At a press event Friday, Rep. Ben McAdams spoke about legislation he recently introduced to fund research grants aimed at understanding why suicide rates are on the rise, particularly in Utah.
The move is one in a growing list of efforts by Utah leaders and mental health researchers to increase funding and bring awareness to the state’s lack of research and treatment options. That includes a $150 million donation from the Huntsman family to establish a new mental health institute at the University of Utah, announced earlier this week.
McAdams is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation’s $8.1 billion annual budget. He introduced the bipartisan Advancing Research to Prevent Suicide Act (H.R. 4704) in October. It would direct the foundation to prioritize funding towards suicide prevention research grants and encourage early career professionals to go into the field.
Utah’s youth suicide rate has increased significantly over the past few decades and is among the highest in the US, according to the CDC. And while those numbers are starting to level out, McAdams said researchers still do not have a great sense of the causes of suicide.
“I think it's worth prioritizing some funding to understand what some of the risk factors might be and why, to help us identify what action we can take to save the lives of people here in Utah,” he said.
Dr. Doug Gray, a suicidologist at the University of Utah, said he’s researched the causes and prevention methods for decades, but for much of that time, he was largely on his own.
“Most of the suicide prevention was out of the trunk of my car,” he said. “I had some boxes with education [material] and things like that.”
In the past five to seven years, however, he said he’s been heartened to see a push for more funding and research, particularly as politicians have become aware of Utah’s suicide rates.
“It’s almost like the cavalry came over the hill,” he said. “I used to know everything going on in the state because really there wasn’t that much going on. And now I can barely keep track and there’s always stuff I don’t know about.”
Dr. Gray cited other research efforts already being conducted in Utah. One example is a study of the largest collection of DNA from people who have died by suicide. While there is no gene that directly predicts whether someone might attempt suicide, Dr. Gray said there are genetic factors that contribute. He said the research could lead to new medications that could help those who might be more susceptible.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.