HERRIMAN — For Utah teen Elijah Dean, it was the fear of worrying his friends and family that kept him silent.
“I actually never confided in any of them as much when I had suicidal thoughts. That’s when I didn’t want to. … It was scary for me, and I didn’t want to scare other people,” he said.
And for those who experience suicidal thoughts, it’s often a silent battle with barriers that can be difficult to overcome.
The most prominent of those barriers is the stigma surrounding mental illness, said Dr. Doug Gray, a suicide prevention pioneer and child psychiatrist at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute. Gray believes that, while stigmas may be changing, the most common hurdles preventing someone from seeking mental help all revolve around the shame with which mental health issues have been erroneously shackled.
In a 2007 study conducted by Gray, researchers asked family members and friends who had lost loved ones to suicide what they believed were the most prevalent reasons why their loved ones had difficulty receiving treatment for suicidal thoughts.
Participants in the study reported the same top five reasons, including:
- Belief that nothing could help
- Seeking help was seen as a sign of weakness or failure
- A reluctance to admit to having mental health problems
- A denial of problems
- Embarrassed to seek help
Those who participated in Gray’s study also said their loved ones didn’t seek treatment because they couldn’t afford it, because their insurance didn’t cover it, because there weren’t sufficient options in the community and because they simply didn’t know where to go for help.
“If you want to line up the barriers, … the first and biggest barrier is stigma,” Gray said. “It’s people that are embarrassed about having a mental illness, and their sense is that treatment doesn't work.”
But Gray assures everyone he comes in contact with that treatment does work, and he sees it on a day-to-day basis with his patients. He’s also convinced the stigma surrounding mental health issues is dissipating.
This is a huge fire and huge crisis, and the little approaches we’re taking are creating some effect, but we need to call in everybody.
–Teddy Hodges, Herriman Community Awareness
“When I was a young psychiatrist, if I’d see a patient of mine in a restaurant, I’d not look at them, and they’d not look at me, and that was fine. It’s their privacy. But now, more often than not, they’ll come across and say 'hi' to my family and have me go meet their grandparents,” he said.
Across Utah, the rate of youth suicide has increased 22.8 percent each year, nearly four times faster than the national average, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Eight teens in Herriman have died by suicide in the past year, according to Herriman High School principal Jim Birch.
Herriman residents have reached a point where they need solutions.
“Everybody’s pointing fingers right now, rather than saying, ‘What can I do?’” said Teddy Hodges, organizer and founder of the Herriman Community Awareness group. “This is a huge fire and huge crisis, and the little approaches we’re taking are creating some effect, but we need to call in everybody. Everybody needs to pick up a bucket and throw water on it.”
Hodges believes it’s time to destigmatize the issue and change the conversation surrounding mental health and suicide — by simply starting it.
Hodges, along with Herriman City and Healthy Herriman, organized a community event Thursday evening to bring the city together to talk about solutions and resources available to those struggling with mental illness.
While there may be support groups and some resources available, Hodges says, people often don’t know about them. He hopes the event will bring residents together to pool resources and galvanize them to take action and volunteer.
“There are groups and organizations that are looking for volunteers to help and sign up, and I hope we flood those lists with people that are actually wanting to be called to action,” he said. “They can be a positive influence, be vocal, have clout in the community and bring people together.”
- Utah County Crisis Line: 801-226-4433
- Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
- Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
- Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386
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