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Should elementary kids participate in school suicide prevention programs?

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The Utah Capitol is pictured in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Should elementary students participate in school suicide prevention programs?

That question spurred a debate Wednesday as a Utah House committee discussed a bill that would expand suicide prevention resources to younger children amid the mental health crisis.

More Utah youth ages 10 to 24 die from suicide than any other cause, bill sponsor Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee.

“It’s remarkable to contemplate that a little under 20% of Utah high schoolers have made a plan to commit suicide,” he said. “And we’re concerned about our rate of Utah youth suicides.”

State law requires schools to offer suicide prevention programs to students in grades seven through 12 that include anti-bullying programs and training. HB93 would expand the requirement to K-6 schools. The bill would also add underage drinking and substance use prevention programs to the law.

“This bill will do a better job of making sure that we address resources not just to secondary education but to the entire range of K-12,” King said.

He described the bill as an effort to consolidate resources among Utah’s schools.

Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, said she worries that children in elementary school up to sixth grade are too young to potentially learn of suicide.

“Hopefully they’re not dealing with this heavy, heavy topic. … I’m concerned about suicidal ideation, and introducing the topic at a time — just knowing that suicides happen is depressing — and I’m just concerned with how that would be handled for such a young child,” Acton said.

King said the Legislature isn’t in a good position to “micromanage” the issue of youth suicides, but local education agencies can best respond to the needs in their individual communities based on each child.

“What we’re finding is, it’s very common that when you’re dealing with the most acute suicidal issues arising in a secondary education system … what you find is oftentimes there are unaddressed needs sometimes that begin in the K-6 time frame,” King said.

The bill would also reduce the amount of funding for the programs each school would receive from $1,000 to $500.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, expressed concern that lowering the funding in the bill would lead the Public Education Appropriations Committee to underfund programs in the future.

“On such an important issue, I appreciate the representative from Salt Lake trying to live within our budgetary means … but in this case we should have the funds for this program to maintain at least $1,000 per school, and frankly that’s probably way too little,” Eliason said.

King said the dollar amount was decreased in the bill due to limits in the current fund for the programs. Adding K-6 schools to the suicide prevention program would require about $524,000 to be set aside if the amount each school receives remains at $1,000.

The bill received a favorable recommendation from the committee. It will move to the full House for consideration.

The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help on utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basics. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Help is also available through the SafeUT app.