Finding Hope in Kindness
Prevention awareness efforts pick up steam to end suicide epidemic
By James Tilson
Part 3 of a 3-part series
In the past two decades, as the suicide in Utah and in the nation as a whole has risen, people from many walks of life have joined in efforts to prevent it.
Members of Congress, state legislators, school counselors and private citizens have come together to raise awareness of the problem, get information out to the public about how to identify suicide risk, and to let people know what to do when someone is thinking of suicide.
Aside from those steps, one message gets repeated over and over among people dealing with this issue. “Be kind,” they say. “Be kind to others, be kind to those in need, and most of all, be kind to yourself.”
Leading awareness and prevention advocacy at the national level is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Taryn Hiatt, founder of the Utah chapter of the AFPS, says there are so many suicide risk factors and always a shortage of funding for treatment. But she wants people to know, “We all struggle, but its OK to get help.”
Utah Task Force Recommendations
In 2017, Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert appointed Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to a Teen Suicide Prevention Task Force. He
charged the group to come up with programs the state could launch immediately to address the issue.
Some of the task force recommendations were:
- Expand areas served by mobile crisis outreach teams (MCOTs). Currently, when Utah teens and other state residents call the national suicide prevention number (1-800-273-TALK), or use the SafeUT ap, they reach a crisis center at the University of Utah Institute for Neuropsychiatry. Besides taking calls, the center sends MCOTs to homes of some people experiencing a mental health crisis.
The service is free, but it is only available in Salt Lake County. While expansion of MCOTs is “arguably our most expensive recommendation,” the task force said making them available all around the state would be a major improvement in response to mental health crises.
- Get healthcare systems to adopt what is known as the “Zero Suicide” framework. The motivation for the framework was the finding that a 83 percent of people who commit suicide visit a health care provider in the year prior to their deaths.
The framework is a series of steps health care systems and hospitals can take to identify suicidal patients and keep them safe. These include assessing all patients for suicide risk, engaging at-risk patients in a suicide prevention plan, and offering “warm handoffs and supportive contacts” as the patients are transitioned through care.
Some of the health systems that have adopted the program have seen dramatic reductions in the number of suicides in their patient populations. In Utah, Intermountain Health Care has adopted the framework. The suicide prevention task force called “all our healthcare systems to make this a priority.”
- Train average citizens in mental health first-aid, just as people are trained in CPR. The suicide prevention task force identified some of Utah’s mental-health first responders as parents, teachers, ministers, coaches and office supervisors. The task force encouraged “as many ‘gatekeepers’ in the state as possible” to get mental health first-aid training.
- High schools should teach family relations skills, emotional intelligence and resilience in heath classes. The task force noted that a statewide health survey found that children who do not have a close relationship with their parents tend to be at risk for suicidal ideation. The task force suggested education could help students improve their relationships with parents or deal with unsatisfactory relationships.
- Get Hope Squads going in more secondary schools. These are groups of students trained to identify “at risk” students in their schools and report the signs to an adult. Every school that sets up a Hope Squad is eligible for a $500 grant from the Utah State Office of Education.
At the time the task force prevention report was issued in February 2018, there were 291 Hope Squads around the state. About that time, the Deseret News reported there were Hope Squads in 31 of 41 school districts, and the squads had 7,000 student members. (Hope Squads in Sanpete County are discussed later in this article).
In 2014, actually a few years before the suicide prevention task force was launched, the Utah Legislature passed
legislation that led to creation of the SafeUT app, a mobile phone app, which, depending on the problem, connects users with staff at their own schools or a clinician at the University of Utah Institute for Neuropsychiatry.
Since the app went live in 2015, 33,000 people have downloaded it, and the crisis center has taken calls or texts from 19,000 users. (See accompanying story).
Snow College programs
In Sanpete County, prevention programs are carried out at Snow College and in secondary schools. The Snow Counseling and Wellness Center, has a number of programs aimed at raising awareness and intervening with students experiencing suicidal ideation.
Wellness Center staff give talks about suicide around campus and post notices containing the national suicide prevention hotline number (the number is 800-273-HELP) and SafeUT app information.
The center also teaches interested students“QPR,” which Allen Riggs, center director, says is like “CPR for suicide.” QPR stands for “Question, Persuade, Refer.” QPR is a method for starting a conversation with someone you suspect is thinking about suicide and acting on the person’s response.
The first step is asking the question: “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” If the person says “yes,” the volunteer trained in QPR tries to Persuade him or her to get help. Then the caring student Refers the person to the Wellness Center, which can include walking him or her to the center. From there, the QPR-trained student follows up and stays connected with the troubled person.
For LGBTQ youth on the Snow campus, the PRIDE Club offers acceptance and support, which promotes healthy relationships. Besides offering fellowship, it has brought in speakers such as Carol Lynn Pearson of Walnut Creek, Calif., an LDS author and screenwriter. Her best known book is “Goodbye I Love You,” about being married to a man who came out as gay and later died of AIDS. Another speaker was Gabriela Blanchard, director of the BYU LGBTQ Resource Center. The PRIDE Club also has QPR training and social events.
“I’ve had so many kids say ‘This club has saved my life. I don’t know what I would have done without these people,’” says Monica Peterson, a Snow instructor and sponsor of the club.
