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Number of suicides isn’t huge, but emotional impact hits hard

By: James Tilson

Associate Editor

 

The number of suicides in Sanpete County isn’t huge. But when someone too young to die takes his or her life, it hits family, friends and community much harder than other deaths.

“Mostly, it is due to the stigma associated with suicide,” said Lance Martin, a therapist at the Central Utah Counseling Center. “…There is shame associated with it. Survivors ask themselves, ‘Why did it happen? What could we have done? How did we fail?’”

And the trauma of suicide is more than other deaths, Martin said. “It is sudden and often unexpected. The survivors can often picture the death taking place. If someone finds the person, that can be especially traumatic.”

In the seven years from 2004 to 2010, there were at least 43 and possibly as many as 45 suicides in Sanpete County, according to the Utah Department of Health (UDOH). (The number for one year, 2007, was suppressed because it was so small, but it could have been between zero and three.) That translates to an average of about 6.14 suicides per year.

In the seven years from 2011 to 2017, there were 48 suicides, which translates 6.86

 

per year, a slight uptick in the average.

The bottom line is that over the 15 years from 2003 to 2017, at least 93 local residents died from suicide. The numbers from 2018 aren’t out yet. And the statistical suicide rate in the Sanpete Valley (Sterling north to the county line) is higher than in wester

n Juab, Millard County and the Salina/Richfield/Mona areas.

 

Michael Staley, suicide researcher at the UDOH, says it is difficult to interpret such numbers since they are based on a small population. He does say Sanpete, like other r

ural counties in Utah, has a higher suicide rate than the Wasatch Front.

All of the numbers above represent “completed” suicides. Scores more have been admitted to emergency rooms in the county or hospitalized after suicide attempts.

Rachelle Holbrook, suicide prevention specialist at the Wellness Center on Snow College, said when she and her husband, also a therapist, were interviewing for jobs in the county in 2014, her husband was told Sanpete County had the highest rate of emergency room visits in Utah for suicidal ideation or attempts.

Keyera Braithwaite of Manti, who recently competed in the Miss Sanpete County pageant, is an example of a young person impacted by suicide.

One of her boyfriend’s best friends, a young man who had attended both Manti and North Sanpete high schools, but was out of school, died of suicide earlier this year.

“It hit everyone really hard, because no one saw it coming,” she said. She described the youth as always happy and friendly. “I found out later his empathy took a toll on him,” she said. “He cared so much about others he forgot to take care of himself.”

Braithwaite, who is president of her class at Manti High, confided she has thought about suicide herself. In her sophomore year, a major knee injury wiped out her athletic dreams. “It took away my teams, my friends,” Braithwaite said. “I felt alone, like I didn’t have a place.”

Braithwaite has heard of other teens who have the same feelings. “I think people lose meaning,” she said. “You can focus too much on being successful. You wind up feeling like if you’re not successful, then you don’t feel like you have value. Social media plays into this, with everyone trying to emulate ‘influencers.’”

Yet Sanpete County represents a only sliver in a state and national picture that has gotten downright frightening. Over the past two decades, the suicide rate has gone up in 49 out of 50 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In roughly half of the states, the rate has gone up 30 percent or more.

Another statistical source, the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), found that the number of suicides per 100,000 population Utah was 14.0 in 2004-05, 16.9 in 2009-10 and 19.9 in 2013-2014. The 2013-14 number was up 42 percent from 2004-05.

Since 2014, the Utah rate has continued to rise. In 2017, there were 25.6 suicides per 100,000 in the state. An average of 592 Utahns die from suicide each year and 4,538 attempt it. The Utah rate is much higher than the national rate of 13.2 suicides per 100,000.

In the past couple of years, state officials have particularly focused on suicide rate among 10-17-year olds. While youth are not the population most at risk for suicide—according to the CDC, white, older men with a high school or lower education have that distinction—a special state study found 150 youths had committed suicide from 2011 to 2015. During just those five years, youth suicide in Utah went up 141 percent.

Dr. Doug Gray, “suicidologist” at the University of Utah, said one should not read too much into the recent rise in Utah’s suicide rate. “Utah’s rates are rising, but so is the United States’ overall.” Gray points out Utah’s suicide rate has always been in the top 5-10 percent of the nation, as has the rate in all Rocky Mountain states.

Gray refers to the work done by Perry Renshaw, a colleague at the University of Utah, showing that higher altitude affects rates of depression. Apparently, the amount of oxygen in the blood affects the brain’s ability to produce endorphins and other “feel good” chemicals that stave off depression. And those suffering from depression are at a higher risk for suicide.

Another factor in both the state and county rates is the fact that so much of the territory involved is rural, experts say. Rural areas often have a lack of health care providers and have a greater prevalence of firearms, both of which increase suicide risk.

Firearm death is the most prevalent method for suicide death. The UDOH reports 50 percent of suicides in Utah used firearms. The next highest method was by hanging/strangulation/suffocation at 27 percent, followed by poisoning (typically swallowing an overdose of pills) at 18 percent.

Use of a firearm was the most prevalent method used by males (57 percent), while females were mostly likely to use poisoning (37 percent).

While the rise in youth suicide has received the most attention, older adults (65 years and older) are still the demographic most likely to die from suicide. The rate for that group is 38.1 suicides per 100,000 compared to 13.3 per 100,000 for youths 10-17.

Another significant demographic at risk for suicide death is veterans. In Utah, 14 percent of all suicide deaths were people who had served in the U.S. armed forces. For adults over 65 years, the share who were veterans goes up to 51 percent.

LGBTRQ persons are also an at-risk demographic, although it is difficult to assess the scope of the risk. The NVDRS reports there were 13 LGBTQ deaths from suicide in Utah in 2013-2014. However, how accurate those numbers are it is not known, because many LGBTQ persons do not identify as such.

Government is working on several fronts to address the issue of suicide. In 2017, Gov. Gary Herbert set up a Teen Suicide Prevention Task Force. In February 2018, the governor released the task force report. The report outlined three strategies for crisis intervention when a teen is considering suicide, five ideas for suicide preventions, one proposal for increasing public awareness, and three administrative changes to be sure teen suicide prevention efforts continue on an ongoing basis. (The report will be covered in more depth in the third part of this series. )

Attending the announcement was Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who told his own story of suicidal thoughts while he was a teenager. Cox has become a leading advocate for suicide prevention in Utah and now speaks openly of his story.

Another Utah public official involved in suicide prevention is Rep. Chris Stewart, who represents most of Sanpete County in the U.S. Congress. He sponsored legislation to create a national suicide prevention hotline. Last week, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission recommended “988” as the three-digit number for the hotline. Further legislation needs to be passed to adopt the number and implement the hotline.

And this summer, Rep. Ben McAdams, who also represents part of Sanpete County in Congress, worked on House passage of a $4 million increase in federal spending for youth suicide prevention and research.

Of course for family, friends and members of the community, the impact of suicide is very personal. It’s “more difficult to deal with than any other sudden death,” said Martin, the therapist at the Central Utah Counseling Center.

“…Suicide survivors have ‘complicated grieving.’ It is harder to go through than the normal grieving process. Some things stay unresolved. Survivors often need specialized support from suicide survivor groups and professional therapy.”

Next week: Suicide: Causes and complexities.