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Utah Suicide Stats Alarming


May 1, 2007


from The Salt Lake Tribune
May 2007

It was as a father —not a public official— that Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff spoke Thursday at the unveiling of a statewide suicide prevention plan.

Choking back tears, he recalled the time he found his 13-year-old adopted daughter Danielle holding a steak knife, poised to plunge it into her abdomen.

“I grabbed the knife and stood toe-to-toe with her while she cried, ‘Daddy, please let go. 1 want to die,’” said Shurtleff.

“I knew she loved me enough and wouldn’t pull the knife out of my hand. She wouldn’t cut me. So I held on, we both held on.”

When police arrived, and handcuffed and took his daughter to the hospital, Shurtleff said, “The neighbors must have wondered, ‘What’s up at Shurtleff’s house?’” But what people think didn’t matter then, and doesn’t matter now, said Shurtleff who hopes his going public helps lift others from their silent suffering.

“We have to do away with the stigma,” said Shurtleff at a Capitol news conference where he and mental health advocates urged parents to “be not ashamed, reach out to your kids and get them the help they need.”

Public awareness through ads and support groups is the thrust of Utah’s five-year prevention plan, a redoubling of mostly existing programs.

But Sherri Wittwer, director of NAMI Utah, a mental health advocacy group coordinating the effort, said, “We have to acknowledge the elephant in the room.”

The leading cause of suicide is untreated or undertreated mental illness, said Wittwer, vowing to lobby for federal legislation that would require health insurance companies to cover behavioral and psychiatric treatments.

“We can have a plan, but if people can’t access treatment, it’s of little help.”

Thanks to medical interventions and counseling, Danielle is “happy, healthy” and a role model for others.

“To see my little girl handcuffed and taken to Primary Children’s where she struggled through a night of fitful sleep that medications helped her attain is something I hope no parent has to go through,” Shurtleff said.

Nearly every day someone in Utah takes his or her life.

315: Average number of Utahns who die by suicide each year

1,440: Hospitalized suicide attempts each year

6: Average suicides a week

81: Percent of all Utah suicides committed by men

30-49: Age group with the highest suicide rate

Sources: Utah Department of Human Services and national Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Suicide is the 8th-leading cause of death in the United States, with Utah’s rate surpassing the nation’s. Most Utah victims are white men between the ages 30 and 49. Firearms are the leading method, followed by poisoning and suffocation.

But no one is immune, said Ron Stromberg, assistant state director of substance abuse and mental health. “The good news, is it’s preventable. Lives can be saved.”

Utah lawmakers invested $2.7 million on mental health treatment for the uninsured, which will help, said University of Utah professor and suicidologist Michelle Moskos. But the true scope of the access problem is unknown, she said.

Hospital emergency rooms don’t track admissions or the number of people they turn away for lack of space, said Moskos. “We hear stories all the time about people being bounced from system to system or being denied treatment, but usually after there’s been a crisis.”

A member of NAMI Utah’s suicide prevention council, Moskos is behind a $1.2 million effort to screen and treat Utah’s juvenile offenders for mental illness. It was launched this month in 3rd District Court.

Public schools in some states extend free mental health screenings to all youth. But Utah’s strict student privacy laws prohibit schools from sharing even anonymous, aggregate data.

Schools also are barred from surveying students without explicit parental consent. For this reason, Utah doesn’t participate in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s national behavioral health survey, said Moskos, noting, “You can’t treat what you can’t document.”

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