At the secondary level, North Sanpete High School, Gunnison Valley High School and North Sanpete Middle School all have Hope Squads.
Developed by Dr. Greg Hudnall, a specialist in suicide prevention and former associate superintendent in the Provo School District, the squads are groups of students trained to watch for and help other “at-risk” students. The squads don’t address suicide alone. Their mission includes helping fellow students, or getting help for them, with any social or academic problem.
At North Sanpete High School, the Hope Squad sponsors Hope Week, a week of events focusing on emotional well being. In a typical year, there was a pajama day when students wore pajamas to school to emphasize “being comfortable with who you are.” Another day was “mismatched day,” when students wore mismatched clothing to illustrate the theme, “ Be comfortable with who you are.”
During the week, Hope Squad members go into classrooms and explained how to download and use the SafeUT ap.
Kami Millett, counselor at North Sanpete Middle School and Hope Squad sponsor, says the program helps individuals and the whole school culture.
Because of the Hope Squad members who talk to other students, “I can be made aware of students who are struggling who wouldn’t have been pointed out before,” she says.
She adds that the messages the Hope Squad shares with the whole school through various programs it puts on “have
benefitted our school climate.”
Family survivors of suicide
Another aspect of suicide not often discussed is the trauma that survivors go through after a loved one dies of suicide. Two interviewees for this series had a special plea for such persons in Sanpete County.
“I think it is very important for family members to understand it is not their fault,” says Mary Pipes, survivor of her husband’s suicide. Her husband succumbed to suicide after a long battle with mental illness.
“There are so many ‘woulda/coulda/shoulda’s.’ You just can’t go there. You’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Mark Best (not his real name) agrees with Pipes. His brother-in-law died of suicide in 1978 after coming back from Vietnam. His wife’s family is Catholic, and his death drove a schism between family members. Best says the anger and hurt lasted until only recently.
“You can’t take it personal and ask why,” Best says. “Hanging onto it like that will cast a pall on your life.”
Another focus in suicide prevention has been getting guns out of the hands of people who may be suicidal. Morissa Henn, director of the Intermountain Health suicide prevention program, explains suicide “crisis” refers to a period of time when a person may actively consider suicide. The period is quite short, usually no more than 10 minutes, and any delay during the crisis period of the person being able to obtain the means of suicide increases the chance of moving past suicidal thoughts.
Henn and Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, have teamed together to advocate for removing firearms from people facing a suicide “crisis.” They also advocate for gun safes, gun locks and even “baby-sitting” firearms for friends who may be facing a crisis. “Any delay will help survival, and 90 percent of survivors will not try again,” Henn says.
If someone with suicidal ideations cannot be persuaded to get help, people around the person may call, and should call, 911. But there are limitations on law enforcement officers’ ability to intervene.
“We as cops don’t have the psychological training to assess what’s going on with a subject,” says Detective Derick Taysom of the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office. “Our first priority is to get to the scene and render aid, if necessary.”
“We have to try to find out from the person how they’re feeling,” says Sgt. Devan Krebs of the Ephraim Police Department. “Most of the time, they don’t want to tell you, so you have to get them to open up.”
Taysom says officers’ ability to directly intervene, such as calling an ambulance, is limited. “If no crime is being committed, I’m not sure we have any jurisdiction.”
On top of the restraint they must show the subject, there is also a risk involved for the officers. Often, suicidal subjects are alleged to have firearms. “Going to one of these scenes, we often don’t know what we’ll find,” Taysom says.
New suicide prevention phone number
The national suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-TALK, has been around a long time. But not everyone is familiar with or remembers the number.
Congressman Chris Stewart, who represents Utah, introduced legislation in Congress on Aug. 20 to designate “9-8-8” as the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline.
“Suicide hits close to home with an average of two Utahns taking their life every day,” Stewart said. “This dialing code is an essential step in providing critical resources to those in emotional distress.”
Stewart’s bill authorizes states to collect a fee as part of phone bills to support local crisis call centers participating in a national network, similar to 911 centers around the country. The legislation sets a one-year deadline for the Federal Communications Commission to implement the 988 code in telephone systems nationwide.
Turning the corner
“I feel like we’re going to turn the corner on this in a couple of years.” Dr. Doug Gray, clinical professor of psychiatry and a “suicidologist” at the University of Utah, sounds unrealistically optimistic considering the rising rate of suicide in Utah and across the country.
He has, in his words, been “slogging” through the data and volunteering for the last 25 years, but says he has seen a sea-change recently. “There are so many more volunteers that there were in the past,” he says. “We have an army of volunteers working on many different aspect of suicide prevention, especially in Utah.”
It boils down to kindness
All of these observations and suicide prevention efforts boil down to one message, repeated many times from most all of the interviewees for this series.
“All of us in this room have our secret battles,” Congressman Stewart said at a suicide prevention round-table in Richfield on Aug. 7. “All of us need, from time to time, some kindness.”
Keyera Braithwaite, thinking on the events in her life earlier this year when her friend died of suicide, made her platform for the Miss Sanpete Pageant “Kindness is Key.”
“You have to have kindness for yourself, for others, for the environment,” Braithwaite says. “If someone is suicidal, they are often not kind to themselves. I think people need to invest time in themselves.”