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The stark statistic that suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah's young people, claiming an average of 37 lives each year, is part of a larger problem of despair, educators learned at a conference Thursday.
More than 200 children ages 10 to 17 are hospitalized each year for trying to hurt themselves and nearly 1,000 land in emergency rooms for suicide attempts, according to statistics delivered by epidemiologists from the Utah Department of Health at a suicide prevention conference.
It was the first such conference sponsored by the Utah Office of Education, which hired a full-time suicide prevention officer 18 months ago. Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd, a federally funded research organization, was a co-sponsor.
About 280 school counselors, administrators and social workers heard from national and local experts about strategies to reach children who are suffering.
Utah had the fourth highest suicide rate last year, coming in behind Montana, Alaska and Wyoming, said Anna Fondario, a health department epidemiologist. The deaths of 562 Utahns last year were ruled as suicides, a number that's been climbing.
Those 17 and under are the age group least likely to take their own lives; the highest suicide rate is among people ages 45 to 54. "But it doesn't mean it's not a problem," Fondario said.
Last year, 34 youths committed suicide.
While boys account for 80 percent to 90 percent of suicides, girls account for 80 percent to 90 percent of the attempts, she said.
The despair strikes hardest in 10th grade, according to the department's surveys of students.
Nearly 28 percent of high school sophomores reported feeling sad or hopeless for most of two straight weeks last year, up from 22 percent four years earlier, Fondario said.
St. George and the Ben Lomond area of northern Weber County had the highest youth hospitalization rates; Midvale, Kearns, West Jordan and downtown Ogden had high emergency-room visitation rates for suicide attempts.
Hispanic students traditionally have had lower risk for suicide, but that's changing, said Elizabeth Brutsch, also a health department epidemiologist. In recent years, Hispanic students have reported thinking more often about suicide or harming themselves, Brutsch said.
Doug Gray, a University of Utah psychiatrist and suicide researcher, described some of his study that tries to tease out causes so prevention and intervention can be improved.
One project involves collecting blood samples from those who've taken their lives to try to determine genetic markers. Another involves interviewing parents of children who committed suicide.
One thing is clear, he says: Those who get good mental health help typically do not commit suicide.
Surveys indicate, though, that many children don't ask for help, because they're embarrassed or think it won't work. "The first barrier we need to get through is stigma," Gray said.
David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, gave several suggestions to educators:
• Talk about suicide. "Talking about it does not prompt people to kill themselves," he said.
• Do not have monuments, assemblies or jersey-retiring ceremonies to honor those who die; it sets a bad precedent and can encourage other suicides.
• Don't hide your own feelings. "If we want children to share their own feelings, we have to expose some of our own."
• Recognize that survivors of a suicide will feel guilt, justified or not.
• When peers say it's suicide, but a family says it's not, speak to students about the known facts.
• "It's important to avoid overly vague or simplistic answers."
How educators can help
David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, gave suggestions to educators:
Talk about suicide • "Talking about it does not prompt people to kill themselves," he said.
Do not have monuments, assemblies or jersey-retiring ceremonies to honor those who die • It sets a bad precedent and can encourage other suicides.
Don't hide your own feelings • "If we want children to share their own feelings, we have to expose some of our own."
Recognize guilt • Recognize that survivors of a suicide will feel guilt, justified or not.
Stick to the facts • When peers say it's suicide, but a family says it's not, speak to students about the known facts.
Avoid being vague • "It's important to avoid overly vague or simplistic answers."