Utah has a mental health problem. Here's what lawmakers are doing about it

Advocates and lawmakers attend the first annual suicide prevention rally at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday.

Advocates and lawmakers attend the first annual suicide prevention rally at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday. (Ashley Fredde, KSL.com)


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SALT LAKE CITY — One sign stood out amid a sea of blue picket signs held by suicide prevention and mental health advocates at the Utah Capitol rotunda on Tuesday.

Amanda Hurst held a sign with two pictures, containing the messages: "how it started" and "how it ended." Hurst and her husband can be seen smiling in a wedding picture dated June 18, 2020. Further down, Hurst is in the second picture kneeling at a casket alone with the words "mental health matters" written below.

Thirteen days before the couple's 10th wedding anniversary, Hurst's husband died by suicide. Hurst described her husband as sweet, someone who loved his job and their dog. Mostly she remembered the way her husband made her laugh.

"The biggest thing that I think of when I think about him is how funny he was and how much he made me laugh. He really could make me laugh more than any person," Hurst said. "You would never know that he was so depressed."

"It's totally changed me as a person and everything about who I am," she said. "I don't think that anybody should have to go through what he went through or what I went through."

The devastation Hurst felt and the lasting impacts of suicide could be seen in others — families, friends and mental health service providers — who gathered at the Capitol for the inaugural suicide prevention rally on Tuesday. The message was clear: Utah has a mental health problem.

Mental health advocate Amanda Hurst holds a sign during a suicide prevention rally at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday.
Mental health advocate Amanda Hurst holds a sign during a suicide prevention rally at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday. (Photo: Ashley Fredde, KSL.com)

Utah has consistently higher rates of self-reported lifetime depression than the U.S. rate, according to Utah public health data. In 2020, Utah's rate was at 23.1% while the U.S. rate was several points lower, at 18.8%.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth and young adults, from age 10 to 24 in Utah, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Utah also consistently ranks among the top 10 states for the highest suicide mortality rates. Mental health struggles have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Utah's Crisis Line seeing a 32% increase in calls throughout 2020.

Efforts and attempts at addressing the growing mental health crisis are varied. Advocates from all backgrounds have driven efforts over the years to raise awareness. Recent efforts include America's Got Talent alumni Alex Boyé, who will hold Utah's first Suicide Prevention Concert on May 7.

As the mental health crisis continues to grow, advocates have shifted from trying to increase awareness to calling for increased resources and programs.

Here's what Utah lawmakers are doing this year to answer that call:

  • HB23 would allocate $5 million to first responder agencies to help launch mental health programs for first responders and their families. The bill requires that responders and their families have access to resources but the agencies would need to provide funding themselves in the long term.
  • HB48 would extend the expiration date for the Utah Substance Use and Mental Health Advisory Council to 2033.
  • HB49 repeals the expiration date requiring the Forensic Mental Health Coordinating Council, along with the Utah Substance Use and Mental Health Advisory Council, to study the long-term needs for adult beds in the state hospital from July 2022 to December 2023.
  • HB236 would require the base budget to include certain appropriations to the Utah Department of Health for behavioral health services and an estimate of the cost of behavioral health services in certain Medicaid funding forecasts. It also creates the Collaborative Care Grant Program, administered by the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, to include a public education campaign for the state's suicide prevention program.
  • HB233 allows an eligible employee to receive certain disability benefits for an objective medical impairment regardless of whether the impairment is physical or mental, amending the previous language which excluded mental disabilities diagnosed by a physician.

"It's incredible to think that we have written into the statutes in the state of Utah explicit discrimination on the length of time individuals who are disabled are able to receive disability benefits when they're employed by the state of Utah," Rep. Brian King, the sponsor of the bill, told everyone gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday. "I'm cautiously optimistic we'll get it through but we need your voices and help."

  • HB13 would create a special group license plate for the "Live On" campaign, which would require that an individual requesting the license plate make a donation to the Utah Governor's Suicide Prevention Fund to support the campaign.
  • SB171 creates a collaboration between the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the State Board of Education to develop an age-appropriate curriculum for grades K-12 on behavioral health.

"I was 11 years old when I first started experiencing depression and I didn't know what was happening, I didn't know what was wrong. I just knew that I was unhappy all the time and I didn't know why. I never told anybody and I never asked for help," Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley, told the group.

He said that he's since learned that many of his high school friends struggled with mental health and the stigma surrounding those struggles.

"If any of us had said we weren't OK, maybe Travis would have told somebody he wasn't. But because we didn't know and because we didn't understand we all stayed silent. We lost our friend. We can change that," Thatcher said.

  • HB27 would require the creation of a health benefit plan that offers coverage for mental health treatment to allow someone to receive mental health treatment from an out-of-network provider selected by the enrollee. The bill is nicknamed "Scott's bill" after a Utah doctor died by suicide after being unable to access out-of-network mental health services.

Advocates and lawmakers remained cautiously optimistic that the bills would advance and lead to change in the availability and prevalence of mental health services in Utah.

"When people know where to get help, they live," Thatcher said. "When people are connected to help, when people are heard, when they are listened to, when they are connected to services, they live. That has been our focus and that has been our effort."

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
  • 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 (8255)
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

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Ashley Fredde covers human services and and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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