SALT LAKE CITY — Media coverage of Tuesday's ceremonial signing of eight pieces of legislation on suicide prevention and mental health issues will very likely give families "permission" to have needed conversations on these sensitive topics, said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
"This ceremonial bill signing, just like the bills that were actually signed, can save lives," Cox said during an event at the offices of the University Neuropsychiatric Institute's Crisis Call Center.
Likewise, media reports about Gov. Gary Herbert signing the bills intended to enhance mental health services in communities and schools will reach people contemplating suicide or parents of children who are thinking about ending their lives.
"A mom is going to go down to her kid's room tonight and ask if they've been thinking about suicide. It's going to start some really important conversations that we need and we need give people permission to have those conversations and have them more often. It's only way we're going to turn this around and change this," said Cox, co-chairman of the Suicide Prevention Task Force launched by Herbert earlier this year.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who sponsored or co-sponsored most of the bills signed by Herbert, said state lawmakers passed a record number bills on mental-health and suicide prevention in 2018, "possibly more than all sessions since statehood combined."
The Utah Legislature also appropriated a record amount of new funding to related programs and services, he said.
"From our calculations, we had a 30-fold funding increase over the next best session for mental health," said Eliason, co-chairman of the task force.
The eight bills passed by lawmakers will add counselors to Utah schools, bolster the work of mental health crisis workers and expand the scope of youth suicide prevention programs in public schools, among other initiatives.
Cox, who served in the Utah Legislature before Herbert named him his lieutenant governor in 2013, said lawmakers' funding decisions "tell you most about what the Legislature stands for."
Herbert noted that there are few Utahns who haven't been touched by the issue of suicide.
"It leaves a hole in our society and it leaves a hole in our hearts," he said.
But he said he is heartened that government and private sector partners are working together on raising awareness and offering support.
Herbert said the Governor's Suicide Prevention Fund has been created to accept grants or gifts to further suicide prevention activities by the state Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
HB370, one of the eight bills signed by Herbert on Tuesday, also creates a mechanism for taxpayers to contribute their income tax refunds to the fund.
The fund has already received a $150,000 gift from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and $50,000 from Intermountain Healthcare, he said.
As elected officials, religious leaders and community members celebrated the passage of the legislation and funding of key initiatives, licensed clinical social workers were hard at work down the hall answering telephones and responding to texts from people experiencing mental health challenges or those seeking service referrals.
Eliason said he and others are laboring to increase awareness of the SafeUT app. The cell phone app, which can be downloaded free from the App Store or Google Play, provides youths and their parents confidential and anonymous two-way communication with crisis counselors at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute or school staffs via one-touch options to "Call Crisisline," "Chat Crisisline," or "Submit a Tip."
Barry Rose, manager of the institute's crisis services, said mental health professionals on the receiving end of those texts and calls are carefully studying data showing rising demand for services, and are looking for new resources to support the crisis line's efforts beyond the new funding appropriated by lawmakers.
Numbers of chats and tips reported via the SafeUT app have escalated from 994 in 2016 to 26,175 so far this year.
"So we're trying to be strategic in how we promote it. Our main focus, of course, has been youth and children but now we're starting to enroll the University of Utah and higher education," Rose said.
The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basics. The national crisis hotline is 1-800-784-2433.