SALT LAKE CITY — Most Utah schools spent $1,000 or less on suicide prevention programs, according a survey conducted in late 2017 by state education officials.
One-fifth of respondents said their school has a plan after a suicide, but few people in the school know about it, the survey of 111 schools says.
Cathy Davis, suicide prevention specialist, told a committee of the State School Board Friday that youth suicide is a serious public health issue for the state and the nation.
"Suicide has been the leading cause of death for Utah teens the past five years, claiming over 206 youth. The number of youths ages 10 to 17 increased by 141 percent from 2011 to 2015, and Utah has the fifth-highest suicide rate in the nation among this age group," said Davis, addressing the board's Standards and Assessment Committee.
Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported suicide rates rose steadily in nearly every state, increasing 25 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2016.
In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides.
While Utah educators and the community at large has been focused on understanding the youth suicide trends and to provide appropriate responses after a death by suicide, much work remains to enhance prevention efforts, Davis said.
The results of the schools survey were shared with the State School Board committee as part of a larger report titled "Addressing Suicide Prevention and School-based Mental Health; A K-12 Approach for Utah Schools."
According to the survey, 88 percent of schools spent $1,000 or less on suicide prevention programs. More than half spent between zero and $500, the survey shows.
That should change with the passage of HB370, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, which will increase the funding available for the implementation of school-based suicide prevention programs.
But the survey findings also point to the need for more school counselors and social workers. State lawmakers also increased funding in this area, but state board members said more needs to be done to increase the number of professionals whose primary assignments involve addressing the emotional needs of students.
Deputy State Superintendent Patty Norman said school counselors have multiple duties that can conflict with serving emotional needs of students. Anxiety tends to spike during periods of standard testing, but counselors in some schools have less time to meet with students because they are proctoring tests.
A "best practice" reminder — something short of a policy — may be helpful to "emphasize the appropriate use of counselors we have and maximize the time they do have with students," Norman said.
Davis said alliances with school nurses have also been formed.
"My experience is (we need) not only more counselors in schools but more healthy, trained adults" to assist struggling students, said board member Carol Lear.
The survey, completed in December, also showed 85 percent of schools surveyed said they utilize the SafeUT app.2 comments on this story
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.”
"It's important to know moving into summer students have a resource," Davis said.
Board member Janet Cannon said the State School Board will conduct strategic planning in July. Suicide prevention needs to be a policy priority, she said.
"I hear about these things and it just devastates me. Whatever we can do," she said.