SALT LAKE CITY — The SafeUT app is reaching a growing number of Utah students and connecting them to life-saving services, but the need for help is profound, said Rep. Steve Eliason, addressing the Utah State Board of Education Friday.
Thirty-six Utah youths died by suicide this year through July, "which is a 12 percent increase from the worst previous period we had, which was through 2015 when we had 32 fatalities," the Sandy Republican said.
The Utah Department of Health has not yet published the new statistics, but Eliason said he receives a monthly data report.
"Unfortunately this number will do nothing but go up because it is preliminary," he said. There were five youth suicides in Utah during July alone, Eliason said.
According to the state health department, suicide is the leading cause of death in Utah among youths ages 10-18, he said. In 2013, suicide surpassed unintentional injuries as the leading cause of death among Utah youths ages 10 to 17.
After hearing the statistics, State School Board member Joel Wright asked Eliason why a growing number of Utah youths are taking their own lives, wondering aloud if the increase is due to social media, youths constantly comparing themselves to others, sexting, porn culture or drugs.
"I mean what is this? Why? Why?" Wright said.
The causes and drivers are "multifaceted and complex," Eliason said.
Experts say youth are particularly vulnerable to suicide contagion.
"Unfortunately, nationally as well as in Utah, we believe that through strong anecdoctal evidence, the spike we are seeing is a result of the series called '13 Reasons Why,'" Eliason said.
Board member Alisa Ellis said she applauded Utah school districts that sent out warnings to parents about the series, "because it was the topic of lunch discussion every day at my child's high school. It was such a dark topic that he had to get up and leave his friend group every day."
Safe UT is a suicide prevention and crisis app created under legislation sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and Eliason some three years ago. It is the first app that allows students to confidentially provide tips about perceived threats at school and connect them to crisis resources.
"We thought we'd give it a try and it has exceeded our wildest expectations," Eliason said.
On average, the app generates 680 chats per month with crisis workers, he said. During the school year, the app was used to relay 415 tips per month.
"As the app was rolled out to school districts, utilization was so high that it was overwhelming licensed clinical social workers that had been assigned at the University of Neuropsychiatric Institute to answer the calls and texts, that we briefly thought about putting the rollout on hold because the one thing we want to make sure of, if a student was seeking help that they would have a timely response to their request," Eliason said.
The app, which can be downloaded free from the App Store or Google Play, provides youths confidential and anonymous two-way communication with crisis counselors at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute or school staff via one-touch options to “Call Crisisline,” “Chat Crisisline,” or “Submit a Tip.”
About eight school districts have yet to roll out the app, Eliason said.
Board member Brittney Cummins expressed gratitude for the app, particularly after the State School Board voted earlier in the day to make health classes optional for middle school students.
“They’re going to need it,” Cummins said.
State Superintendent of Instruction Sydnee Dickson said as she visits schools, she takes note whether they have placed posters or other information about the app in places readily accessible to students.
Schools in Kanab were doing a particularly good job of placing SafeUT app posters not only in schools but in the library and many businesses. "The community had taken this on as a preventative tool," she said.
Eliason noted incidence of youth suicide is particularly acute in rural Utah and there is a dearth of mental health services.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, took it upon himself to purchase a billboard to help direct youth to crisis and suicide prevention sources that can help them. "That was a very effective way to address the issue," he said.
Board member Carol Lear told Eliason that schools need more counselors and psychologists to help students who are asking for help so lawmakers need to be willing to provide funding for that purpose.
"Nothing make as much difference as people," she said.
In a related matter, the State School Board voted Friday to partner with Intermountain Health Care on a Youth Suicide Prevention Summit on Sept. 6, 2017, as a collaborative community effort to address the problem of youth depression and suicide.