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Utah youth aim to ‘start a conversation’ about suicide with vigil

SHARE Utah youth aim to ‘start a conversation’ about suicide with vigil

Whitney Geertsen delivers a speech about her battle with depression and her attempt at suicide during a vigil for people who have died by suicide in the Capitol rotunda in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. The Youth of Utah Advocacy Coalition hosted the event.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Athena Schwartz was 15 years old and in freshman English class when their cell phone rang.

It was a close friend from summer camp, calling to say he was feeling suicidal.

“I froze,” Schwartz remembered, years later. “My head spun. I tried to remain calm and tell him how much I loved and appreciated him. I held back tears as he hung up the phone.”

An hour later, the friend texted Schwartz with an update that came as a relief: he was safe. It was the first, but not the last, brush the now-third-year University of Utah student would have with suicide or suicidal thoughts. Since then, Schwartz, who uses them and they pronouns, has lost six friends, acquaintances, and loved ones to suicide, including two people they were close to. Schwartz has also attempted suicide multiple times.

Stories like Schwartz’s are not uncommon in Utah, a state with one of the highest suicide rates in the country. Utah had the sixth-highest suicide rate in 2017, according to the most recent available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the leading cause of death that year for Utahns in their teens and early 20s, statistics from the Utah Department of Health show, with an average of 13 people treated in Utah hospitals for self-inflicted injuries each day.

Despite these numbers, Schwartz sees a “stigma” still attached to suicide in Utah — but they hope events like the vigil held at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday night, organized by the Youth of Utah Advocacy Coalition, can help bring the issue out into the open. Speakers at the vigil, most of whom were Utahns in their teens or twenties, shared personal stories about their suicide attempts or suicidal ideation with a small but attentive audience. The goal was to “start a conversation,” said Schwartz, one of the organizers of the event.

“It’s kind of one of those issues where people lower their voice,” Schwartz said. “When everyone’s whispering and no one’s really talking about it, it makes those struggling with suicide or those who have lost others to suicide feel alone. It just makes the whole issue worse.”

After an “incredibly troubling upward trend in suicide” over the last decade, the state has begun to see its suicide rate level off, said Kim Myers, suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services. She noted that there has been “a ramping up of efforts” to address the issue in recent years.

But even stabilized, the Beehive State’s suicide rate remains one of the highest in the country.

Now, “it is time to see that trend turn downward,” Myers said. “This is not the success story we need, stabilization at very high rates.”

While Myers sees reason for optimism in some advancements in treatment in the health care realm, “much of what we need to do with suicide prevention will happen outside the walls of health care,” she said. Namely, reducing the societal stigma around the subject.

Theodora Soter, an advocate with the Youth of Utah Advocacy Coalition and a senior at Skyline High School in Millcreek, told the crowd that she’d struggled while writing her remarks for the vigil. How would she tell strangers about experiencing “the depths of despair and darkness,” about the months of therapy and medicine and hospitalization?

“As hard as it is for me, I think sharing is the first step to helping a community,” Soter said. “I’m here tonight because I know the terror of that feeling, and the isolation that comes along with it. I’m here tonight because I want to make a safer community for those around me.”