RIVERTON — Last year the Utah Legislature passed eight bills related to mental health and suicide prevention.
This year lawmakers are pushing to do more.
Community members, school district representatives and advocacy groups met last week at an event organized by Action Utah to discuss what bills will be presented in the 2019 legislative session to address suicide prevention and what the public can do to help.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said the 2018 session was unprecedented for mental health and suicide prevention bills. Some of the bills being proposed this year will expand on programs from last year, including one that would give more funding toward the Elementary School Counselor Program created with HB264.
"We know suicide is very preventable, and the good news is that we’re seeing our suicides rates over the past three years stabilize, which is good, and in some demographics we are starting to see those going down, so we’re encouraged about that," Eliason said.
Angie Cook, policy coordinator for Action Utah, said that community outreach was one of the most helpful outcomes from the legislation last year.
“Training the parents on signs of what to look for, that’s how we make change," Cook said.
She said anyone who wants to help with this issue should take QPR training. QPR stands for question, persuade, refer. It is an hour-and-half program showing people how to recognize warning signs and what to do to help anyone who is struggling.
“It’s life-changing, it really is. I’ve unfortunately had to help five people that have reached out to me that have been in a suicide problem, and it really helps you feel educated enough to know what to say," Cook said.
According to Eliason, for the average youth there are 15 minutes or less between when a youth thinks about taking their life and makes an attempt. Because of that, he is looking at ways to ensure firearms are not readily available during that time since in Utah, firearms are the most common method of suicide deaths.
Eliason is proposing HB17, which addresses trigger locks, firearm safety information and suicide prevention courses.
“The reality is that the likelihood that the firearm they purchased is going to be used to kill a member of their own family is exponentially greater than that the firearm is going to be used to stop an intruder from coming into their home," Eliason said.
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, is proposing again this session a so-called "red flag" law. This would give family members and law enforcement the ability to petition for temporarily restricting access to firearms when someone is making threats or could be a danger to themselves or others.
"Suicides are not typically long-term planned things, they’re quick things, and so what this law is determined to do is to create space and time and distance," Handy said.
Thirteen states have passed similar legislation, and 18 states are currently considering it.
Improving availability of medical care professionals is seen as another way legislation can help with suicide prevention. Eliason said Utah ranks 49th in the nation for access to primary care physicians and is also far below average for access to psychiatrists.
"Mental health issues and suicide are the leading cause of death for teenagers. We need to do better," Eliason said.
Other bills planned during this session will also address access to mental health professionals, including funding to increase residency spots in the University of Utah psychiatry program and creating a help desk for physicians to call and speak with a mental health professional so they can help their patients immediately instead of referring them.Comment on this story
Cook encouraged searching for suicide prevention on the Utah Legislature website to see the proposed legislation and following specific bills to receive updates. She also suggested talking to senators and representatives.
"You can jump in and start making a difference, and we need everybody’s voice," Cook said.
Eliason stressed letting legislators know this is important to you and asking them what they are doing about the issue.
"The good news is this is an extremely bipartisan issue, it’s not even bipartisan, it’s nonpartisan … something everyone should agree with," Eliason said.