CACHE COUNTY – Public officials here say that Cache County is suffering from a plague more deadly than the coronavirus.
That plague is suicide.
“Because I was curious,” new County Executive David Zook reported during a meeting of the Cache County Council on Tuesday, “I asked the Bear River Health Department for a comparison of how many people had died of COVID-19 (in January and February of) this year. Their answer was 10.
“So, in the first two months of this year, we had 10 COVID deaths and 13 deaths from suicide.”
Zook added that, according to Terryl Warner of the local Victim’s Services Office, the highest number of suicides previously seen in Cache County had been “four or five in a single month.”
Zook responded to that news by forming a local emergency task force that met for the first time on Feb. 26. That group included representatives from Utah State University, the Bear River Health Department (BRHD), Bear River Mental Health, the Family Place, the Utah Department of Health and the state Medical Examiners Office.
“We had a really good discussion about the issue and the challenges facing our community,” Zook explained. “(Suicide) is too big an issue for us to have expected to come up with any solutions, although I feel that we did make some progress that evening.
“One of the issues that rose to the top in that task force meeting was the need for connection … Citizens in Cache County, especially the youth in our community, need to be able to connect. I’ve heard different numbers, but four or five of those 13 local victims of suicide were USU students. I’ve also heard that all but one or two were males.”
Zook’s comments about the local incidence of suicide seem to contradict a report released in January from the Utah Department of Health stating that no significant increase in the number of suicides statewide had been noted since the pandemic outbreak in March of 2020.
That report noted that the number of Utah suicide deaths in the first 39 weeks of 2020 were consistent with the previous three years, according to Amy Milkkelsen, a UDOH suicide prevention coordinator.
But Cache County may not be Utah’s only suicide hotspot. In January, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office reported that its deputies normally investigate an average of 12 suicides annually. In 2020, however, Utah County investigated 32 suicides.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that Utah suffered more than 660 confirmed deaths by suicide in 2020. That translates to 22.13 suicide deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to a national suicide rate of only 14.21 suicide deaths per capita.
CDC statistics indicated that suicide is the 7th leading cause of death for all Utahns and the leading cause of death for young people in the age group from 10 to 24 statewide.
But help for Utah suicide prevention efforts may be on the way in the form of three pieces of pending legislation now awaiting signatures from Gov. Spencer Cox.
The first of those proposals, according to state Sen. Chris Wilson (R-District 25), is House Bill 93, entitled “Youth Suicide Prevention Programs.” That measure will expand age-appropriate suicide prevention education to children in elementary and secondary schools.
Wilson also praised House Bill 336, entitled “Suicide Prevention Amendments.” That proposal has multiple facets, including one creating a reporting process for the Utah Medical Examiner to obtain youth suicide data for the Health and Human Services Interim Committee to study. The measure also directs the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to provide suicide prevention training to healthcare organizations. Finally, HB 336 creates a state rebate program that incentivizes Utah gun owners to obtain biometric safes for their firearms.
On the other side of the Utah Capitol, Sen. Scott Sandall, R-District 17, was one of the advocates for Senate Bill 155, entitled “Mental Health Crisis Assistance.”
“When people experience a medical emergency, their default solution is to dial 911,” Sandall explained. “Last year, Congress established 988 as the national mental health crisis hotline number … starting in July of 2022.
“SB 155 will help Utah get ready for the launch of that new hotline number,” he added.
Specifically, SB 155 streamlines the application process for Medicaid waivers to pay for mental health treatments; creates an account for crisis response funds to pay for a Utah call center, mobile response teams and follow-up treatments; and adds additional members to existing statewide commissions to assist in the rollout of the national 988 hotline.
In the interim, volunteers are standing by to provide suicide counseling around-the-clock at 800-273-TALK.
Wilson said those legislative proposals passed the Utah House and Senate with minimal opposition during the recently concluded general session of the Legislature and their approval by Cox is expected shortly.
Here in Cache County, Zook said that his ad hoc suicide prevention task force will coordinate its efforts with those of a similar coalition headed by officials of the Bear River Health Department.
“May is national Mental Health Month,” Zook noted, adding that the BRHD is planning a local suicide prevention walk to be held on May 1 to increase public awareness of the problem.