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Utah Rep. Chris Stewart: America must get serious about suicide prevention

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Rep. Chris Stewart speaks to the hundreds who turned out for a town hall meeting at West High School in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 31, 2017.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The conversation about suicide prevention has been taboo for too long. Too many of us know someone who has been impacted by suicide. Following suicide, the terrible pain and suffering of the victim is often carried by families and loved ones long after they are gone. The devastating effect of such tragedies on our communities, and on our youth, compels us to shine a light on mental health issues that were once stigmatized. 

There is a place for the federal government in addressing this epidemic. When I first came to Congress, I didn’t realize we were in the midst of a mental health and suicide crisis, especially among our youth and veterans. That is why I introduced the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, assigning 9-8-8 as the three-digit dialing code for mental health crisis intervention. This is just one example of a necessary federal solution. 

This week I joined with my colleague, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., in the House of Representatives to introduce another measure, the bipartisan Suicide Prevention Act. This bill provides much needed resources to improve prevention, authorizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, to partner with state and local health departments and community organizations to identify early trends and intervention options.  

Here in Utah, we have the fifth highest suicide rate in the nation. This problem hits our youth particularly hard. So many of my constituents have been personally impacted. I have been touched by their stories. After meeting one-on-one with some of these families, I knew there had to be more we could do. There is a very real need for greater emphasis on mental health issues at the federal, state and local levels. 

Last week I hosted a round table event in Salt Lake City to bring together legislators, community leaders and advocates with an interest in addressing this crisis. We recognize that the problem is complicated. But each institution — such as government, health care and families — has a role to play.

The government’s role in addressing this crisis starts with improving the tools that experts and emergency personnel have, in order to help identify current trends and mobilize mental health support where intervention can be most effective.  

We recognize that the problem is complicated. But each institution — such as government, health care and families — has a role to play.

To my surprise, the most recent data from the CDC on suicide dates back to 2018. By improving data collection and sharing through this legislation, we can better evaluate solutions and respond in real time to help save lives.

This bill creates a starting point as we seek new opportunities for collaboration among various levels of government. For example, we know that approximately 37% of individuals without a previous history of mental health or substance abuse who die by suicide visit an emergency department within the year before their death. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the risk of suicide is greatest within a month of discharge from the hospital. Armed with that information, we were able to write into the bill funding for grants that ensure professionals have the resources they need to save lives. Those grants will establish programs to better train staff to screen and respond to at-risk patients in that specific environment where we know intervention can make a difference. 

It is my hope that additional information will reveal other trends that lead us to new and more effective interventions. Over time, this will help us better focus resources to save lives.

U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.