Collaboration is critical to curtailing suicide among teens in Utah, and coalitions are making progress, according to experts who participated in a roundtable discussion Friday hosted by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Hatch opened the meeting by noting, “We’ve made significant progress, but we still have much to do.” He cited numbers from a July 2016 Utah Department of Health report that indicates suicide was the leading cause of death for youths ages 10-17, with a suicide rate of 8.5 per 100,000 youths in 2014. Forthcoming data will show the rate of teen suicides has decreased by 23 percent since then, but the number remains high compared to the national average, according to Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.
“We’ve made more progress in the last five years than in the 20 years before,” Dr. Doug Gray, a psychiatrist, professor and suicidologist at the University of Utah, told the audience at the roundtable, held at East High in Salt Lake City.
Twenty-five years ago, teen suicide prevention efforts in Utah consisted largely of the efforts of two people: Gray and Greg Hudnall, a former high school principal who founded HOPE4Utah and its community crisis teams after being deeply affected by an experience identifying the body of a teen who had killed himself. The two joked they had monthly meetings at Gray’s house.
Now, teen suicide prevention involves mental health providers, lawmakers, educators, social workers and clinicians, state mental health and human service staffers and others, and the state has a Suicide Prevention Coalition, among other groups tackling the issue.
In the wide-ranging 90-minute presentation, the experts reflected on both the state’s successes and the work that still remains.
Often, solutions exist, but policy barriers get in the way or funding simply isn’t there. For example, Gray talked about development of a “system of care” for those in juvenile court, who are one of the most vulnerable groups of young people, but said a grant ran out and a promising program was shelved. He’d like to see it tried again.
He also noted that nationally, the number of residencies for psychiatrists has been “frozen” since 1997; even if enough would-be doctors trained in that specialty to provide needed mental health services, without a residency they could not become doctors. Lifting the cap on psychiatric residencies is something that must be tackled by Congress, he told Hatch.
Eliason, who has previously put forth suicide-prevention-related legislation and is expected to do so in the upcoming legislative session, noted that most youths who die by their own hand don’t want to die, but they don’t want the pain they’re experiencing. He said he’s talked to survivors who are glad they didn’t succeed in killing themselves, including one who told him the only regret — at the moment of jumping — was that the person had in fact jumped.
One of the state’s challenges, according to Eliason, is being 22 percent below the national average for number of psychiatrists, which he said needs to be fixed.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-Salt Lake and Tooele, said he’s been trying since he was elected to get a three-digit phone number dedicated to a continuously manned suicide/mental health prevention hotline, but so far without success. Thatcher noted that everyone knows to call 911 if their house is burning down; he wants a similar something-11 number for people who are considering suicide, but most of those numbers are in use and all of them are reserved.
Eliason will likely join Thatcher in trying to change that in the upcoming session. He spoke of a friend who had no idea what to say when his teenage son handed him a noose he’s been thinking of using to kill himself. He didn’t know who to call or where to turn; a 24-hour crisis line manned by a licensed clinical expert with a number that’s easy to remember would save lives, he said.
Cathy Davis, the suicide prevention specialist for the Utah Board of Education, emphasized the importance of collaboration between schools, mental health providers and other organizations.
“There are 633,890 students in Utah state. I can’t do this by myself,” she said.
She also discussed how schools must work to teach kids social and emotional coping skills that can help them navigate feelings of anxiety and depression.
Laura Warburton, a parent advocate, spoke about her daughter Hannah’s 2014 suicide and the suicide prevention programs she has championed since her daughter’s death. She is now advocating that all physicians be required to complete suicide-specific training as part of their licensing. Though state law requires many clinicians to receive a couple hours of suicide prevention training, physicians — who often see individuals struggling with suicidality and prescribe antidepressants — are not.
Questions about how to help LGBTQ youths were raised by members of the audience, including a school psychologist who noted that she can talk to youths about their struggles only up to a point. If the discussion in any way includes sexuality or gender, she is required to deflect it back to something else — in her example, the anger a young person feels because of issues related to gender and sexuality. It’s a case of discussing a symptom, but not the root issue, she told the panelists.
Eliason noted that LGBTQ youths are “just as important as any other group” and should be treated with dignity. And state suicide prevention coordinator Kimberly Myers from the Department of Human Services said one can reduce risks for them by “accepting and loving and wanting them in your life.”
Hudnall added that both students and adults at schools should be more aware and make schools safe zones, but LGBTQ youths are “among those bullied the most” at schools. LGBTQ youth suicide will be the topic of a conference in April.
While the panelists all agreed there is still much work to be done, they concluded by looking to the future with hope.
Hatch commented that the roundtable discussion could literally save lives and noted that its participants involved some of the top suicide prevention specialists in the country.
Said Hudnall, “Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole community to save a child.”
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