Local officials ponder recent Cache Valley suicide surge

Here in Utah, calling 800-273-TALK is one of many ways to obtain assistance when confronting an emotional or mental health crisis.

CACHE COUNTY – Local officials are mystified about the cause of a rash of suicides in Cache County in recent months.

“We have been really concerned,” said Terryl Warner, director of Victim Services in the office of the Cache County Attorney.

Warner also admitted to being puzzled by the total of 15 suicides that have occurred locally since Oct. 13, 2020.

“Our victim advocates handle a lot of the death notifications in the valley,” she explained. “Last year, between Jan. 1 and Mar. 31, we responded to five suicides. Between April 1 and Oct. 1, we responded to five more.

“We’re not sure what happened then, but from Oct. 13, 2020 until now, we have responded to 15 suicides.”

Officials of Cache County and the Bear River Health Department are baffled as to why the local incidence of suicide would suddenly jump from an average of about one a month during the first nine months of 2020 to an average of three a month more recently.

“Are they cluster suicides?” Warner asked rhetorically. “They don’t appear to be. It doesn’t look like any of the victims knew each other.”

Psychologists at the national Centre for Suicide Prevention define a suicide cluster as multiple suicidal attempts or actual suicides that occur within an accelerated time frame or a defined geographical area.

Studies have indicated that adolescents are most likely to be victims in a suicide cluster.

A suicidal cluster is sometimes sparked by what psychologists term a contagious event, like intense media coverage of suicide by a celebrity figure.

For example, there was a 12 percent hike in the national suicide rate following the controversial death of screen star Marilyn Monroe in the early 1960s.

Psychologists divide suicide clusters into two types. The first is a mass cluster, that is, a group of suicides that occur over a relatively short period, usually following a contagious event.

A point cluster, on the other hand, is a group of suicides that are closely linked by either time or place within institutional settings such as hospitals, prisons, schools or neighborhoods.

Warner said that 10 of the 15 recent suicides were individuals 16 to 26 years of age. Detailed demographic information about those victims is confidential, but Cache County Executive David Zook said Tuesday that he had been informed that about half of the local victims in that age group were students at Utah State University.

The most obvious explanation for the local suicide spike would seem to be emotional stress resulting from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But state officials issued a report in January saying that the Utah Department of Health had seen no significant increase in the number of suicides statewide since the pandemic outbreak in March of 2020.

That report, however, was based on data collected during the first 39 weeks of 2020, ending in mid-October. According to Warner, Cache Valley’s suicide surge began just about that time.

Warner has a couple suggestions for Cache Valley residents wanting to resist this tragic trend.

The first of those is for individuals to attend “Question, Persuade and Refer Training” available from The Family Place and other local organizations.

“For example,” she said, “if a friend says ‘I’m done with things,’ QPR training encourages you to ask the question ‘What do you mean?’.

If a person seems depressed or mentions having suicidal thoughts, then you can persuade him or her to seek help and refer them to a place that can provide assistance.”

Warner’s second suggestion is for everyone to download the SafeUT app to his or her phone.

The SafeUT app accesses a statewide 24-hour crisis text and tip line.

That service provides crisis counseling and school tip reporting for students and their parents and guardians that live in the state of Utah. After installing the app, callers can connect directly to counselors or leave a confidential tip on problematic bullying, school threats of violence or concerns about someone in crisis.

The crisis-line staff can assist with a wide variety of problems, including emotional crisis, grief and loss, drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues, self-harm and suicidal behavior.

Warner stressed that QPR training has been proven effective in defusing crisis situations and that the SafeUT app can be a clearinghouse for anonymous tips about troubled individuals.

Here in Utah, volunteers are also standing by to provide suicide counseling around-the-clock at 800-273-TALK.

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