SALT LAKE CITY — As the number of youths dying by suicide in Utah rise, there is growing urgency to understand risk and protective factors and improve prevention efforts.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, joined Utah Department of Health officials on Thursday to request from a State School Board committee the release of education data to further the understanding of youth suicides in Utah.
"As our youth suicide rate has risen, we have realized how much we don't know about the causes and the reasons behind it. Last year, this data's not finalized, but there were approximately 45 adolescent suicides. Just last week we had an 11-year-old die, which is absolutely tragic," Eliason told members of the Utah State Board of Education's Law and Licensing Committee.
While there has been a lot of hypothesizing in the media and by others about "what is driving our rate, it is very complex and there's no simple answers," Eliason said.
The data request, which was approved by the committee and must be approved by the full school board, would be limited to youths ages 10-18 who have died by suicide.
Data collected by state education officials includes information whether children are homeless, receive free or reduced-price school lunch, how many days the students were absent, whether a child received special education services or were enrolled in gifted programs, among other data.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among youths ages 10 to 17, according to the Utah Department of Health. The youth suicide rate in Utah has been consistently higher than the national rate.
"The more we know about a student, the more that we know about a young person, the more that we can look for opportunities for intervention and prevention," said Michael Staley, suicide prevention research coordinator with the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner.
For example, if a student has an individualized education program, that could be an opportunity for screening and prevention activities, he said.
"With our limited resources, we need to focus. That's where we need to point our compass," Staley said.
But board member Lisa Cummins said she believed youths and families will be traumatized by the release of the data, particularly if it is revisited by other researchers once it becomes part of a data set.
"I want to be extraordinarily careful because this is a topic that it so sensitive, that we respect the family's right to privacy and ask permission for the data as opposed to just saying the (Utah State Board of Education) gave it to me because it was free access and I didn't have to ask permission. That violates my rights as a parent," said Cummins, who represents District 11.
Dr. Erik Christensen, chief medical examiner with the Utah Department of Health, said his office has met with most of the affected families as officials seek to learn more about each child's death.
The data will be carefully guarded and protected, he said.
"We do not intend to secondarily release it in any way," Christensen said.
Eliason said the hope is that access to the data would relieve parents of another painful conversation.
The office personally interacts with the parents of most Utah children who take their lives, Staley said.
Last fall, he spoke to one mother within 12 hours of her child's death.
"At that time the word 'suicide' just felt like a knife driving through her and it was such a painful conversation," Staley said.
"That same mother called me back probably six weeks later and said 'Anything, anything, anything I can do, I will do it.' That has been my experience over and over and over again as I speak to parents that they want to be on this train. They don't want anyone else to have to experience the heart-wrenching pain that they have experienced."
Board member Terryl Warner, who is director of victim services for the Cache County Attorney’s Office, spoke in support of the request.
"As one who has to do death notifications for my county, I'm totally supportive of this. If this will help create something that will help us in prevention. It is the most difficult of death notifications that I do," Warner said.