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

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

"The hope squad gave them the avenue to be able to help the students they were already helping, but now they have the tools, the skills and the ability to be able to know what to do," Austad said. "Instead of carrying it, instead of worrying about them all the time, they can funnel them and be the gatekeepers in getting them the additional help that they need."

Changing the dialogue

The school's entire staff has been trained in suicide prevention. Davis Behavioral Health also sends a partner to work with students who have been identified as high-risk on a regular basis.

"It's important that we address these issues," Nelson said. "Suicide is ultimately an individual's decision, but if along the way you can provide some support and (help them) to realize that it doesn't have to be the end to everything and there are support mechanisms and people out there who truly do care and want to assist them through the challenges that they're facing.

"My goal is to not have another young life taken when it doesn't need to be."

Like Austad, Nelson said her family had also been touched by suicide. Three people in her family had died by suicide, but the family had never discussed it.

It wasn't until Nelson invited her parents to the town hall meeting that they actually started talking about what had happened. Opening this channel of communication, she said, is part of what is making Syracuse successful in its prevention efforts.

"I think it's the fact that we're having the conversation now," Nelson said. "I think that's one of the biggest things, is we are not afraid to talk about it. We don't dwell on it … on the darkness that often surrounds suicide, it's more how to be aware of what's going on and how to help people."

Austad, who teaches suicide prevention at schools in Davis and Weber counties, said she often asks the students how many of them have been impacted by suicide. The majority of their hands go up.

"The next question is, 'And how many of you have been able to share how your life was impacted by that suicide situation?' and no hands go up," Austad said. "I know that suicide impacts so many people, and I feel like breaking down the barriers, breaking down the silence, giving permission for people to have conversations, is really important."

Changing the culture

Nagle said that in less than a year there were two high school students who died by suicide, in addition to a murder-suicide, a couple with children who both attempted, the death of a man in his 30s and another in his 60s, among others. She said at one point it felt like she couldn't go one day without hearing about a suicide or an attempt.

"It just felt like it was an epidemic and we were losing our young kids, and it just became clear that our community was hurting," she said.

It was in late 2012 when she called in the city manager and Syracuse Police Chief and said she knew there had to be resources out there and that they needed to find them. Once the ball was rolling, the community responded.

"We recognized that there were a lot of people that wanted to do something, but nobody knew how to do it or how to organize," Nagle said. "It was amazing that everybody just needed an opportunity to come together, and then it took on a life of its own."

Austad said the rash of suicides in such a short span was a wake-up call for the community.

"People started realizing how their lives were being impacted by what was going on," she said, adding that every piece of the community has to come together to create success. "It's not just an individual's problem or their family's problem, it's a community problem and … people are recognizing how big of an issue this is and that we're not going to sit back anymore and start working toward solutions."

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