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The Sanpete Messenger

Suicide in Sanpete

By James Tilson

A three-part series by the Sanpete Messenger from August and September of 2019

Winner of the "Best News Series" prize at the 2019 Utah Press Association Better Newspaper Contest

Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control found Utah had the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country.

Utah Department of Health

Part 1:

Number of suicides in county isn't huge, but emotional impact hits hard

Published August 22, 2019

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 greater 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 western Juab, Millard County and the Salina/Richfield/Monroe 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 rural 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 Gunnison Valley 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 student body president this year 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 only a 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.

LGBTQ+ 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.”

Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control found Utah had the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country.

Utah Department of Health

Part 2:

'A complex event'

Potential suicide victims each have their own set of problems and triggers, but most cases have common danger signs

Published August 29, 2019

“Suicide is a complex event,” says Cathy Davis, suicide prevention specialist for the Utah Office of Education, who has been traveling the state for the past four years talking about suicide and how to prevent it.

Each potential suicide victim has his or her own trajectory of events that come together to create a crisis, she says. “It’s no one simple, set cause.”

Nevertheless, in interviews with the Sanpete Messenger, local therapists, relatives of people who have committed suicide, and people who have contemplated suicide themselves, identified several factors and themes that seem to crop up repeatedly in suicidal ideation and completed suicides.

They included mental illness, substance abuse, a family history of suicide and loss of social connections.

Among young people particularly, feelings of not being successful, bullying, absorption with social media and knowing others who have committed suicide seem to be predictors of suicidal ideation.

And among veterans, who account for a disproportionate share of suicides in Utah, post-traumatic stress disorder may be a precursor to suicide.

Some research even suggests higher altitudes, which mean there is less oxygen in the air than at lower altitudes, help account for higher suicide rates in Utah and other mountain states than in the nation as a whole.

Mental illness

One of the more obvious factors is mental health issues. According to the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), mental illness was a factor in 52 percent of suicide deaths in Utah in 2013-2014.

Mary Pipes has lived in Manti for more than 25 years and raised five successful children in Sanpete County. But her husband and the children’s father killed himself in October 2008.

Before his death, Jim was being treated for clinical depression, paranoia, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, Pipes said. “It was a cocktail that was a no-win situation.”

Pipes relates how when Jim was first diagnosed and began treatment, he showed immediate improvement. “Holy mackerel, he was a different person,” she says.

But in time, he stopped taking medication and began to refuse treatment. His conditions worsened, and his suicidal ideations returned and got stronger.

Substance abuse

Another pervasive factor is substance abuse. According to the Utah Department of Health (UDOH), 37 percent of males and 42 percent of females who committee suicide 2014-2016 had an alcohol abuse or drug abuse history.

Rachelle Holbrook, suicide prevention specialist at the Snow College Counseling and Wellness Center, has experienced substance abuse and suicide in her family.

Her cousin, who was 27, suffered from alcohol and drug abuse. “He had gone to counseling for it, and appeared to be doing better. The night before he died, he called his parents, told them he had a new job and was enjoying it. When his roommate called the next morning to say he had died of suicide, it came as a complete shock.”

Holbrook says she has learned that in many cases when a person has made the decision to commit suicide, the person feels better. The turmoil in the person’s live seems to have been resolved. A sudden improvement in mood or functioning in someone who has contemplated suicide may be a warning sign, she says.

Jason Smith (not his real name) is a drug addict who is now clean. However, he was in the throes of addiction several years ago when he took an amount of heroin that could have killed him.

“That time was one of the darkest times of my life,” Smith says. He was in violation of his probation, and the 6th District Court in Manti had issued a warrant for his arrest. And he was in what he calls “a really unhealthy relationship with another addict.”

Smith, a long-time Sanpete County resident, found himself in Provo in a series of flop houses. His girlfriend wound up getting arrested on her own warrant (although the police inexplicably did not find his warrant when they arrested her). Suddenly, he was on his own, and all his belongings had been stolen.

"It was a cocktail that was a no-win situation"

—Mary Pipes of Manti, holding a picture of herself with her husband, Jim, about a tangle of mental health issues that led to his death

He normally used heroin, not meth. But that night, he was so depressed he did meth. He decided to return to Sanpete County and turn himself in, and found a friend to give him a ride back to the county. The friend “handed me a bag of heroin far too big for someone in a bad place.”

When he got home, Smith felt “things were as bad as they could possibly get.” The methamphetamine affected his thinking. “I normally don’t consider suicide,” he said. “There’s a lot of suicide in my family, so I’ve always been very averse to it.”

