On Wednesday, 17 January 2018, Utah Governor, Gary Herbert, created a new task force to address the increase number of teen suicides in Utah. State officials are optimistic that the new coalition will be able to find reasons why so many teens are killing themselves and come up with ways to prevent the suicides. State and federal health care experts have closely examined the rise in suicides but have not, to date, been able to identify a single cause.
The St George News reports, “According to new data unveiled Wednesday [17 January 2018] by Utah state health officials, there were 44 suicides among youth ages 10-17 in 2017 — matching the record previously set in 2015. The average yearly total over the last five years is more than double the yearly average from the previous decade.”
Governor Herbert has declared the issue of teen suicides an emergency and has ordered the newly created task force to work with existing suicide prevention groups to compile a list of proposed solutions and to present their report by 15 February 2018. He also stated that he is willing to devote additional state funds if needed. He told the St George News, “I’m smart enough to know that no one single issue, one single solution will in fact prevent all suicides, but I do believe that a more concentrated, coordinated approach by all of us working together can in fact reduce incidents of teen suicides.”
Ronald A. Rasband, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a member of the task force. He said that the Church is updating its website about suicide. The website is called “Suicide Prevention and Ministering” and will focus more on suicide prevention. He further stated that the Church is “as anxious as anybody to get to the bottom of it, stop it and provide resources” and believes that the coalition’s findings could lead to a change in how the Church deals with the issue.
Gail Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz and a sponsor of an anti-bullying coalition, and Equity Utah executive director, Troy Williams, are also members of the task force. The task force is rounded out with state lawmakers, health care professionals, and suicide prevention experts.
Williams commented that his inclusion on the panel is an indicator that state officials recognize the data that shows LGBT youth are four times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts. According to the St George News, “In Utah, where as many of two-thirds of the state’s 3 million residents are members of the LDS Church – which opposes same-sex relationships – LGBT youth have struggled to find acceptance. That has led LGBT advocacy groups to assert that the rise in suicides could be linked to these teens’ struggles.”
Although a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studying the spike in Utah teen suicides supports a finding by state officials that a small fraction of suicide victims was gay or lesbian, federal investigators were only able to determine the sexual orientation of less than one-third of the suicide victims over a five-year period. Hence, state and federal investigators concur that more needs to be done to assess whether sexual orientation is a contributing factor. The state has also hired an epidemiologist who is helping the state medical examiner with death investigations and hopes to find out more details about the victims, as well as, possible contributing factors, including sexual orientation.
The coalition will be co-chaired by Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox and state Representative Steve Eliason. Eliason reminded parents to keep their firearms locked up, noting that firearms were used in most of the youth suicides in 2017. He also counseled parents to stay close to their teens throughout their teen years and above all to love their children at all cost. Cox urged everyone to make sure that youth who are struggling don’t feel alone and to be particularly attentive to LGBT youth. “Everyone needs to know that they are loved for who they are,” Cox said.