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Rep. Ben McAdams’ bill to spur suicide prevention research passes House

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, conducts an interview in his new office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019.
Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, conducts an interview in his new office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Behind the alarming rise in suicide across the country are heart-wrenching stories of loss.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, related one about KSL-TV news anchor Lori Prichard in a speech on the House floor ahead of a vote on his bipartisan legislation to spur research to address the crisis.

Prichard returned to work earlier this month after a nearly five-month absence following the death of her husband, Travis, who died by suicide last summer. McAdams noted that she “courageously” shared her personal story with viewers and readers.

Prichard talked about how she didn’t know her 44-year-old husband, a physical therapist working on a doctoral degree, had struggled with depression in secret for years. He never said anything about having a hard time. A week after his death, she noticed on his phone a call to a national suicide prevention hotline the day before he died.

“Now she’s using her platform in the newsroom to talk about her experience and break the stigma that surrounds mental illness,” McAdams said in his speech.

McAdams said that despite progress in mental health research, questions remain about the scientific understanding and basic knowledge of human genetic, behavioral, social and environmental factors with potential relevance to suicide.

McAdams and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, hope the Advancing Research to Prevent Suicide Act will unlock the answers. The House passed the bill 385-8 on Monday.

The measure directs the National Science Foundation to fund competitive research grants across a range of disciplines, in response to an urgent call from mental health professionals, schools and community leaders across the country who are working to support those in crisis, according to McAdams.

“How we understand human behavior, our social ties, and the environment in which we live can nexus into understanding to what puts people at risk of suicide and how we can support those in crisis,” he said.

At a panel discussion McAdams held with medical professionals, community leaders and advocates, one woman told him her school district has had three students die by suicide this year.

“The immense tragedy of this, young people who die far too early, has left an entire community grieving and reflecting upon how we can help those in need,” he said.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death nationally for people age 15-24, and the leading cause of death for that age group in Utah.

Gonzalez said too many times in meetings with people in Ohio to discuss international trade or a veteran-related policy, the biggest problem on their minds is the growing suicide threat.

There were six suicides in six months in a high school near his districts in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called a “contagion,” he said. Gonzalez also said three of his former college football teammates have taken their own lives in the past year.

It’s imperative, he said, to dig in and find the root causes.

“If we want to make a dent on the issue at hand, we need to be more proactive in finding the causes of suicide clusters and contagions,” Gonzalez said on the House floor. “Our children, our veterans and our neighbors cannot wait much longer.”

The legislation calls for the National Science Foundation to work with the National Institutes of Health to award grants to colleges and universities and nonprofit organizations for research and to promote development of researchers who pursue the study of suicide as a career.