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Breaking point: How one Utah community is winning the fight against suicide

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 7:10 p.m. MDT

Jamie Nagle, former mayor of Syracuse, talks about the decline in the number of suicides in the city on Monday, April 21, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SYRACUSE — In March of last year, on the heels of what then-Syracuse mayor Jamie Nagle described as an "epidemic" of suicides, leaders in this Davis County community banded together with suicide prevention experts to put together a town hall meeting.

One young man, a high school student, walked in and approached one of the tables with resources set up in the hallway at Syracuse High School.

"He said, 'I came today because I'm sad. I don't know where to go for help. I need someone to talk to, because I have been thinking about suicide,'" Nagle recounted, recalling the outreach given to the young man.

"Even if that had failed going forward," she said of the meeting, "we saved a life that day, and it was all worth it."

In 2012, 545 Utahns were lost to suicide. Seventeen of them were in Syracuse. But the community wouldn't stand for it. Leaders enlisted help from an area suicide prevention task force and rallied education, law enforcement, city and health leaders, even students, to make a change.

"To date we have had one … suicide in Syracuse since then, which is still one too many, but when you take it from where we were — 17 to 1 — it shows the power of a community coming together," Nagle said.

What can be learned from this community that decided to take charge of something as complex and painful as suicide? And can other communities do the same thing?

"What Syracuse did that worked was, for one, they reached out for help," Kristy Jones, community projects coordinator at McKay-Dee Hospital Center and chair of the Northern Utah HOPE task force, said. "Then everyone followed through and did what they agreed to do, and a lot of them went over and above."

Lance Call, a Syracuse police officer and school resource sergeant at Syracuse High School, said the number of suicides in the town forced its community members to make a decision.

"I think we as a community were shocked into, either we allow this or we do something, and I think the community took the idea finally that we're not going to allow this," Call said. "I think there was a fundamental shift in the community's view after way too many suicides."

Syracuse police had heard of the Northern Utah HOPE — hold on, persuade, empower — task force, which is coordinated through McKay-Dee, and that's where leaders in Syracuse decided to start.

Circle for hope

The Northern Utah HOPE task force was formed seven years ago. McKay-Dee social worker Becky Austad, who also serves on NUHOPE as a teacher and facilitator, said the task force was first implemented in the Ogden area.

"We realized there was a real need for suicide prevention, because a lot of people's lives were being touched and impacted by that," she said. "I've been a social worker going on 20 years in October and suicide has touched my life and touched my family's life, and it kind of sparked an interest in me in getting out more into the community, in getting resources and information, because I felt like my family's life could have been different, outcomes could have been different if information had been shared."

They modeled the NUHOPE task force after that of Greg Hudnall, who was then a Provo School District administrator and now serves as the executive director of HOPE4UTAH. Hudnall has long emphasized the power of communities that tackle suicide through collaboration.

"We call it our circle for hope model, and it's basically three circles that come together: community connections, mental health experts and then the schools," he said. "The key is uniting everybody. The challenge is it takes time and it takes effort."

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