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Audit Shows Crucial Mental Health Services Operating At $1M Deficit / tadamichi

Utah saw a jump in demand for mental health services over the last three years, according to a state Legislative Auditor General report discussed at an interim legislative session Tuesday.

SafeUT, an app that gives users access to counselors through their phone, saw a 1000% increase in demand, the largest increase across a host of services added by the state. Staff responses climbed from 90 conversations in 2016 to 1,081 conversations last year. One official attributed the increase in demand for the app, which is aimed at Utah students of all ages, to marketing efforts. 

Other services — including two phone hotlines staffed by clinical social workers and peer specialists and community response teams that assess and stabilize people in crisis — saw their workload increased by as much as 54%. All four are provided by the University of Utah’s University Neuropsychiatric Institute. 

But the services operated at a deficit of $1.16 million between 2016 and 2018, according to an audit presented at a Tuesday public education appropriations subcommittee meeting. The deficit is predicted to keep growing to $3.6 million by 2020. 

Ross VanVranken of the University Neuropsychiatric Institute said one of the reasons why the app is successful is because adolescents feel more comfortable texting than making a phone call. 

“That seems to be their native language,” he said. “I think in the end, we are saving a lot of lives on this app.”

In 2017, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns between age 10 and 24, according to data from Utah Department of Health. Utah’s suicide rate — 22 per 100,000 persons between 2015 and 2017 — has been one of the highest in the nation. 

The state is working to reduce its suicide rate by 10% before 2026. 

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, also introduced a bill Tuesday to designate “9-8-8” as the universal telephone number for the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system.

“Suicide hits close to home with an average of two Utahns taking their life every day,” Stewart said in a statement. “This dialing code is an essential step in providing critical resources to those in emotional distress.” 

If the bill is passed, University Neuropsychiatric Institute thinks the three-digit number’s national publicity could double the Crisis Line’s workload. 

The public education appropriations subcommittee is looking into whether lawmakers can tap into the state’s growing tax base to provide more funding for the services. 

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the Utah Crisis Line at 801-587-3000 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Rocio is coming to KUER after spending most of her life under the blistering Las Vegas sun and later Phoenix. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno. She did brief stints at The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Public Radio. She enjoys wandering through life with her husband and their toy poodle.
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