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After decade of increases, Utah’s suicide rate dropped slightly in 2018, report says

Robyn Burningham looks at the SafeUT app at her home in West Jordan on Thursday, June 9, 2016. The app provides students confidential and anonymous two-way communication with SafeUT crisis counselors or school staff via one-touch options to “Call Crisisli Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s suicide rate fell slightly in 2018, the first time in several years that the rate did not increase over the previous year, according to a new Department of Human Services report.

“It is notable that 2018 saw the first decrease in suicide rates in well over a decade from 22.7 to 22.2 (per 100,000 people). The decrease is not statistically significant nor does it represent a trend change, however, it is worth noting given the year-over-year increase for many years,” according to the fiscal year 2019 report of State Suicide Prevention Programs by the state Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

“Stabilization of suicide rates at very high rates is not the success story we need, we do recognize the opportunity to now double down on efforts in order to continue trending in the right direction,” the report states.

At first glimpse, there was a lot of excitement, even tears, when the 2018 data indicated Utah’s suicide rate had not increased over the previous year, said Michael Staley, with the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner.

“Then there was this moment of pause, where we kind of had to look around and say, ‘But what does this mean?’

“I think that is so important to remind folks this is not the time to pack our bags and go home and call this a win. This is the time to double down on what we’re doing because there’s evidence here, even though it’s kind of arbitrary and not causal, but there seems to be some suggestion here that what we’re doing is working,” said Staley, who coordinates suicide prevention research.

Barry Rose, crisis services manager for the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, said the slight decrease “at least indicates we’re on the right track and we’ve made some investments that are paying off.”

Reducing suicide deaths “was really our first major goal, not that our group here is the reason this happened, but we would like to think we were part of it. I think all of us collectively, our goal as the state, county mental health division and everyone involved, is just to see we could stop it from increasing, at least to level off, and continue to work toward decreasing those numbers,” he said.

Much work remains, Staley said.

Suicide is the seventh-leading cause of death in Utah, and the suicide rates in the Rocky Mountain states lead the nation. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Utah’s suicide rate ranks sixth nationally. Montana has the highest rate followed by Alaska, Wyoming, New Mexico and Idaho, according to the foundation.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who has labored to bring more attention and resources to suicide prevention and expanding mental health services, said Utah’s 2018 numbers indicate “we’re making progress.”

Eliason said he is fond of American Revolutionary War naval commander John Paul Jones’ famous quote, “I have not yet started to fight.”

“We’ve started (to fight) but the numbers are still so high. There’s still so much work to do and things we know we can do that will work,” Eliason said.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, speaks during the Utah Taxpayers Association 2018 Legislative Outlook Conference, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

According a 2018 Utah Department of Health report, an average of 592 Utahns die from suicide annually. More than 4,500 Utahns ages 10 and up attempt suicide each year.

Use of a firearm is the most common method of suicide in Utah, accounting for nearly half of all deaths, followed by suffocation at 25% and poisoning at 19.9%.

One of the best approaches to combat death by suicide is putting more effort into proper firearm storage, Eliason said.

“Suicidal crises are short but intense in duration. Whether or not someone has access to a firearm or other lethal means during that typically short window often determines if they live or die,” he said.

The most recent data says 6,039 Utahns were seen in emergency departments for suicide attempts, according to 2014 numbers, and 2,314 Utahns were hospitalized for self-inflicted injuries including suicide attempts.

The Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse report also notes that self-reported suicide attempts decreased from 7.1% to 6.9% from 2017 to 2019 after multiple years with increases.

According to the report, 1 in 15 Utah adults reported having had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Student Health and Risk Prevention Survey showed 16.4% of youth in grades six through 12 reported seriously considering suicide. In the past 12 months, 6.9% of Utah youth grades six through 12 attempted suicide one or more times.

The Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse report reflects a broad array of approaches to raise awareness about mental health and prevent suicide.

They include partnerships with local mental health authorities, firearm safety events, expansion of crisis services, drug takeback events and skills, training of “gatekeepers,” people who may be in a position to recognize a crisis and the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide.

More than 9,500 were trained in skills such as Suicide Alertness for Everyone, or SafeTALK, Mental Health First Aid, and Question, Persuade and Refer. Eighty-four percent of participants said the classes gave them skills they needed for “appropriate mental health and suicide-related intervention,” the report states.

The report indicates that growing numbers of people are seeking help from the University Neuropsychiatric Institute Crisis Line.

“Generally our numbers have been going up really dramatically in the last two or three years. We’ve gone from a 6,000 to 7,000 calls per month range to almost 10,000 this last month. So percentagewise, we’re increasing rapidly,” Rose said,

Rose said utilization of the institute’s SafeUT app, which provides real-time crisis intervention to youths, is also growing exponentially. It received 3,700 tips and chats during the month of October, its highest monthly usage to date.

The SafeUT Crisis Text and Tip Line provides 24/7 crisis intervention to youth through texting and a confidential tip program via smartphone. The cellphone app can be downloaded free from Apple’s App Store or Google Play.

The effort to reduce Utah’s suicide rate has broadened beyond government agencies, nonprofit organizations and the private treatment and advocacy organizations. Faith-based organizations and private companies are stepping up, too, Staley said.

“I’ve seen people who are typically not stakeholders in this effort become stakeholders. I think you’re really starting to see that in workplaces now, where they’re saying, ‘Our productivity is directly tied to the mental health of our employees.’ So these things tend to get more traction now. Unfortunately, I have to say that some of that is probably due to businesses and organizations that have experienced a suicide death within an organization that’s motivated them to come to the table,” he said.

Doug Thomas, director of the Utah Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said the progress can be attributed to a comprehensive strategic plan among public and private partners that is focused on a “zero suicide” framework.

“We are glad to see our efforts are starting to make a positive impact in people’s lives and recognize the need to do more if we want to sustain the impact and start a new trend, one of saving more lives, preventing suicide by reducing known risk factors, augmenting protective factors and helping people get the support they need during and after a suicidal episode,” Thomas said.

Eliason said all Utahns can play a part in further reducing the state’s suicide rate.

“Reducing our suicide rate is not something that one or two government agencies can just unilaterally do. It takes the citizens in general to become educated on the basics and know how they can play a role, because everybody can play a role.

“That’s what we need to continue seeing these numbers go lower, and we need to see the numbers go lower, much lower. So we’re happy the numbers are going down, but Utah along with the other Rocky Mountain states’ numbers are still far above national averages,” he said.