In 1980, I was hired by Tooele County School District as their psychologist. I wrote and published a paper entitled, “Too young to die,” reflecting high suicide rates in Utah and Tooele County.
Recently, a Tooele County youth tragically took his own life. It has been reported that the youth was a victim of bullying.
In the past decade, headlines reporting the tragic stories of a young person’s suicide death linked in some way to bullying — physical, verbal, or online — have become regrettably common. There is so much pain and suffering associated with each of these events, affecting individuals, families, communities, and our society as a whole and resulting in an increasing national outcry to “do something” about the problem of bullying and suicide.
Suicidal behavior is a serious and complex public health issue that takes an enormous toll on communities in both economic and human costs.
From 2018 to 2020, the age-adjusted suicide rate in Utah was 21.4 per 100,000 persons, with an average of 657 suicides per year. Utah had the 6th highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. In 2019, Tooele County had the 6th highest age-related suicide rate in Utah.
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Bullying can occur in-person or through technology.
In 2020, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17 and 18-24. It is the second leading cause of death for ages 25 to 44 and the fifth leading cause of death for ages 45-64. Overall, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for Utahns (age-adjusted rate).
Bullying has serious and lasting negative effects on the mental health and overall well-being of youth involved in bullying in any way; including those who bully others, youth who are bullied, as well as those youth who both bully others and are bullied by others, sometimes referred to as bully-victims.
Suicide deaths are only part of the problem.
More people are hospitalized or treated in emergency rooms for suicide attempts than are fatally injured. In 2019, 70 Utahns were treated for self-inflicted injuries every day — 15,875 treat-and-release emergency department visits plus 9,546 total hospitalizations.
According to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in the 12 months preceding the survey, Utah high school students surveyed reported the following: 36.7% felt sad or hopeless, 22.3% seriously considered attempting suicide, 18.7% made a suicide plan, 9.3% attempted suicide one or more times, and 2.1% had a suicide attempt that required medical attention.
The 2019 Prevention Needs Assessment data indicate that overall, 62.2% of Utah students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12 reported experiencing moderate depressive symptoms.
Students were also asked social isolation questions and reported the following: 16.4% felt left out, 15.3% felt that “people barely know me,” 15.3% felt isolated from others and 19.4% felt that “people are around me but not with me.”
All suicide attempts should be taken seriously. Suicide attempt survivors are often seriously injured, are likely to have depression and/or another mental health disorder and are at an increased risk for suicide.
Youth who report both bullying others and being bullied (bully-victims) have the highest risk for suicide related behavior of any groups that report involvement in bullying.
Suicide-related behavior is complicated and rarely the result of a single source of trauma or stress.
Tooele County School District, Tooele County Health Department, local law enforcement agencies and local churches must combine their resources in one vector point and begin to put some of their best knowledge into addressing this community issue.
Abe Singh is a former psychologist for Tooele County School District