We can see that together we're going to make a bigger impact than if we try and do it alone. We want to help kids. We want them to realize that there are alternatives, there is hope out there and we're willing to be advocates. —Debi Lewis
SYRACUSE — Between the first day of June and the last day in July, 101 deaths in Utah were classified as suicides by the Utah State Office of the Medical Examiner.
In other words, suicide claimed lives at a rate of not quite two people each day in the span of only two months, putting Utah on pace to have slightly more suicides this year than last year.
Some believe there is a solution, but it is slow in coming:
"Communities, mental health agencies and schools coming together to prevent suicide. That's the only way we can do it," said Greg Hudnall, who tackled the issue as an administrator in the Provo School District for more than a decade.
Preliminary data from the Utah Department of Health indicate there were 562 suicide deaths in Utah in 2012. Between January and July of last year, the Utah Medical Examiner's Office certified 315 deaths as suicides. This year, that number was at 321 for the same timeframe.
Each time it leaves people grieving, in search of answers, and often, searching for a way to bring change to one of Utah's most vexing problems.
Pam Hellewell, now of Syracuse, was living in California when she lost her son to suicide. She turned to online support groups for families to find help.
"Suicide is just such a different grieving because there's the guilt, the what-ifs," she said. "(With support groups) you're relating to people who get it."
Hellewell also creates scrapbooks. She keeps one about Jason, her third child and only son, who took his own life in 2006 at age 24.
She makes other scrapbooks for those who also have lost loved ones to suicide or lost children.
"I say, 'I want to do this for you,'" Hellewell said. "I have hundreds of pages on Jason. That's kept me going so I can remember everything and not forget. That's the fear — is forgetting."
She got the call from the coroner's office on a May morning seven years ago; the coroner had Jason's body.
"I knew immediately it was suicide," she said. But in the years before it had been hard to differentiate between teenage angst and mental illness.
Suicide prevention takes time and effort, Hudnall said.
It now has his attention full time as he heads the nonprofit organization Hope4Utah, which he is developing with the backing of Provo-based residential security and home automation company Vivint.
When Hudnall spearheaded education and coordination efforts in the Provo School District, suicide rates dropped to zero and have stayed there for eight years.
"We were so successful in Provo how do we replicate that now?" Hudnall said. That will be the challenge — how do you take that model and replicate it in other communities?"
Hudnall notes that it took five years before the number dropped to zero in Provo, and it came only after partnering with other community groups with a common goal of looking for warning signs in those individuals who were struggling and knowing how and where to get them help.
"Some communities aren't there yet," Hudnall said. "The hardest part is helping the communities along to realize this is something we need to focus on and do."
Schools are key
Both Hellewell and Hudnall point to schools as a vital component in suicide prevention. Hellewell said Jason started showing signs of his eventual bipolar diagnosis in his teenage years, but that even counselors didn't pick up on it.
Debi Lewis is working to ensure Utah's school counselors join mental health counselors to become better equipped to identify and help the state's students struggling with thoughts of suicide. Lewis, formerly head counselor at West Jordan Middle School, began work as the suicide prevention specialist July 15 at the Utah State Office of Education.
Both the Utah State Office of Education and the Department of Human Services have hired suicide prevention coordinators, as directed by legislative action during the 2013 session. Kimberly Myers, who most recently managed the prevention by design program for the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Utah, filled the Department of Human Services position in mid June.
The two offices are now coordinating their efforts.
"We can see that together we're going to make a bigger impact than if we try and do it alone," Lewis said. "We want to help kids. We want them to realize that there are alternatives, there is hope out there and we're willing to be their advocates."
She said research supports the theory that if a student can feel connected to just one teacher or administrator or counselor at their school, they are less likely to attempt or complete suicide. The key is education and coordination.
"Our goal is to not have one more student die by suicide," Lewis said. "That's a huge lofty goal, so the beginning point is we have got to start educating teachers, parents, students and communities that these are the warning signs, this is what we do, here are the community resources."
Hellewell said she would love to see more information provided in schools, both on suicide and mental illness. She said it can be difficult as a parent to know the difference between typical teenage moodiness and hormones and mental illness.
More difficult still is to realize your child has suicidal thoughts. Hellewell said Jason took his life at 24 but started talking about suicide at 16. Education about suicide and mental illness would have been really helpful, she said.
Now, she manages her loss through those support groups and helping others, especially in the first two years after losing a loved one to suicide.
"It's really helpful to give back," Hellewell said. "Those first two years are just a nightmare. So to be able to help them realize that you're doing OK, it's one day at a time, one hour at a time, sometimes that's all you can handle that makes you feel good that you can help others that are dealing with the same thing."