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Utahns advocate for suicide prevention and mental health legislation

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Laurel Morgan, 17, a student at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, hangs a card along with other remembrances and messages of hope as part of Suicide Prevention Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns who’ve been personally impacted by suicide came to the Capitol Thursday to share their stories with lawmakers and urge them to consider legislation pertaining to mental health.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention event, held for the fourth year in a row, welcomed numerous lawmakers who filtered in and out of the room where volunteers congregated. Several legislators spoke about their bills and others signed a suicide prevention pledge tacked on the back wall.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and the issue is even more prevalent in Utah where it is the seventh, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drawing on these statistics, Taryn Hiatt, director of the Utah chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said a record number of advocates showed up at the event this year and noted that she’s hopeful seeing the legislators come out to listen and engage with volunteers.

“Everyone in this room has been impacted by suicide, whether they’ve lost a loved one or struggled themselves,” she told the Deseret News. “So (today) is really getting a voice to that need for suicide prevention in our state. We need to continue our good work to recognize it as the health issue that it is.”

Hiatt pointed to HB32, a bill that relates to crisis response treatment and resources, and another bill that is still being drafted pertaining to mental health insurance requirements as some of the legislation the group backs.

She also said they are advocating for an extreme risk protective order bill to allow families and law enforcement to petition courts to temporarily strip a firearm from a person in crisis. However, bill sponsor Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, recently told the Deseret News he is likely to drop the bill amid lack of support.

Hiatt said that though the bill has encountered a lot of resistance, they plan to continue the conversation because families need to have another “tool” to get a gun away from a loved one at risk of harming themself.

Volunteer Makayla James said she came out to talk to lawmakers for personal reasons.

“I’ve lost multiple family members and friends to suicide,” James said. “Just experiencing that and knowing that if they had the recourses we have today, that probably could have helped them — I know it can help a lot of people.”

James said she felt it was important to come out and share her story with lawmakers so they’ll have a face to attach to the issues.

“I think it’ll do amazing things for so many people, so might as well try,” she said.

The room erupted into cheers each time a lawmaker stepped into the room where the group met for a midday press conference.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, both came in to speak about two bills HB32, which would expand mobile crisis outreach teams, and SB89, which would create a pilot program to help a group of people who are at the highest risk of suicide.

“We all know how far we have to go. We all know the risks, we all know the dangers, we all know the challenges we have left to overcome. We all know how much there is to do,” Thatcher said about SB89. “But for just a minute I want us to think back to how far we’ve come.”

He noted that six years ago the state didn’t have a three-digit suicide hotline, and when he introduced legislation to create one, it did not pass. But, Thatcher said, the Legislature did approve the creation of a commission that eventually became SafeUT.

SafeUT has been expanded to all of the state’s schools and now, instead of having 22 separate state-sponsored suicide hotlines — half of which went to voicemail — there is only one.

But a gap remains, Thatcher said. That’s where his bill comes in.

He explained that when someone is stabilized on a suicide hotline, they are passed down to a warm line where they are directed to further resources. At which point, “roughly three to five times per day” individuals who call in for help aren’t qualified for Medicaid and don’t have insurance that would cover further treatment.

HB32 would create a pilot program that would connect the people with the highest risk and get them into 12 weeks of treatment at no cost to them, Thatcher said. Eventually, he hopes that program could be expanded.

“Sometimes you have to prove it first just like we did with SafeUT, just like we did with the statewide crisis line, just like we’ve done with the three-digit hotline and just like we will do until suicide is no longer a leading cause of death in Utah,” Thatcher said to applause.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, also stepped in to talk about a bill he is working on that would increase the Utah Department of Insurance’s reporting and moderating of insurers across the state to make sure they are complying with the federal mental health statute.

King said the statute is “critically important” to getting people access to meaningful mental health and substance abuse services.

Like many of the volunteers who came out to speak to lawmakers, the issue is personal for Paige Manning. She said she’s struggled with depression and anxiety and survived a few suicide attempts from age 18 to 21.

Manning said she’s become “finally OK” with getting help and wants to share that it’s all right for others to reach out for aid.

“It’s a serious thing and your life matters,” she said.

Cassidy Priest said she was inspired to join the advocacy efforts because she wants lawmakers to understand that struggles with mental health and suicide aren’t just “words on a paper.”

“Our voices matter,” Priest said. “You don’t have to be part of an organization to come up and do things like this, so if there’s something that matters to you — there’s organizations in the whole state that have stuff to do — and it’s exciting to be a part of this.”


Tori Wood, 17, Olivia Warner, 18, Laurel Morgan, 17, and Theodore Housinger, 18, all students at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, write remembrances and messages of hope on cards to be displayed as part of Suicide Prevention Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported that HB32 would create a pilot program to help a group of people who are at the highest risk of suicide. The correct bill number is SB89.