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Utah lost 574 to suicide last year, but prevention efforts are moving forward

SALT LAKE CITY — Airen Goodman says she struggled with self-esteem issues and abuse in her adolescence. Now she spends her time helping people in crisis.

Goodman, a certified peer specialist at University Neuropsychiatric Institute, is entrenched in the battle to prevent suicide, providing one-on-one solutions to one of Utah's most difficult problems.

"I really like going out in the field and meeting new people and seeing the different types of struggles people are going through and then sharing my experiences with them," Goodman said. "I love the fact of when we go out, I go in there and someone is in total despair, and then we're leaving the home laughing and talking about something enlightening."

It's work that needs doing: 574 people in Utah committed suicide in 2013, 13 more than the previous year. And it's a number that includes teenagers and adults, men and women.

There were more than 45,000 calls to Salt Lake's crisis lines, with help rendered to those who are struggling. Local experts say that more is now being done than ever before to bring the suicide problem out from the shadows and connect families and their loved ones with solutions to this preventable cause of death.

"I have to work to keep from getting down, but, actually, there's a lot of cool things going on in our state right now," said Dr. Doug Gray, a psychiatrist and suicidologist at the University of Utah.

"I've been doing this 20 years, but this is by far the best year we've ever had. We're getting help from the Legislature. For 19 years, I tried to get a suicide coordinator for the state, and (Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy) got us two last year."

Eliason sponsored the bill that led to the hiring of Kimberly Myers as suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services, and Debi Lewis, her suicide prevention counterpart at the Utah State Office of Education.

Myers said the state has a goal to drop the number of suicides: "A 10 percent decrease in suicides by 2019," she said. "We're invested in reducing our suicide rates … and we have seen other states that have done it."

Myers and Lewis said they are focused on education, training and connecting and coordinating resources statewide.

Last month the Salt Lake County-based CrisisLine fielded 3,800 calls. "That's pretty typical," Don Finnemore, University Neuropsychiatric Institute's crisis intervention specialist, said.

Finnemore and Barry Rose, UNI's crisis services manager, oversee and coordinate a "warm line" used to connect those in crisis or recovery with peer specialists — Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, a receiving center and a recovery center, all focused on helping Utahns in a mental health crisis.

Myers, who, just before taking the Department of Human Services job, managed the prevention by design program for the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Utah, said more and more people across the state are joining in the conversation about suicide prevention.

"I think that there is change starting," she said. "I think there are more people who are seeking information, challenging the misinformation that has been out there for years. There are more people out there willing to talk about it, but we have a lot of work to do still.

Awareness fights stigma

"We know through various studies that stigma is still the No. 1 barrier to care. We need to keep that (awareness) going and not be satisfied with a little bit of progress," Myers said.

Goodman said she agrees and sees it when she goes out on calls. She wants people to know there isn't any shame in seeking help.

"I always tell people it doesn't hurt to try anything new, because what you're trying now isn't working if you are still feeling this way," Goodman said. "It doesn't hurt to make the call. You never know who is out there to help you what kind of help is available. It's OK to ask the questions."

Myers said tackling suicide requires a multi-pronged approach that includes community education and community-based training. Last year, 10,000 people statewide were trained through such programs.

"We're excited about the progress there," she said, noting that they are hoping to have people trained or currently in training in as many communities as possible. "We want these efforts to be sustainable," Myer said. "We don't want it to be a one-time thing. I could go out and do a training in every county or city in the state, but it's not going to have the impact of someone who knows the community dynamic."

She said they are also working to train clinicians and health professionals. Research shows that more than half of those who commit suicide have seen their primary care providers within a month of their death, so training those in clinics to screen for suicide risks is crucial.

"It fits in with the approach that everyone has to be engaged," she said.

Educating the educators

Lewis said training has also been key in school efforts. She said her office is developing a suicide prevention training model to send out to the districts, "so everyone from bus drivers to lunch ladies to educators and counselors will feel confident in recognizing what those warning signs are."

In August, prevention specialists in every school district and at charter schools across the state attended a suicide prevention training. They were then charged with preparing and presenting a suicide prevention seminar for parents in their area.

"It's vital that parents are involved because … teachers are not with a student 24/7 and parents aren't with a student 24/7," Lewis said. "Hopefully, when students are in the schools, teachers can recognize when a child is in need and assist them and, at home, parents know what to look for and they can help their child."

She said parents should watch for extreme changes in behavior and urged them to ask the direct questions. They should also take note of the available resources in their area.

"No one wants to lose a child to suicide. No one wants a child to feel that overwhelming feeling that life is not worth living," Lewis said. "It's a community effort — not just teachers or parents. We're really excited and looking forward to building up that effort together to be able to truly help students."

Helping those in crisis

Rose and Finnemore have spent the better part of 25 years working to help those in crisis in Salt Lake County, first at Valley Mental Health and now at UNI. They have worked part time doing crisis evaluations in emergency rooms and volunteered in the state's mental health courts.

At UNI, there are resources that offer help. From the statewide CrisisLine at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to the Warm Line to the mobile crisis units to the receiving and recovery center,

"It's a dream come true," Rose said. "There's nobody in the country that wouldn't want what we have. It's something I dreamed about my whole career."

Last month, Rose said mobile crisis outreach teams — which are made up of a licensed mental health professional and a certified peer specialist — went out on 228 calls.

"The mobile crisis team is really like a third wheel in the emergency response system," Finnemore said. "Police are there for safety, fire is there for medical, and we're there for behavioral health and mental health issues."

They can also do follow-up calls and visits, and Finnemore said if they know of someone who is psychotic, but not dangerous, they may go check on that person three or four times a week for a few weeks. With one outpost at UNI and another in Daybreak, their goal is to be anywhere in the county within 30 minutes.

Of the 3,800 CrisisLine calls, Fennimore said about 10 percent rise to the level of requiring a visit from a mobile unit.

"Those numbers just continue to build as more and more people know about us," he said. "A lot of times we have people who maybe called us a year ago and got good service and are calling us back this year because they're in crisis again. There's somebody available 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Rose said he feels lucky that Salt Lake County saw the need for the crisis programs and funded them. He said they provide better services for people, and save the county money when people get the help they need without going to an emergency rooms or calling law enforcement.

"These are cost-saving measures," Rose said. "And not only that, but they save emotional costs and lives."

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