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Utah suicide rates
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Report: suicide rates on the rise in Utah

Getty images: Utah map

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Utah ranks fifth in the nation when it comes to suicide rates, according to new numbers released this week.

A suicide prevention advocacy group released a report Thursday addressing what can be done regarding this grim statistic. The Utah Foundation details how Utah differs nationally in its efforts and challenges in preventing suicide, pointing out that from 2000 to 2016, the rate of suicide in Utah rose from 15.8 per 100,000 residents to 24.2, an increase of 153%.

Part of the challenge in improving efforts to prevent suicide nationally and in Utah is that there are not many statistics which are consistently true nationwide, the foundation says. The statistical incongruities would suggest there is not a single methodical balm that can salve the entire nation. Race, gender, access to guns, mental health, and other life circumstances can be risk factors, the report concluded, but do not alone ensure predictability.

Resources for suicide prevention in Utah can vary by age groups

School-age children have some of the most resources afforded to them because of their participation in the school system. As of 2012, Utah law requires suicide prevention training among certain members of the school staff.  Utah law also requires suicide prevention training among all teachers, administrators, and counselors every three to five years, around the time their education licenses are renewed.

A strong predictor for suicidal ideation is a history of childhood sexual abuse.  Since 2016, all school personnel are required to be trained in the prevention of childhood sexual abuse.

There is no federal standard regarding suicide prevention training. Some states require greater training and other states require less than what is designated by Utah law.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Utah’s teenagers

The rate of suicide among Utah’s teens is double the national rate. From 2011 to 2015, the report found the teen suicide rate in Utah increased more than five times faster than the national average. There is a gender disparity among Utah’s teens and their safety. Teen boys account for 77.4% of teen suicide, whereas teen girls account for nearly 3/4 of teens hospitalized for self-harm, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Utah’s college students

In 2018, Utah law provided public institutions of higher education the use of an app for college students to find help. The SafeUT app offers a smartphone text and tipline for students to reach out in real-time for crisis intervention.  Among institutions of higher learning, only the University of Utah has fully enrolled in this app so far.

Utah does not impose suicide prevention initiatives on public institutions of higher education, according to the Utah Foundation. One result of this lack of uniformity is that the amount of support available can vary widely from school to school.

Utah’s college students on average must wait four to eight weeks to get an appointment at a counseling center, according to the Utah Students Association. Higher demand than in the past is part of the long wait for counseling services. Lack of good insurance among college students makes it even more difficult to access and to afford necessary counseling for those dealing with suicide.

In 2017, college students seeking counseling for mental health concerns was 53%, up from 46% in 2010. Those seriously considering a suicide attempt rose from 24% to 34% in that same time period. Those who attempted suicide increased from 8% to 10%.

Neighboring states have high suicide rates, too

Utah’s mountain west neighbors also have higher than average rates of suicide. Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada are all ranked in the top ten nationally for rates of suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics.

Suicide rates are found to be higher among states with a higher elevation. However, this is not found to be consistently true nationwide.

Arizona is ranked 17th nationally for suicide and has a similar average elevation to Utah.

Research from the University of Utah suggests that anti-depressants may be less effective at higher elevations, which could have an impact on the possible link between depression and suicide.

Access to guns is an issue

Access to guns is closely connected to suicide in Utah, where suicide with a gun made up 50% of suicides as of 2014, according to the CDC. The southern states, however, have similar rates of gun ownership to Utah, but suicide rates are much lower.

The Utah Foundation says reducing access to firearms is an important part of comprehensive suicide prevention. In 2014, Utah began to provide cable-style gun locks for free. Utah does not have mandatory safe storage laws, unlike some other states.  In California, adults can be found criminally liable if a minor is likely to gain access to a firearm which has been negligently stored, regardless if a minor accessed a firearm.

The Utah Safe Harbor Law allows gun owners to store their guns with law enforcement if the owner feels there is a concern about someone in the household committing self-harm.

Race may play a role

There is a level of correlation between race and suicide which is true nationally but untrue in Utah.

Nationally, suicide among non-Hispanic whites “[f]ar outpaces the rates among Asians, African Americans and Hispanics of any race,” according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. However, in Morgan County, where Utah’s highest per capita of non-Hispanic whites resides, the suicide rate is 25th among 29 counties. San Juan County has the highest population of American Indians in Utah but does not have a high rate of suicide. Despite the fact that Utah has a higher than average rate of suicide overall, these two groups have lower rates in certain parts of Utah.

Researchers keep an eye on drug use

Drug use has a strong connection to suicide but no absolute overlaps nationally. In Utah, a pattern does appear to emerge. Four of the top five counties for suicide in Utah were among the top five for opioid prescription amounts per capita. The connection can be the opposite in other states. According to the Utah Foundation, “Colorado has a low prescription rate and a high suicide rate; Alabama has a high prescription rate and a low suicide rate.”