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Understanding Utah's High Suicide Rate Just Became A Full-Time Job

Erik Neumann / KUER
Michael Staley is the new suicide prevention research coordinator at the Office of the Medical Examiner.

You’ve probably heard the statistics: Utah ranks fifth in the nation for death by suicide, and it’s the leading cause of death for 10-17-year-olds. To try to better understand why suicide is such a problem here, the Department of Health recently hired sociologist Michael Staley to research it.

Staley says we have lots of information about who is dying by suicide in Utah but we don't yet know why. Listen to a conversation with Staley and KUER’s Erik Neumann about his new position here.

Q: One of the unique things about your job is that you're going out and interviewing people who have been affected. 

Staley: Yeah, in many cases, I’m contacting the next of kin, family, sometimes even friends, school counselors, people who are close to the individual who died within 24-hours of the actual death. It’s a real on-the-ground approach.

Q: Usually in the Health Department I don’t think of sociology being a common skill-set that people are going to have. What else does having that perspective bring to addressing this problem?

Staley: Sociologists go a few thousand feet above the problem to look at it from a population health perspective and a community health perspective. We ask about what’s happening within groups of people, not necessarily this one individual diagnosis.

Q: It kind of sounds like your job will be doing a little bit of myth-busting?

Staley: Yeah, here’s a good one, and this doesn’t apply specifically just to Utah but to everywhere. A lot of times people will explain-away a suicide death by saying ‘oh, she was depressed’ or ‘he hadn’t been himself for a really long time, so we’re not surprised.’ But the majority of people who have mental illness don’t die by suicide. If you look at the comments in a lot of news articles you’ll see a lot of blaming and finger pointing about this person or this organization pushed this group of people to do something, [but] we don’t know if that’s true. That’s speculative. Part of my role at the Office of the Medical Examiner in the Department of Health is to examine some of those assumptions and speculations and further flesh those out and see, are they true?

Q: What’s unique about Utah and a cause for us to be in this top ten states for suicide deaths?

Staley: One of the things that immediately jumped off the page to me, even before I was in this position, is that typically we expect religion to be a protective factor in suicide. It’s one of those things that connects people. If you look at Utah in other ways, we know that we have one of the largest church-going populations in the country, if not the largest. So we would expect maybe that to be a good buffer for us but it doesn’t turn out that that is the case. So we have to reexamine what we knew before this, and what kinds of things are interfering with that protective factor.

Q: Everyone agrees that suicide is a problem but the factors that contribute to it are a little more controversial, like gun access or LGBTQ people who might be rejected by family or faith groups. How does your work blend in to some of these more controversial topics?

Staley: That’s a really difficult question to answer because there is no one public health strategy that we can implement even in the next year or five years that’s going to address differing values and differing perspectives on some of these issues that aren’t necessarily suicide. We can all come to the table and agree that suicide is a problem. But when we start identifying some of the reasons why an individual might become so hopeless that they choose to end their own life, that is absolutely more difficult to address.

There is no room to be cynical in suicide prevention. You have to be hopeful. I’m in the business of hope. As a scientist that feels really wishy-washy and hard to nail down most days. As a sociologist I believe that social connectedness is a big part of this equation, and making sure that we can recognize the risk factors when somebody is disconnecting or acting differently – or whatever the risk-factor may be – that we can identify a population and say that this person needs help, and not be afraid to pick up the phone and ask for help on their behalf.  

Note: A previous version of this story stated that Utah ranked seventh in the nation for death by suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah ranks fifth. This interview has been edited for clarity. 

If you or someone you know needs help or support:

  • LGBT Youth Crisis & Support Lifeline, The Trevor Project
    Trevor Lifeline: 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386)
  • SafeUT App Call Lifeline: 800-273-8255 The SafeUT Mobile App is available in the Apple and Google Play stores by searching “P3 Tips” and selecting “SafeUT.”
  • Utah Suicide Hotline, Valley Mental Health
    Crisis Line, 24 hours / 7 days: 801-261-1442
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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