throughout the community and throughout the area," he said. "We literally talk about it all the time. It's a proactive approach and everybody is involved."

In addition, free support groups are offered for at-risk students as well as the families of children lost to suicide. Inside the schools, HOPE Squads comprised of peer students are trained to watch out for warning signs and provide help and support to their classmates.

"They’re not therapists, they’re just support," Hudnall said. "They reach out, they listen, they know when to encourage kids to get to adults."

And if a student expresses a suicide threat, the school goes beyond contacting their parents, collaborating with school-assigned police officers to transport the student directly to the emergency room for a mental health evaluation.

"Before we would just call the parents and say you need to do something about it," Hudnall said. "Now, the school resource officer will 'pink slip' them and we literally take them to the hospital and have the parents meet us there."

Find the warning signs

Rebecca Glather, executive director of the Utah branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that the majority of individuals who suffer from mental illness begin to experience their symptoms between the ages of 14 and 24. This presents challenges, she said, because those ages coincide with the time when a person develops the academic, professional and relationship skills that they carry into their adult life.

If a child's parent is able to identify warning signs and intervene early on in the manifestation of a mental illness, she said, it can change the trajectory of that child's life. But Glather said it can be difficult to differentiate between emotional stress and normal teen angst as well as find adequate treatment, particularly in rural areas.

"We have a huge gaping hole in the center of our state where there are zero child psychiatrists," she said. "Treatment is a challenge."

Hudnall said the collaboration with mental health providers is the key component of the HOPE Task Force's success. He said to be truly effective, a school district needs to be able to immediately secure counseling for an at-risk student, a process which takes a significant amount of time and discussion with interested parties to put in place.

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