In his altered state of mind, Smith decided to take the entire bag of heroin. He knew he was going to turn himself in the next day. “I was not purposefully trying to kill myself. I was trying to get higher than I had in years, and I was willing to accept the risks.”

Luckily, Smith did not overdose, was eventually accepted into Sanpete County’s drug court program and is now a productive member of society.

Family history of suicides

Another factor that may play a part in suicidal ideation is a family history of suicide. Pipes’ husband’s mother had died of suicide in 1981. She also suffered from mental illness. Pipes describes her as a “delightful lady,” but said “you could tell she’d had a rough life, (that) something wasn’t quite right.”

Since her husband’s death, Pipes has educated herself on mental illness and causes of suicide, and knows about the connection between the two. But at the time, she was not aware of the connection, and after both her mother-in-law and husband killed themselves, she thought “That’s just life.”

Loss of social connection

A loss of a relationship is nearly as prevalent a factor in suicidality as substance abuse. The UDOH cites “intimate partner problems” as a factor in up to 39 percent of suicide deaths in Utah.

It might be the break up of a relationship, the loss of a family member or general loneliness. “And then there’s a sense of hopelessness,” says Allen Riggs, director of the Counseling and Wellness Center at Snow College. “People can feel their life has too much stress or too many demands for them to handle. For these people, suicide becomes a way out.”

Lack of social support or even social stigma has particular meaning for LGBTQ youth. Their risk “is a minimum of double the normal risk [for youth], it may be even more,” Riggs says.

“Their community is judged, they have a small social group and more rejection. They have a harder time finding a life partner, creating more loneliness.”

Monica Peterson, a former instructor at Snow and founder of the Snow College PRIDE club, saw the rejection first hand. Her sister (now brother, since he transitioned 10 years ago) was a lesbian Mormon in high school and college.

“I witnessed church leaders shame her publically. She had come back from BYU for the summer. One bishop had her read out loud a passage on homosexuality. It was awkward and inappropriate. He may have thought he was helping, but it was a public shaming.”

According to Peterson, her sister went through deep pain, which led to suicidal thoughts. “When I first found out she was gay, she was in her room crying. I tried to tell her I loved her, but she said, ‘Just get out, you don’t understand. I just want to die. Death would be better than this.’”

Feeling unsuccessful

For some, especially teens and young people, the feeling of not meeting expectations of others becomes overwhelming, leading to suicidal thoughts.

“These people begin to feel that if they do not have ‘success’ in their life, then they have no meaning,” says Riggs, the director of the Snow College Wellness Center.

In 2018, Bryce Thayne of Manti, pictured, had serious thoughts of suicide and sent the texts shown (right) to his mother. At the time, he had broken up with his girlfriend and dropped out of Snow College.

Combine feelings of failure with the difficulty younger people have of putting things in perspective and you have a dangerous combination. “Youth seem to have an inability to press the pause button,” says Davis, the suicide prevention specialist with the state school system. “Teens are more impulsive, and always react stronger to crisis.”

Holbrook, the suicide prevention specialist at Snow, says the Wellness Center especially looks out for the athletes on campus. “I can’t imagine it’s easy to be in the public eye. And at the college level, you are definitely in the public eye. There’s pressure, and an expectation to be strong. They feel like they can’t show any weakness, especially around their teammates. So they carry it as long as they can, and when they can’t anymore, it all breaks down.”

Bryce Thayne, a Manti resident and suicide survivor, says he started feeling suicidal after some downturns in his life. “I was ending a relationship with a girl, and it was hard. I felt like I didn’t have anything going on for me. I had left Snow [College] because that didn’t feel right for me. I had no direction and I was alone. My choices were falling apart, nothing was working.”

Bullying

Bullying can be a huge problem for youth. The UDOH finds that youth who were picked on or bullied at school more than once during the past year were 4.2 times more likely to have seriously considered suicide compared to peers who had not been bullied.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a native of Fairview and graduate of North Sanpete High School, recently opened up about his experiences with suicidal ideation as a teenager.

His parents divorced when he was 10 years old. In middle school, he faced bullying. At the time, he began to wonder “what would it be like if I wasn’t here anymore.” And then he began to think about how to do it.

Luckily, people around him could see he was struggling. He had withdrawn from peers, his grades were suffering, and he was often in a dark mood and uncommunicative. Those people reached out to him and helped pull him out of his destructive thoughts.

Social media

The role of social media on youth suicidal ideation must also be acknowledged. According to the UDOH, students who reported playing video games or using computers for non-school related activities for three or more hours a day were twice as likely to have considered suicide compared to youth who had two or fewer hours of screen time daily.

