In our last three editions, we published a three-part series on how Tooele County students rank in the 2013 Utah Student Health and Risk Prevention Survey. Although all surveys should be analyzed with a degree of incredulity, the SHARP survey’s results deserve a more subjective look.
The Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health conducts the SHARP survey every two years. It examines sixth to twelfth grade students’ choices and concerns in several areas, including alcohol, tobacco and drug use; bullying on school property; and seriously considering suicide.
The first installment, published on Nov. 19 and headlined, “Alcohol and tobacco use drops among local students,” offered positive news. According to the survey, county youth decreased drinking alcohol from 12 percent in 2011 to 8.3 percent in 2013; cigarette smoking from 5.5 percent in 2011 to 2.9 percent in 2013, and chewing tobacco from 2.3 percent in 2011 to 1.6 percent in 2013. Although reported marijuana use rose over the past two years from 6.6 percent to 6.7 percent, it should be noted the number was 6.8 percent in 2009.
According to Julie Spindler, a prevention specialist with the local Valley Mental Health office, the “long-term trend shows a decrease in alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use in Tooele County youth.” That is great news. But there is more to the story.
The second installment headlined, “More students report being bullied,” revealed county students being picked on or bullied while on school property rose from 14.5 percent in 2011 to 23.4 percent in 2013. Also, 8 percent of students surveyed last spring said they missed at least one day of classes because they felt unsafe at school or on the way to school. In 2011, that statistic was 6.3 percent.
The increase in reported bullying is troubling, but last week’s final installment headlined, “More area students giving thought to ending their lives,” is heartbreaking. A tragic 14.1 percent of local student respondents said “yes” when asked, “During the past 12 months did you ever seriously consider attempting suicide?” In 2011 the statistic was 11.7 percent. For comparison, this year local students were nearly 2 percent higher than statewide students who said “yes.”
Even more distressing is an observation by Sarah DeBois, who has worked in social services in the county for nearly 20 years. According to her, she sees hundreds of local students every year that have seriously thought about or attempted suicide.
So what is a possible solution? According to DeBois, a lot of discussion is occurring at the national and state level about teen suicide. “Some people don’t like talking about suicide,” she said. “But talking about it is the only way we can stop it.”
She’s right. The SHARP survey indicates that a larger, community conversation about teen suicide prevention is needed here—and not only by mental health professionals, clergy and educators. It is a conversation all of us need to partake. To talk openly about suicide may encourage students and others struggling with despair that ending their life is not the answer. May that conversation begin with a depth of sincerity and benevolence.