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Week 3: Addressing Utah’s High Suicide Rate

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Lee Hale / KUER

Utah has been putting a lot of money toward mental health resources. That’s largely because the state has the sixth-highest rate of suicide deaths in the country. Over half of those deaths are firearm-related, so pro-gun lawmakers who want to save lives walk a fine line when they are proposing new bills. So far, Utah’s approach has been to focus on gun safety and connecting people to mental health resources as early as possible.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, has spearheaded several suicide prevention bills. He said this session he’s hoping the Legislature can build on the momentum from the past few years.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Utah Crisis Line at 801-587-3000 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Guests:

Rep Steve Eliason, R-Sandy

Rep. Steve Eliason Interview Highlights:

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

On what the Utah Legislature has done to prevent suicides so far:

“In the past eight sessions, we've passed nearly two dozen mental health and suicide prevention related bills. And last session was probably the best session in the state's history for mental health. In fact, really the only bill that survived the cuts last summer when we had a special session related to [COVID-19] was the House Bill 32. That was a crisis services bill that provided a lot of funding for crisis resources. And the timing, frankly, couldn't have been better because we've seen a huge uptick in those requests for those services during the pandemic. So the momentum has been building over the past eight, nine years. And we have a number of bills this very session that we're considering to continue to make strides in those areas.”

On Utah’s increased mental health resources:

“We put a 10-year prevention plan together, which we've never had in the state of Utah. Then we focused on encouraging help-seeking resources, such as calling the Utah Crisis Line or even calling for help for a mobile crisis outreach team — otherwise known as MCOT Teams. They're basically mental health ambulances. As we've promoted those resources, we've seen a lot of Utahns reach out for help, which is very encouraging. We've also tried to destigmatize mental health, and reaching out for help is part of a public service announcement campaign called Live on Utah.”

On gun safety and suicide prevention:

“Another pillar — we've tried to encourage people to safely store firearms. We know that there is a huge connection between the likelihood of somebody to die by suicide and the method they use. And if they use a firearm, they're probably going to die. So, encouraging parents and gun owners to safely store firearms is critical, and we believe that we've seen some of our recent reductions in suicide as a result of some of the efforts in that area.”

“I think it's really important for firearm owners to know that the chances of somebody coming into your home and harming a family member with a firearm — those odds are about the same as being killed in a flash flood. However, the really sobering statistic is that people who purchase a firearm to protect their family — knowing that 83% of firearm deaths in Utah are suicides — the reality is the firearm they purchase to protect their family is most likely the firearm that will take the life of one of their family members.”

Stories Referenced:

Bills Referenced:

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER. She’s been reporting on politics ever since the 10th grade, when she went to so many school board meetings the district set up a press table for her. Before coming to Utah, Sonja spent four years at KQED in San Francisco where she covered everything from wildfires to the tech industry. When she’s not working, you can find her skiing, camping, or deeply invested in a 1000 piece puzzle.
Emily Means was raised in Layton, Utah, but she’s found her place in Salt Lake City. She’s worked at just about every public radio station in and around Salt Lake, starting as a weekend host at KUER in 2015, then a producer at KRCL and KCPW and a municipal reporter at KPCW in Park City. As one of KUER's politics reporters, Emily is most passionate about social justice issues. She loves drinking lattes from local coffee shops and exploring her neighborhood in search of cats.