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2 Utahns die every day from suicide, but hope is available



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SALT LAKE CITY — New data show that an average of two Utahns die from suicide every day, and 12 are hospitalized or treated in emergency rooms due to injuries from suicide attempts.

And while suicide rates in Utah and surrounding states have always been higher than in other places in the United States, for whatever reason, mental health providers want Utahns to know that lives can be saved.

"Treatment and hope is available," said Dr. Benjamin Thatcher, chief medical officer at Valley Behavioral Health. He said the most important step, and sometimes the hardest for some people, is talking about it.

"There is still a lot of stigma around getting help for mental health problems," Thatcher said, adding that people don't let a nagging cough hang around without seeking medical help, but their mental health and the mental health of their friends and family should be just as important.

"Go get things checked out," he said. "The No. 1 most important thing you can do is talk to someone."

And it turns out, preventive efforts, such as connecting with someone, have been shown to help.

Andrea Hood, suicide prevention coordinator with the Utah Department of Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Program, said every case is different, but new intervention strategies are being pushed on the state level to help increase awareness and let people know they can reach out, save lives and make a difference.

Hospitals and doctor offices are conducting depression screenings on patients, asking important questions to realize whether issues that could lead to suicide are present. And emergency departments are starting to develop long-term safety plans for patients so they don't get lost in transition to regular care when they end up in the emergency room after suicide attempts or related issues.

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And unique to Utah, firearms safety courses will now contain a suicide prevention message encouraging family and friends to step in and keep a person from using their own guns to kill themselves.

"If you know someone who is going through a hard time — a divorce, a crisis, lost their job or they're depressed — offer to hang onto their gun for a short time," Hood said. "By doing that, you could save their life."

A large percentage of Utahns are gun owners, she said, adding that while they aren't necessarily more likely to think about suicide, they are more successful at attempts because guns are lethal.

"We want Utahns to protect their family members and friends during hard times," Hood said.

Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in Utah, and the suicide rate in the Beehive State was the seventh highest in the country in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data from 2012 to 2014 show the highest rate for suicide in Utah is for people ages 45 to 54 (34 per 100,000 population), whose suicide rate is about five times higher compared to the youth rate (7.5 per 100,000 population).

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Factors that can lead to suicide are incredibly complex and cannot generally be attributed to a single cause or event, but can include mental or physical health problems, alcohol or drug abuse, childhood trauma or a lifetime history of traumatic events, a lack of social support, problems with finances and other familial stresses, as well as a family history of suicide, which can change the culture and expectations in a family unit.

Over the years, suicide is becoming less taboo to talk about, likely because continued research on the brain is validating mental health conditions, showing they result from physical changes in a person's biology, Hood said.

Thatcher said it is important that people realize that thinking suicidal thoughts does not mean they are a "broken human being, but rather, a part of (you) is not working correctly with your body — that part being your brain."

Talking with someone or having someone ask about a person's mental state, does not, coincidentally, increase the incidence of suicide or give someone an idea to do it, he said, though that is a common public misconception.

"Having someone to talk to and say, 'I'm sorry that's happening in your life' and 'I understand that would be hard,' … just that connection with someone can start to help," he said.

And while it is difficult to assess why suicide rates are high in the Rocky Mountain states, though various theories exist, Thatcher said Utahns should focus on making a difference. Rather than try to answer that question, he said, sitting down with a mental health provider "will absolutely help you figure out what is going on in your life that is causing you to think about suicide."

"The key is that while we're waiting to figure out as a society why this is a problem, to not waste valuable time and opportunities of one-on-one treatment options," Thatcher said, adding that about half of the people who need treatment actually seek it out.

It doesn't help that the rates are going up, nationally and throughout Utah, where more people lost their lives to suicide last year than ever before.

"Our hope is that the strategies we are all working so hard on will save lives and bring hope to those who are feeling alone or hopeless, because each life matters," Hood said.

Where to find help

The state runs a crisis hotline for 24/7 help for individuals and family and friends who might be concerned, at 801-587-3000 or the National Suicide Prevention LifeLine at 1-800-273-TALK. Help is also available online at Utahsuicideprevention.org and suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Crisis counselors can also be reached using the SafeUT app on any smartphone.

New data and a copy of the health department's Suicide in Utah report can be found at health.utah.gov/vipp.

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Wendy Leonard

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