Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part series on Utah’s Student Health and Risk Prevention survey on Tooele County students. Part One was about alcohol, tobacco and drug use among youth. Part Two was about the incidence of student bullying on school property, and student safety.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in Utah teenagers, according to state statistics.
Last year there were 38 deaths by intentional self-harm, or suicide, among 13- to 19-year-old youth in the state, according to the Utah Health Department.
In 2012 there was one death by suicide among teenagers in Tooele County, according to the Utah Health Department. But now a troubling new statistic: A recent survey indicates a growing number of Tooele County teenagers have thought seriously about suicide.
Of Tooele County sixth through twelfth grade students that completed the Student Health and Risk Prevention Survey last spring, 14.1 percent answered “yes” to the question, “During the past 12 months did you ever seriously consider attempting suicide?”
For comparison, 12.3 percent of students statewide answered “yes” to that question last spring.
In 2011, the first year the SHARP survey asked the suicide question, 11.7 percent of Tooele County students that completed the survey answered “yes.”
For Sarah DeBois, who has worked in social services in Tooele County for 19 years, the number of students that answered “yes” about suicide is no surprise.
“I have seen suicide rise from twelfth leading cause of death in youth to now number one or two,” she said. DeBois is a children’s team leader at Valley Behavioral Health in Tooele.
DeBois said she sees hundreds of youth every year that have seriously thought about or attempted suicide or self harm.
“About 60 percent of the youth I work with say they have considered suicide,” she said.
Teen suicide has received a lot of attention and discussion at the national and state level recently, and talking about suicide is good, according to DeBois.
“Some people don’t like talking about suicide,” she said. “But talking about it is the only way we can stop it.”
The SHARP survey results caught the attention of Tooele County’s team of interagency prevention specialists.
“When we saw the results of the SHARP survey, we noted the increase in the students that said they had considered suicide,” said Julie Spindler, prevention specialist for Valley Behavioral Health. “This is concerning. It is something we need to talk more about.”
She added, “Suicide has become such an important issue that both the State Office of Education and Human Services now have suicide prevention coordinators.”
A complex issue, DeBois is uncertain what has caused the rise in the SHARP survey statistic about suicide.
“Perhaps it is related to the recession,” she said. “Young people are having trouble finding jobs, as well as they are impacted by financial stresses on their family.”
Moments of depression are not unusual for teenagers and even longer battles with depression are not uncommon. Statistically, around 10 to 15 percent of teenagers have trouble with depression, according to DeBois.
Parents and people working with teens can look for signs of depression and potential suicide.
“When I talk to parents about suicide, I tell them to watch for extremes in behavior, such as too little to eat or too much to eat, or very little sleep or a lot of sleep,” said DeBois. “Their grades may drop or they worry excessively about grades and they are generally irritable.”
These signs are not exclusive to suicide, but are indicators that mental health help may be needed, she said.
Asking teens about suicide does not increase chances that they will try to commit suicide.
“Asking them directly sometimes is the only way you will get an answer,” said DeBois. “I usually phrase my question as, ‘Have you ever thought about hurting yourself?’”
DeBois has also noticed a connection between self-harm tendencies and school related problems.
“About 85 to 95 percent of the youth I see also have struggles at school,” she said. “It is great to see our new superintendent is willing to look into things like suicide, bullying, and harassment at school.”
The only way to prevent suicide is to get treatment and professional help, according to DeBois.
Parents that want to consult with a youth behavioral specialist may call the child behavior unit at Valley Behavioral Health in Tooele during the day at 801-566-5972. After hours a mental health crisis worker is available by calling dispatch at 435-882-5600.
Valley Behavioral Health also operates a youth services center, which is a drop-in center for teens and families in crisis.
The Tooele Youth Services Center is located at 27 S. Main Street in Tooele. The center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Teenagers sometimes need to understand that there is hope, that feelings of depression and mental pain do go away, according to Doug Thomas, associate director of Mental Health Services with Utah State Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. With proper treatment and therapy, depression and suicide are survivable illnesses—and they are illnesses, not weaknesses, he added.
“There is a stigma attached to suicide and mental health,” said Thomas. “Sometimes people think it is a sign of weakness to ask for help, but we all need help at times. We don’t get through life alone.”