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No increase in Utah suicides, drug overdoses during pandemic; new prevention plan released

West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow, left, listens as Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at West Valley City Hall on March 16. A new report from the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition shows that suicides and drug overdoses did not increase in Utah during the pandemic.

West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow, left, listens as Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at West Valley City Hall on March 16. A new report from the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition shows that suicides and drug overdoses did not increase in Utah during the pandemic. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Although suicide and drug overdose remain a prominent problem in Utah, there have not been increases in these categories during the pandemic, according to a new report released Thursday from the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition.

The data from the report shows that there was no change in the number of Utahns who died by suicide between March 2020 and June 30. There were also no significant changes in reported suicide attempts or suicidal ideation in any particular age group, going against some national trends.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety between December 2020 and June this year, which was reflected in the Utah data as well. However, according to the report, the state's static number of suicides and drug overdoses means that "the typical response to multiple stressors and crises is resilience and recovery; most people live through and effectively manage crises, serious mental illness and extremely difficult circumstances."

Suicide, attempts and ideation were measured by examining the number reported to Utah departments. There are still many who experience these issues and do not report to the ER, which means that the numbers may not fully reflect everyone who has experienced this, but the numbers have consistently been proportional to the incidents reported, so they still give researchers a good idea of what is happening in these categories across the state, explained Utah Department of Health suicide prevention research coordinator Michael Staley.

He noted that it is important to look at the overall context of the data before the pandemic. Although there have not been significant changes, the numbers in the state were high in both categories going into the pandemic and the issues remain critical and urgent.

"The death of just one young person by suicide is one too many," he said, adding that this is only preliminary data for the first half of 2021 and it is too early to say if there will be a decrease in youth suicide. "The work won't be done until (the number of suicides) reaches zero."

Staley added that steady numbers also mean that these high numbers have not decreased either.

"I think it's mixed news. I don't know if there's a good or a bad label we can apply to this," he said.

Another key takeaway from the report is that getting care and help in a timely manner is crucial to saving lives and that professional help is safe, especially with the increased availability of virtual appointments.

During the pandemic there was a 24% increase in the number of people who contacted the suicide hotline, suggesting that more Utahns are aware of the issues and the resources than ever before, Staley said. He also mentioned the state's Live On campaign that was launched during the pandemic and how it really promoted seeking help, lessening the stigma surrounding suicide and inviting people to have direct conversations about it.

Drug overdose remains the leading cause of injury death in Utah, with opioid overdose making up the majority of these cases. Nationally, the number of overdoses has increased year over year, but in Utah it peaked in 2015. The study shows that the highest rates of drug overdose remains among people ages 45 to 64. Overdose is significantly less common in people under 18 or over 65; however, the numbers remained consistent across all four age groups.

Megan Broekemeier, opioid fatality research coordinator at the Utah Department of Health, explained that there are likely many more nonfatal overdoses that were not included in the report, and while it is encouraging to see that the number of drug overdoses has not increased, the numbers remain high.

Broekemeier and Allison Foust, suicide prevention program administrator at the Department of Health Services and co-chairwoman of Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, attributed the lack of an increase in suicides and drug overdoses in Utah during the pandemic to the existing infrastructure within the state, policymakers' efforts to address the issues, community and individual efforts, the amazing resources available, the "boots on the ground" harm reduction staff and the transition to telehealth.

However, there has been an increase in the demand for many of the state and community resources, which could lead to strains and shortages.

"We need to make sure that as a state we are allocating resources to make sure those entities are keeping up with the demand," Staley said.

The report did not include information regarding the causes of distress and difficulties Utahns are facing or which avenues they are selecting for help with mental illness, addiction and/or suicide, though it notes that this information is critical to understanding the overall state of Utahns' health.

"These are two major issues in our state and nationally, and they are largely preventable," Foust said.

Utah's new suicide prevention plan

The organizations also released Utah's new state suicide prevention plan for 2022 through 2026. This is the third version of the state plan, which is redone every five years, and it includes changes to state infrastructure, as well as steps and strategies that the state and local communities can adopt in order to address these issues in a comprehensive way.

The plan is designed to:

  • Increase access to mental health services.
  • Reduce stigma around mental/behavioral health issues.
  • Create safe environments for schools, workplaces, congregations, etc.
  • Teach coping skills for youth and adults.
  • Provide support for people who are grieving.
  • Collect data to inform future prevention strategies.

What is your role in suicide prevention?

Individuals can be incredibly effective in preventing suicide in their communities.

The Utah Department of Health recommends that people learn the warning signs to be able to address the issues with loved ones.

Listen for:

  • Talk of suicide, including phrases like "I just want to go to sleep and never wake up," or "If x happens, I'll kill myself."
  • Talk of feeling hopeless, including phrases like, "What is the point?" and "Nothing is going to get better."
  • Talk of feeling like a burden, including phrases like, "They would be better off without me."

Watch for:

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Withdrawing from activities
  • Looking for methods to kill themselves
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Change in sleeping habits
  • Depression, anxiety, loss of interest, irritability, humiliation, agitation or rage
  • A sudden unexplained calm or euphoria after a long period of depression
  • Saying goodbyes or giving away possessions

The plan recommends regularly checking in with friends, family and co-workers about how they are feeling and familiarizing yourself with mental health and crisis resources in your area. If you believe someone is in crisis, ask them about suicide directly, listen with concern and empathy, get help from a crisis line or connect to support via the SafeUtah app, create a safe space by removing or securing firearms and lethal medications from the home and be a support by helping them create a safety plan in case the thoughts of suicide return.

What is your role in overdose prevention?

Broekemeier suggested that people who come across someone who they think might be overdosing, they should:

  • Try to wake them up.
  • Call 9-11.
  • Administer naloxone, an emergency medicine used to reverse a narcotic overdose.

She also issued a reminder that Saturday, Oct. 23, is Prescription Take Back Day, during which drop sites across the state will be available for people to safely dispose of their unused medications.

Staley explained that these numbers do not mean that Utahns are out of the woods and that sometimes there is a delay in the effects of a crisis that could last months and years.

"This story is still being told. It's not the time to back away from these resources. We're not at the end," he said.

Community resources

To access the Social and Behavioral Health During COVID-19 report, visit https://coronavirus.utah.gov/Mental-health.

Learn more about naloxone, used as an antidote to overdose, at http://www.utahnaloxone.org/.

Find out where to dispose of prescription medications at https://knowyourscript.org/.

Access to the full Utah Suicide Prevention State Plan, including steps and information about how to support someone in crisis, can be found online, at https://liveonutah.org/about.

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