Last Saturday, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox shared on Twitter an essay he had written about experiencing suicidal ideation as a child. Recognizing that silence, social shame and high rates of suicide are correlated, Cox displayed critical moral leadership on the issue in choosing to be vulnerable and share his story — creating space for others to do the same. We hope all, including those in leadership positions, will heed Cox’s call to help reverse the stigma that surrounds open discussions of mental health and self-harm.
In the past few months, Utah public officials have placed needed and particular emphasis on essential policy solutions that treat suicide among youths as a public health crisis. These solutions include creating a new teen suicide prevention task force, commissioning a report on suicide to deliver to the Legislature and promoting the SafeUT mobile app for confidential crisis counseling and reporting. While such policy prescriptions are critical to addressing the endemic of suicide, they are not comprehensive fixes.
In his post, Cox offers a personal example of how to appropriately address and subsequently respond to suicidal ideation — a blueprint that all can learn from and follow. One of his anecdotes in particular demonstrates the power of conversation in individual interventions.
Cox described his experience speaking to a group of middle school students at the Capitol. In addition to discussing his day-to-day role as a lieutenant governor, he made sure to bring up the topic of suicide — sharing his story and underscoring the severity of the problem by saying that, statistically, five of the students in the room were seriously considering suicide. In the process, Cox offered himself to the students as someone to talk to if they felt they were at risk.
After the event, one 13-year-old girl approached him, thanking him and letting him know that she had been experiencing suicidal ideation for a long time, but that his story helped her feel less alone. Cox could have left the story there, but his response reveals essential considerations that all should be prepared to undertake after opening a dialogue about suicide.
Cox reports he took the girl aside and spoke with her for a minute. He told her she was “desperately need(ed) on this earth” and asked her to promise not to harm herself. Through tears, he “grabbed her teachers and administrators” and made them promise “they would follow up with her and get her the help she needs.”4 comments on this story
The pattern is simple yet effective: Cox took the disclosure seriously, offering individualized attention, then expressed empathy and ensured the student had a support network that would continue to check in on her.
Utahns should heed Cox’s advice to simply “talk about (suicide) more” — creating healthy spaces for stigma-free discussions of mental health within their communities. But those who engage in conversation must also be prepared to respond with appropriate empathy and sincerity when suicidal thoughts are disclosed.
In the past week, Cox offered a reminder that a community’s capacity to be first-responders in the fight against suicide is as important as any legislative policy prescription.