HERRIMAN — When therapists and doctors told Heidi Swapp years ago that her son was anxious and depressed, she said, "It just didn't add up. I didn't understand."
Cody, her 16-year-old, hadn't shut her out, isolated himself or turned mean, Swapp said. But now, three years after his death, she realizes he was battling "a perfect storm" of difficulties.
Though she won't know if they would have saved her son, she has learned new ways of addressing her children when they cause her stress. Her new approach includes taking a moment to calm down, not assuming she has all the answers and making sure she listens to their concerns, she told about 400 people gathered in a middle school auditorium in Herriman Thursday evening.
As Herriman copes with suicides of several teens in the last year, such advice on how to prevent similar tragedies in the future was welcome.
"We're scared. And that's OK. We can be scared and worried and make a difference, and we can evolve," Swapp said.
Those in attendance at the forum at Copper Mountain Middle School included couples, families with teens, school administrators and health officials. Several jotted down notes as they listened during the two-hour meeting.
"This event tonight is not going to end suicide or suicidal behavior in Herriman. But it's a start," said Michael Staley, the state medical examiner's suicide prevention research coordinator.
Pastors, counselors, doctors and others also weighed in during the forum organized by Herriman Community Awareness, a group formed in recent weeks to address the issue of deaths among teens in the community.
Seven teens who took their lives in the last year either were enrolled at Herriman High or had recently graduated or transferred to a new school, according to Jordan School District.
At the meeting, Staley cautioned that "suicide cannot be easily explained," but factors that put students more at risk include moving homes or schools, social isolation, depression and access to alcohol, drugs and guns.
He said research suggests that depressed youths may use drugs to feel better. And a key way for parents help them is to limit how much time they spend on phone and social media, he said.
"Lock up your guns, your medication, and let's start using our smartphones responsibly," he said.
Online interactions are no substitute for the face-to-face exchanges that are important to mental health, added Kyndel Marcroft, a counselor.
Herriman's recent tragedies are a magnified version of a statewide problem.
A 2017 study conducted by the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that from 2011 to 2015, the frequency of youth suicides in Utah more than doubled, to 11 per 100,000. The Utah rate is more than 2.5 times the national average.
And 42 young Utahns from ages 10 to 17 killed themselves in 2017, according to preliminary data.
A state task force to study the issue led the 2018 Utah Legislature to infuse millions in state budget money for more school counselors, mental health hotlines and new crisis teams that can make house calls.
Darrell Robinson, a Jordan School District board member who represents Herriman and part of Riverton, said the district had received several calls from people asking how they could help and show support at Thursday's event — a change from last year, when the issue of teen suicides wasn't on the district's radar. But he still has some anxiety as summer approaches, he said, because even though it can be stressful, school "does provide eyes and ears."
Several at the meeting acknowledged the student deaths have taken a toll on police officers, teachers, counselors and others.
"To those of you that are hurting, I know you're hurting. But please remember: There is hope," said Talitha Hanks, an actor and one of the event's organizers.
The Centers for Disease Control has previously told the Deseret News said that there is limited scientific evidence supporting contagion — one suicide leading to another — and that the CDC has worked with communities to identify clusters of suicide, but the vagueness around the concept it has made it difficult to assess.
No matter the exact cause of the deaths may be, Herriman High students have stepped up to help.21 comments on this story
A YouTube video from from a student group shows Herriman school employees telling students of their own personal challenges, adding: "We get it." And students recently held a "blackout," urging classmates to set aside their smartphones and focus on talking in person.
Teddy Hodges, another Herriman Community Awareness organizer, said more, similar events would be planned for later dates, along with monthly mental health awareness classes.
Correction: A previous version misidentified the school where the meeting took as Copper Hills Middle School. It is Copper Mountain Middle School.