We're convinced that we will save lives. —Rick Hendy

SALT LAKE CITY — The number of suicides in Utah are running apace with the number of similar deaths from the same time last year. But suicide prevention efforts are about to take a giant step toward solving one of Utah's crushing problems.

According to data from the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, 220 deaths were classified as suicides between Jan. 1 and May 31, a number that could increase as the cause of death in pending cases is determined.

During the same period in 2012, a total of 231 deaths were certified as suicides, according to the Utah Medical Examiner's Office. That keeps Utah on pace to match the data showing 562 suicides statewide in 2012. And it means suicide will again be a leading cause of death for teens and adults unless something changes.

Now both The Department of Human Services and the State Office of Education are appointing coordinators to directly attack the problem. And a third private effort will begin under the leadership of an educator who has helped bridge the gap between homes, schools and the resources available to help families prevent and understand factors that can lead to suicide.

New leadership

The Department of Human Services has hired a suicide prevention coordinator, as directed by legislative action during the 2013 session, to implement and oversee suicide prevention programs across the state.

Kimberly Myers, who most recently managed the prevention by design program for the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Utah, now is part of the state's search for solutions.

"This position is so beneficial and comes at a very timely time in Utah history," Rick Hendy, program administrator of adult mental health for the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said. "There's always been a concern there, but I think we have a clear path of things we can be encouraging and promoting in our communities."

Myers will coordinate programs and help communities across the state find the suicide prevention and intervention resources available to them. The department is also working on programs to help the public recognize when someone is at risk. That includes a strategy to train Utahns on "QPR," — question, persuade and refer — teaching as many as will listen how to identify someone in need of help and referring those in need to people and programs that will help them through crises.

Specific suicide trainings are also planned for those in the behavioral health industry, medical professionals as well as first responders. These programs, coupled with an increased awareness and diligence in the home, workplace and community, will lead to change, Hendy said.

"We're convinced that we will save lives."

Homes and schools

The suicide prevention coordinator position at the Utah State Office of Education is currently open and in the hiring process, according to deputy superintendent Brenda Hales. But the office hasn't halted its efforts in the meantime.

"We had a counselor conference the last two days and it's been a topic for the counselors," Hales said last week. "We're not waiting. … When the money is available on July 1, we can hire someone, but in the meantime we're off and running."

She said the state office's coordinator will tackle suicide prevention and intervention by working with other staff who work on bullying and cyberbullying, but will also look at the issue from three different angles: parents, teachers and students.

There will be efforts to help parents and teachers identify signs of depression and suicidal thoughts and triggers as well as informing students about consequences and triggers, all of which will be overseen by the office's suicide prevention coordinator.

"Whenever you have someone whose specific assignment is to be the chief warrior about something, that raises the level of concern and automatically increases the amount of attention paid," Hales said.

Greg Hudnall, associate superintendent with Provo School District and the executive director of the Utah County Hope Task Force, has long worked on suicide prevention and educating others while the number of suicides in the Provo School District dropped to zero, where it has stayed for the past eight years.

He's been a leader in suicide prevention not only in Provo, but across the state as he's taken effective strategies to teacher trainings and helped create the Hope website.

"It's been a lifelong dream to have this kind of focus on it and not be the lone wolf out there sharing numbers," Hudnall said. "It's nice for state agencies to see the need and become involved."

Saving lives

Hudnall will leave the district in the coming weeks to tackle suicide prevention full time with the backing of Vivint, a residential security and home automation company based in Provo. He said it is "an answer to my prayers" to be able to spend all of his time on suicide prevention, developing Hope4Utah, the nonprofit organization he is forming with Vivint as a sponsor, and that will take on the problem with every school district and community that's interested.

"The difference will have to come from the communities," Hudnall said. "It has to come from ranks of communities and societies to make the difference. … I do believe that it is possible to have zero suicides."

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He said his staff will stay at the district in Provo and carry on the prevention efforts there while he looks forward to strengthening and developing "Hope squads" and fostering coordination in interested communities. The key, he said, is to keep the dialogue open and to get communities not only initially involved, but to stay committed to saving the lives that could be lost to suicide.

"Every year, someone will say, 'Do we still need to do this at this level, because we haven't had a suicide in eight years?' and I smile and say, 'That's why we haven't had a suicide in eight years,'" Hudnall said. "Suicides may go away, but the need to train and prevent them will never go away."

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