Utah lost 574 to suicide last year, but prevention efforts are moving forward

Published: Saturday, Feb. 22 2014 9:30 p.m. MST

A junior high student cries during a moment of silence for another student who committed suicide in 2012.

Ben Brewer, Deseret News Archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Airen Goodman says she struggled with self-esteem issues and abuse in her adolescence. Now she spends her time helping people in crisis.

Goodman, a certified peer specialist at University Neuropsychiatric Institute, is entrenched in the battle to prevent suicide, providing one-on-one solutions to one of Utah's most difficult problems.

"I really like going out in the field and meeting new people and seeing the different types of struggles people are going through and then sharing my experiences with them," Goodman said. "I love the fact of when we go out, I go in there and someone is in total despair, and then we're leaving the home laughing and talking about something enlightening."

It's work that needs doing: 574 people in Utah committed suicide in 2013, 13 more than the previous year. And it's a number that includes teenagers and adults, men and women.

There were more than 45,000 calls to Salt Lake's crisis lines, with help rendered to those who are struggling. Local experts say that more is now being done than ever before to bring the suicide problem out from the shadows and connect families and their loved ones with solutions to this preventable cause of death.

"I have to work to keep from getting down, but, actually, there's a lot of cool things going on in our state right now," said Dr. Doug Gray, a psychiatrist and suicidologist at the University of Utah.

"I've been doing this 20 years, but this is by far the best year we've ever had. We're getting help from the Legislature. For 19 years, I tried to get a suicide coordinator for the state, and (Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy) got us two last year."

Eliason sponsored the bill that led to the hiring of Kimberly Myers as suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services, and Debi Lewis, her suicide prevention counterpart at the Utah State Office of Education.

Myers said the state has a goal to drop the number of suicides: "A 10 percent decrease in suicides by 2019," she said. "We're invested in reducing our suicide rates … and we have seen other states that have done it."

Myers and Lewis said they are focused on education, training and connecting and coordinating resources statewide.

Last month the Salt Lake County-based CrisisLine fielded 3,800 calls. "That's pretty typical," Don Finnemore, University Neuropsychiatric Institute's crisis intervention specialist, said.

Finnemore and Barry Rose, UNI's crisis services manager, oversee and coordinate a "warm line" used to connect those in crisis or recovery with peer specialists — Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, a receiving center and a recovery center, all focused on helping Utahns in a mental health crisis.

Myers, who, just before taking the Department of Human Services job, managed the prevention by design program for the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Utah, said more and more people across the state are joining in the conversation about suicide prevention.

"I think that there is change starting," she said. "I think there are more people who are seeking information, challenging the misinformation that has been out there for years. There are more people out there willing to talk about it, but we have a lot of work to do still.

Awareness fights stigma

"We know through various studies that stigma is still the No. 1 barrier to care. We need to keep that (awareness) going and not be satisfied with a little bit of progress," Myers said.

Goodman said she agrees and sees it when she goes out on calls. She wants people to know there isn't any shame in seeking help.

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