Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox struck a chord Wednesday when he talked about one of the difficulties of suicide prevention.
"One of the issues that we have the hardest time talking about can be solved by talking about it," he said.
There are reasons it’s difficult to talk about. Most importantly, suicide can be a contagion, and no one wants the words used or the sentiments expressed to prompt someone to attempt suicide.
This may be why studies have shown even physicians tend to avoid the subject. In one study, actors were sent to physicians in northern California and Rochester, New York, presenting symptoms of depression. In only 36 percent of the cases did doctors ask whether the patients had thoughts of suicide.
And yet another study, conducted among high school students in 2005, found that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of some, asking people about suicide tended to reduce the stress levels among those who had such thoughts, perhaps because they felt they were being listened to and taken seriously.
Talking, apparently, can help.
Clearly, the worst way to proceed would be to ignore the problem, which is why we’re happy to see Gov. Gary Herbert organize a new teen suicide prevention task force with a mandate to create a report by Feb. 15, in time for lawmakers to take any action that might be deemed valuable.
Some form of legislation or allocation of public resources could help schools or other institutions that regularly interact with young people respond better to warning signs.
And make no mistake, Utah has a growing teen suicide problem. The Utah Department of Health reports that the number of suicides among youths aged 10 to 17 increased by 140 percent between 2011 and 2015.
Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this newspaper, is a member of the task force. He said nearly everyone, including himself, has been touched in some way by the awful tragedy of suicide.
"We must all come together to face this issue. There is more power in a chorus than in a single voice," he said.
The church later announced an expanded suicide-prevention website as a prevention tool.
Indeed, the task force is a diverse chorus of Utah leaders from the business sector, religion, media, politics and the LGBTQ community.
The group may find it hard to isolate any single cause for the rise in suicides, but we hope they pay particular attention to the rise in social media use and its attendant online bullying. The nonprofit group Common Sense Media issued a report in 2015 showing teenagers use electronic-screen media an average of nine hours per day. NBC news reported last year that some suicide experts wonder whether young, developing minds are being sufficiently protected online.11 comments on this story
The level of emotion present at the press conference announcing the task force was a testament to the enormous pain that suicide causes in those who are left behind. Cox, who co-chairs the task force with state Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, could barely hold back tears as he spoke of his own dark thoughts as a 10-year-old who had been bullied.
As a tragic coincidence, the press conference was held only hours after Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski had been found dead of an apparent suicide.
Clearly, popularity and the outward appearance of being successful do not preclude people from dark thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.
Learning to understand and recognize warning signs, and finding ways to prevent suicide, will take hard work. We’re glad the state is taking a new leadership role to find ways to help.