Tackling the issue – Stewart leads discussion on suicide crisis

Rep. Chris Stewart discusses the topic of suicide with a gathering of more than 100 people Aug. 7 in Richfield. Stewart led a panel discussion, including experts who talked about the public health crisis suicide presents.

The topic of suicide, particularly among teens, resulted in the Sevier County Commission chambers being packed Aug. 7.

“It’s everywhere, including among our youth,” said Rep. Chris Stewart. Stewart stopped in Richfield to host a town hall discussion focused on the phenomenon of people taking their own lives. 

“We probably wouldn’t have had this many people come if we had this topic five years ago,” Stewart said. “It has an affect on families and the community.”

While Stewart’s role was primarily as the moderator of the forum, he said there are things being done at the federal level to address suicide as an epidemic. 

One of those measures is a national crisis hotline, which will be a 3-digit number anyone can call. Designed to be similar to 911, the system would allow people an easy number to call when in crisis, or dealing with someone else who is in crisis, Stewart said. 

“It was a bipartisan effort, but it still took three years,” Stewart said. He said the number’s official announcement is pending, but will be made in Utah in the coming months.

• Concern for youth 

The first person asked to speak was Cade Douglas, superintendent of schools for Sevier School District. 

“Mental health has become such an issue academically,” Douglas said. “We as educators have to stay strong.”

Douglas passed out a list of the intervention efforts the school district has undertaken to help with factors that can play a role in suicide. The programs include responses to bullying, stress, depression and other things thought to be a factor in teen suicide.

The district is hosting a presentation at Richfield High School Monday, Aug. 26, at 6 p.m., titled “You Got This.” It is also aimed at helping parents and teens. 

“We would love to see our auditorium packed,” Douglas said. “This is good information for both parents and students.”

Douglas also encouraged parents and students to download the SafeUT app. 

“SafeUT is a state-funded program,” said Will Leavitt, representing SafeUT. 

“For people ages 10 to 24, the number one cause of death is suicide in our state,” Leavitt said. He said when he was 18 years old he contemplated suicide, and posted a note on social media. His friends saw it, contacted his parents, who in turn found him and got him help.

“They saved my life,” Leavitt said. He said the app is designed to let people who are in crisis, or who know someone who is in crisis, get help. 

It works with three primary functions. First is a text function that connects app users with licensed counselors, which allows people to talk to a trained expert for free. 

“They are the best of the best,” Leavitt said. 

The next function is a call feature, which allows users to talk to a counselor. 

Finally, there is the tip feature, which is designed to help with school safety. Tips can be reported through the app. The SafeUT people can then pass information on to school administrators, call law enforcement or emergency medical services — basically do everything they can to gather information and get it to the people who can intervene and stop a potentially dangerous situation.

• The gun question

The majority of suicides in south central Utah are completed with firearms. Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, and Morrissa Henn, Intermountain Community Health Program director, talked about the importance of separating people from lethal means when they appear to be in crisis.

“A person in a suicidal crisis should have not access to something that can cause self-harm,” Aposhian said. He advocated an approach where family, friends, neighbors and others volunteer to take possession of someone’s firearms until they are out of crisis mode.

“This is something that’s outside of legislation,” Aposhian said. He said volunteering to keep others’ firearms at emotionally vulnerable times could save lives. Also, keeping guns locked up, either in a safe or with a cable lock, can also be key to preventing tragedy.

“This issue has created some atypical bedmates,” Henn said. “Guns are part of our culture.”

She said generally people who decide to self-harm do so within a short period of time — 10 minutes or so. However, if a person can get past that 10-minute time frame and get some help, they’re prognosis is generally very good.

“Of those who survive attempts, 98 percent never try to commit suicide again,” Henn said. 

• Public health crisis

Perhaps the overriding theme of the meeting was that suicides are a public health crisis. 

“Our brains get sick,” said Kim Myers, Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. “They are complex organs, but they can recover.”

The message of recovery is very important Myers said, as it gives people hope. 

Another point Myers spoke about was that in addition to keeping firearms away from someone who is suicidal, it’s important to properly dispose of medications.

“When you are telling people they’d be better off without you, you need help,” Myers said. She said when people say things devaluing their own existence, it’s time to use the QPR method. 

“It’s like CPR for people in crisis,” Myers said. QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade, Refer, is a way to help people who are in suicide crisis mode. She said by training more people in QPR, including recognizing the warning signs, more can be done to stop people from taking their own lives. 

“It’s OK to not be OK,” said Taryn Hiatt, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She said it’s important to help people find connection and purpose. 

“We need our stories, our stories help us heal,” Hiatt said. 

One person who shared a story about bouts with depression was Mrs. International, Robin Towle, who discussed how battles with mental illness have affected her. 

“People who struggle with mental illness have a strength other people don’t,” Towle said. “They tend to be sensitive, caring and kind … very empathetic.”

She said she watched as her son became depressed, his grades dropped and he became more edgy. In response, she put more pressure on him, demanding he do something about his grades and attitude.

Towle said she had to have a paradigm shift in how she approached things. 

“We have to know that our kids will be OK if we love them,” Towle said. “They have to know it’s not live or die if you fail a class. There is hope for the future.”

A follow-up meeting with Stewart on the same topic is pending announcement. 

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