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Utah governor assembles team to tackle surge in teen suicides

SALT LAKE CITY — When police came to talk to Kurt Radtke about his daughter, he was certain there had been a car accident. He had recently bought her a big SUV "so no one could hurt her."

It would have at least given him something to blame and saved him from the agony he's experienced since Sept. 21, 2016, when 16-year-old Madison Radtke died from suicide.

"In a million years, I wouldn't have thought that something like this would happen to us," he said. "She was a remarkable young lady, a pretty well-rounded kid."

Maddie's choice was similar to many others her age, as a growing number of teens in the Intermountain West are choosing to end their lives. Utah experienced a 140 percent increase in the years between 2011 and 2015, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the surge needs to stop.

"Every life is important and has worth," he said. "We need to talk about it."

Herbert has appointed a group of top-notch business and religious leaders, as well as representatives from education and health care, among others, to meet and discuss what's being done and what can be done to better prevent suicide in the state of Utah.

They have until Feb. 15 to present a proposal to the governor — something he can take to the Legislature. It's evidence of the urgency Herbert feels on the matter.

"There isn't anything worse, other than the deed itself, than worrying about whether a family member is on the verge of committing suicide or what you can do to help them," said Gail Miller, chairwoman of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies. She said it's likely that everyone knows someone who has been affected by suicide. The issue can be taken personally.

"There are ways to help," she said. "Our future is at risk and we need to do what we can to help."

The Miller companies have led out with the Anti-bullying Coalition, aiming to give kids access to help when they need it, via a tip line at every school. In the two years it has been available, Miller said at least 34 lives have been saved.

"We believe that every person should be able to embrace his or her individuality and uniqueness and that every child deserves a non-threatening environment, where they feel like they belong," she said.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, has worked for years to advance legislation dealing with suicide prevention, but not with such champions on-board, backing his ideas, perhaps with the money he needs to get things done.

"We'll take all the help we can get," Eliason said, adding that he's also creating a state fund for public and private donations to be directed to suicide prevention efforts.

The SafeUT smartphone application, a crisis line, he said, is already in place and making a difference in the lives of Utah kids. Access to it needs to be expanded and more counselors need to be made available to answer every call, Eliason said.

Ninety schools throughout Utah are awaiting help with configuring Hope Squads, which offer peer support and mentoring to kids who are struggling.

And parents, Eliason said, "can and should play the most important role in helping their teens."

"Stay close to your children. Be in their world. Love them no matter what," he said, adding a plea for parents to keep firearms secured. Any Utahn can obtain a free trigger lock by emailing

He said he hopes parents will safeguard their homes in all ways and keep lines of communication with children open and active.

Radtke, a member of the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, said he's open to talking to anyone about suicide these days.

"We don't want another family to go through this," the retired combat veteran living in West Valley City said. "It is the most devastating thing anybody could ever imagine as a parent."

Radtke said he'd do anything to be able to go back in time and ask Maddie, his youngest, if she was thinking of taking her own life. He said she was accomplished and artistic and kind, "always taking on the world's problems."

"She could help everybody, except for herself," he said. "She was just such a gift, just an amazing kid."

Elder Ronald A. Rasband, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said nearly everyone has a personal story of suicide.

"We must all come together to face this issue," he said. "There is more power in a chorus than in a single voice."

Elder Rasband said Utah's history of coming together on important issues can produce much needed results and he said the church is "committed to do all that we can do."

"We're not the only owner of good ideas," he said. "We're not the only institution that is calling down the power of heaven to try and help Heavenly Father's children."

Pooling resources with other big names and organizations, he said, will advance the cause and hopefully spread information more quickly and thoroughly to all Utahns and those who need it most.

"We will do everything we can to talk you out of it," Elder Rasband said. "We can express love if that's what you need, find you a friend if that's what you need, do any number of things that can make a difference in your life."

Intermountain Healthcare recently discovered that teen suicide was a top issue for most respondents to its statewide needs assessment. And in response, the organization hopes to help decrease Utah's suicide rate by at least 10 percent by 2021 and plans to address it at the level of primary care, said Mikelle Moor, senior vice president of community health at Intermountain.

She said they will offer training to providers and access to treatment for teens who need it, as well as firearm safety and mental health screenings to all patients.

"We really aspire for zero suicides," Moore said.

Eliason said 44 kids died from suicide in 2017, which amounts to "3,000 years they could have lived had they not lost hope in that one moment."

The task force, directed by Eliason and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, will meet and draw upon methods and practices implemented by organizations already working toward decreasing statistics of suicide in Utah, including the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, which already combines community partners in ways to help families keep their children around.

"One of the issues that we have the hardest time talking about can be solved by talking about it," Cox said, adding that Utahns would never tolerate knowing as many kids were dying from Ebola virus or otherwise preventive conditions.

"We know suicide can be prevented," he said. Cox asked that Utah not forget LGBT teens, who are particularly vulnerable to depression and suicide.

"Everyone needs to know they are loved and they are part of the human family," he said.

Other members of the task force include Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton; Taryn Aiken, Utah director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Sydnee Dickson, Utah State Board of Education superintendent; Dr. Doug Gray, a child and adolescent behavioral health researcher with the University of Utah School of Medicine; Intermountain Healthcare CEO Marc Harrison; Kim Myers, suicide prevention coordinator with Utah Department of Human Services; Tanya Vea, vice president and general manager of KSL; Ross Van Vraken, executive director at the Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute at the U.; and Troy Williams, executive director at Equality Utah.

Herbert said more people may be appointed and others familiar with the issue will be asked to provide input and direction to the group.

"It's going to take all of us," Herbert said. "We need to see if we can do something about this."