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What are Utah leaders doing to prevent youth suicides?

SALT LAKE CITY — Julia Ludlow was battling depression when she tried to kill herself in the ninth grade. After swallowing multiple pills, her best friend noticed something was wrong.

“She asked me if I was OK, and that was all it took. Just three words — are you OK?” she said tearfully. “Because she knew and she was educated enough to handle the situation and she knew what to do.”

Her friend had participated in their school’s suicide prevention program Hope4Utah, which trains students to recognize warning signs of depression or suicidality in their peers and to report those signs to an adult.

Julia Ludlow hugs her father, Steven Ludlow, after speaking about her suicide attempt and how several programs in place helped save her life during an event held to address the need for more funding for suicide prevention at the UNI Downtown Behavioral He
Julia Ludlow hugs her father, Steven Ludlow, after speaking about her suicide attempt and how several programs in place helped save her life during an event held to address the need for more funding for suicide prevention at the UNI Downtown Behavioral Health Clinic in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 8, 2019. Also pictured are Congressman Ben McAdams, left, and her mother, Mindy Ludlow, right.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“She stopped me, because she could already see the signs,” she said.

Ludlow shared her story at a news conference with Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, and suicide prevention experts Monday morning at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute Downtown Behavioral Health Clinic in Salt Lake City. The discussion centered on the need for funding suicide crisis prevention and the local efforts made so far to raise awareness.

Now, 17 and graduated from high school, Ludlow credits the suicide prevention program with saving her life.

McAdams called suicide rates in Utah, particularly for young people, a public health crisis.

Currently, the state has the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We need to do more to understand what puts a young person at risk of tragically ending their life," he said. "When a young person commits suicide, it causes heartbreak for family and friends and affects an entire community. They are left wondering what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it."

This year, McAdams supported boosting funding for youth suicide prevention.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, speaks during an event held to address the need for more funding for suicide prevention at the UNI Downtown Behavioral Health Clinic in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 8, 2019.
Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, speaks during an event held to address the need for more funding for suicide prevention at the UNI Downtown Behavioral Health Clinic in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 8, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

He supported two measures included in a bill passed by the House of Representatives to increase grant funding by adding $2 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's injury and prevention control suicide program, and an additional $2 million for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which distributes grants to colleges and universities.

He said suicide prevention is an area where federal funding "can make a huge difference" and save lives through conducting research to understand the risk factors of suicide and having resources available for people in crisis.

"Suicide, like other leading causes of death like cancer, can be addressed if we take the same public health awareness and prevention approach like we have with other public health crises," he said.

Suicide prevention researcher Doug Gray said more soldiers die by suicide than in battle.

"This is a problem we have to address," he said.

He said suicide prevention work requires multiple interventions at many layers, cultural change, time and research.

Gray, who's worked in the field for 25 years, said the first 20 years of his work was like "slogging through mud," but in the last five years he's seen "exponential growth."

Through the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, Gray said the largest study in the world conducted on adolescent suicide is underway. Other research conducted by the University of Utah has identified genes that put people at a higher risk to die by suicide.

For example, the suicide risk from those adopted at birth comes from their biological family, and not the family that adopted them, he said.

University Neuropsychiatric Institute Executive Director Ross Van Vranken, right, invites Julia Ludlow up to speak during an event held to address the need for more funding for suicide prevention at the UNI Downtown Behavioral Health Clinic in Salt Lake C
University Neuropsychiatric Institute Executive Director Ross Van Vranken, right, invites Julia Ludlow up to speak during an event held to address the need for more funding for suicide prevention at the UNI Downtown Behavioral Health Clinic in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 8, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

In locations with high altitudes of 2,000 feet or above, like Utah, it has been found that some people with depression might experience treatment-resistant depression due to the altitude, according to Gray.

"Our teams of researchers are looking for new treatments for high-altitude depression," he said.

Other progress he's seen in Utah is the addition of a suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services, and a suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Board of Education.

"We don’t have a lot of definitive information in terms of what actually causes suicide," said Ross Van Vranken, University Neuropsychiatric Institute executive director. "There are many reasons why people choose to commit suicide. It’s multifactorial, there is no one cause and there’s not going to be one solution."

Van Vranken said University of Utah Health and University Neuropsychiatric Institute, for a number of years, have focused on suicide prevention. He said the addition of new programs and crisis response throughout the state is in part due to their strong collaboration.

“In the last three years, we’ve provided telephonic, digital and face-to-face intervention on over 264,000 unique individual contacts. That’s a 70 percent increase from where we started three years ago,” he said.

The UNI crisis call center in Salt Lake City operates crisis response for the Crisis Line, Warmline and the Mobile Crisis Outreach teams that assist police officers who are called to a scene when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis.

UNI also operates crisis response through the SafeUT Crisis Chat and Tip Line, a confidential, real-time crisis intervention services for students in Utah.

"We need to better understand how we can attack this crisis in a coordinated approach with local, state and national strategies in the same way that we’ve been able to address other health crises in this country," said Van Vranken.

If someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, resources are available. In Utah, the SafeUT app provides a direct connection to a crisis line. Other resources include the National Hotline, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK); University Neuropsychiatric Institute Crisis line, 801-587-3000; National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.