Riggs thinks youth use of social media may take time away from in-person interpersonal interactions. “They don’t have as much practice just talking to and socializing with other teens.”

And Dr. Doug Gray at the University of Utah thinks the “best selves comparisons” teens see on social media contribute to teens trying to reach an unrealistic standard.

Keyera Braithwaite, who is student body president at Manti High School this year, but who earlier lost a friend to suicide and when through a period where she herself felt suicidal, agrees with this assessment, too. She says social media leads teens she knows to try to emulate “social media influencers,” even when it’s the so-called influencers set a standard that is impossible to live up to.

PTSD among veterans

Another group unusually susceptible to suicidal ideation is veterans. The NVDRS found 14 percent of all suicide victims in Utah identified as veterans, including 51 percent of victims aged 65 and older.

According to Robert Buckner, a veteran and member of a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and American Legion groups, says veterans of combat often have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But because of the “warrior culture” of military members, “they won’t seek help, won’t go to therapy, and their condition goes untreated.”

Keyera Braithwaite, student body president at Manti High School, holds obituary of a friend who took his own life last year. She says a couple of years ago, after an athletic injury forced her to quit sports teams that were important to her, she had suicidal thoughts.

“I remember when Vietnam veterans came back and so many of them wound up homeless,” says Buckner. “Back then, the VA (Veteran’s Administration) really didn’t know what was going on. We’ve gotten better since then. The Utah National Guard is doing a good job at reaching out. Even so, the rate (among veterans) is high.”

Mark Best (not his real name) says his wife’s younger brother served in the military during Vietnam. When he got back, Best says, he was not the same. He was more withdrawn, and moody. After a fight with his girlfriend, he killed himself. Although the fight itself was not particularly serious, it was the stressor that proved to be his breaking point.

Altitude

Dr. Brent Kious, a psychiatrist at the University of Utah, points to research led by Dr. Perry Renshaw, director of a mental illness research center at the Salt Lake City Veterans Administration Medical Center. Renshaw’s research shows suicide rates increase in locations where the elevation goes over 2,500 feet, even after controlling for factor such as poverty or the availability of guns.

The research is consistent with findings in other high-elevation countries such as Chile, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and Korea.

At higher elevations, air has less oxygen. The brain does not produce serotonin as effectively as at lower elevations. Researchers have found serotonin helps to fight off the symptoms of depression and anxiety, issues that contribute to suicidal ideation.

Another theory is that with less oxygen, the brain is less able to store energy. The brain, even though it is a relatively small part of the body, uses up to 20 percent of all energy produced by the body. With less oxygen, the brains has less energy, which may affect brain functions.

Part 3:

Finding hope in kindness

Prevention awareness efforts pick up steam to end suicide epidemic

Published September 5, 2019

“I can be made aware of students who are struggling who wouldn't have been pointed out before."

—Kami Millett, North Sanpete Middle School counselor and Hope Squad sponsor

Robert Stevens / Messenger Photo
Current members of this year’s North Sanpete Middle School Hope Squad are (back, L-R): Kami Millett, counselor; Cindy Johansen, advisor; Aizen Fackrell, Isabell Lucero, Jocelyn Jenkins and Paeton Johnson. (front, L-R): Journey Toomey, Adelay Stavros and Gracie Kjar.

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.

Greg Hudnall, former associate superintendent of the Provo School District, who has led an effort to set up Hope Squads in schools around the country. Hope Squads are teams of students who identify fellow students at risk for suicide and let adults know. The squads are organized in at least 31 of 41 Utah school districts and have 7,000 student members. Gov. Gary Herbert’s Teen Suicide Prevention Task Force has recommended expanding the program to more Utah schools.

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).

SafeUT app

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. 

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.

Above, staff from the North Sanpete, South Sanpete and Sevier school districts gather at South Sanpete School District offices in November, 2018 for a suicide prevention training. At the front of the middle table are Sam Ray (left), superintendent in North Sanpete, and Kent Larsen, South Sanpete superintendent (right). (inset) The main trainer for the event was Cathy Davis, suicide prevention specialist with the Utah State Office of Education, shown on the same day as the training in the lobby at Manti High School. She is pictured below holding posters containing pointers for students on handling emotional crises.

School-based programs

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 went 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.”

Gun safety

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.

Police intervention

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 more time in themselves.”

A sizeable crowd participates in a past Out of the Darkness Community Walk in Cedar City. This year, walks will be held in Brigham City, Salt Lake City, Vernal, Richfield and St. George. The Richfield walk is next Saturday.