Suicides in Utah increasing, but solutions are in sight

Published: Sunday, Aug. 25 2013 10:45 a.m. MDT

Pam Hellewell lost her son Jason to suicide in 2006. She scrapbooks to remember him and participates in online support groups for families of those who have taken their own lives.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SYRACUSE — Between the first day of June and the last day in July, 101 deaths in Utah were classified as suicides by the Utah State Office of the Medical Examiner.

In other words, suicide claimed lives at a rate of not quite two people each day in the span of only two months, putting Utah on pace to have slightly more suicides this year than last year.

Some believe there is a solution, but it is slow in coming:

"Communities, mental health agencies and schools coming together to prevent suicide. That's the only way we can do it," said Greg Hudnall, who tackled the issue as an administrator in the Provo School District for more than a decade.

Preliminary data from the Utah Department of Health indicate there were 562 suicide deaths in Utah in 2012. Between January and July of last year, the Utah Medical Examiner's Office certified 315 deaths as suicides. This year, that number was at 321 for the same timeframe.

Each time it leaves people grieving, in search of answers, and often, searching for a way to bring change to one of Utah's most vexing problems.

Pam Hellewell, now of Syracuse, was living in California when she lost her son to suicide. She turned to online support groups for families to find help.

"Suicide is just such a different grieving because there's the guilt, the what-ifs," she said. "(With support groups) you're relating to people who get it."

Hellewell also creates scrapbooks. She keeps one about Jason, her third child and only son, who took his own life in 2006 at age 24.

She makes other scrapbooks for those who also have lost loved ones to suicide or lost children.

"I say, 'I want to do this for you,'" Hellewell said. "I have hundreds of pages on Jason. That's kept me going so I can remember everything and not forget. That's the fear — is forgetting."

She got the call from the coroner's office on a May morning seven years ago; the coroner had Jason's body.

"I knew immediately it was suicide," she said. But in the years before it had been hard to differentiate between teenage angst and mental illness.

Suicide prevention takes time and effort, Hudnall said.

It now has his attention full time as he heads the nonprofit organization Hope4Utah, which he is developing with the backing of Provo-based residential security and home automation company Vivint.

When Hudnall spearheaded education and coordination efforts in the Provo School District, suicide rates dropped to zero and have stayed there for eight years.

"We were so successful in Provo … how do we replicate that now?" Hudnall said. That will be the challenge — how do you take that model and replicate it in other communities?"

Hudnall notes that it took five years before the number dropped to zero in Provo, and it came only after partnering with other community groups with a common goal of looking for warning signs in those individuals who were struggling and knowing how and where to get them help.

"Some communities aren't there yet," Hudnall said. "The hardest part is helping the communities along to realize this is something we need to focus on and do."

Schools are key

Both Hellewell and Hudnall point to schools as a vital component in suicide prevention. Hellewell said Jason started showing signs of his eventual bipolar diagnosis in his teenage years, but that even counselors didn't pick up on it.

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