Bill aimed to increase resources for youth suicide, substance abuse prevention moves through House

ST. GEORGE — A bill that would amend provisions to youth suicide prevention programs passed in the House Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 3 and is awaiting its third reading in the Utah House.

The bill, designated HB 93 in the 2021 Legislature and sponsored by Rep. Brian S. King, D-Salt Lake City, would clarify that programs should provide resources for all types of substance abuse and allow programs to include all children K-12. It would also encourage school-based programs to collaborate with other prevention efforts in the community and continue to fund school-based and community-led programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a greater need for amendments like these, King told St. George News.

“I thought it was a particularly appropriate bill to run in light of the challenges, making sure kids get access to education,” he said. “We’ve had reports that this has been hard for kids and parents. It’s been hard on them to be out of school, hard on them to not have the activities with their friends and with their teachers.”

King decided to sponsor the bill when a constituent told him the language in the current legislation was unclear. The purpose of the amendments is to decrease the number of school kids turning to substances. With more resources for kids struggling with substance issues and suicidal thoughts, Utah schools would have been able to save many more lives in past years, he added.

Rep. Brian S. King, D-Salt Lake City | Profile photo courtesy Utah House of Representatives

“We’ve got the lowest number of counselors in our schools of any place in the country,” King said. “It’s something that we’ve shortchanged in the past and to be honest it makes me nervous.”

The bill passed its committee hearing with nine votes in favor, three absent and one, Rep. Cheryl K. Acton, R-West Jordan, against. In St. George, the bill has received favorable opinions from schools, advocacy groups and legislators.

Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, told St. George News via email that the bill is important to him because he ran for office largely to protect Utah’s families, children and young people.

“I’m hopeful that HB 93 will lead to much better coordination between our schools, including charter schools and youth suicide prevention programs,” he said. “I have high hopes that we will all do an even better job of helping and protecting our young people.”

Jon Butler, counseling coordinator for the Washington County School District, told St. George News that any additional supports toward suicide prevention are a positive change. The school district is actively working toward social emotional learning environments, and has recently implemented a mental health assistance program, begun using a SAFEUT app, doubled the number of school counselors and hired a mental health specialist.

Butler said there is always a financial need in the schools for programs and any additional resources are helpful as long as they cultivate connections.

“We know that students do better, are safer and happier when they are connected,” he said. “Those connections can be at home and school with a social group, a teacher, a coach, a counselor, etc.”

Collaboration between programs is important because it allows them to combine resources and share ways to address risk factors, Teresa Willie, Washington County Reach4hope suicide prevention coalition coordinator, told St. George News.

“We are advocating for (the bill),” she said. “It’s important because if you get upstream enough, we’re building skills, we’re increasing protective factors. That umbrella will address prevention, it will address any kind of risky behavior …. Research shows that anytime you collaborate, the outcomes are exponential.”

The bill is currently on the third reading calendar and will be voted on in the House in the coming days.

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