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Utah Sen. Daniel Thatcher said his first experience with suicide came at age 11, when a classmate made that choice.

By age 16, the West Valley Republican said, one of his best friends was dead as well.

"This is the single greatest crisis facing the youth of Utah," he said.

In 2014 and 2015, Thatcher sponsored consecutive bills to study the feasibility and then create a statewide tip line for school safety and students in crisis.

And on Wednesday, that tip line became a reality with the launch of the SafeUT mobile app, which puts students in contact with trained counselors at the tap of a smartphone screen.

"This is the best way to connect children that are in the greatest danger, that have the greatest need, with the people who can save their lives," Thatcher said.

The mobile app, available for free on Apple and Android devices, allows students to confidentially submit tips to the staff at their school, or to connect immediately by voice or text with counselors at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, or UNI, a division of University of Utah Health Care.

The texting feature, according to the app's developers, is crucial for getting youth in crisis to reach out for help.

"We've known a long time that texting is the way to reach kids," said Barry Rose, UNI Crisis Services manager. "We advertise our [phone] number and students see it but they don't want to call us."

The mobile app was developed in partnership between UNI, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and the Utah Office of Education, which plans to conduct training sessions with teachers and school administrators to respond to tips and encourage students to use the tip line.

Reyes compared the mobile app to the walkie-talkies used by law enforcement personnel to request for backup and support.

"We are empowering our student and our children with the same type of lifeline to be able to reach out and get the help and assistance they need," he said.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns between the ages of 10 and 17, Reyes said, but SafeUT provides a tool to combat the state's "devastating" statistics.

"We know that every hour there are students and children crying out for help and in the past, too often, those cries went unanswered and unheeded," Reyes said.

Thatcher's 2015 bill included $150,00 in one-time and $150,000 in ongoing funding to the University Neuropsychiatric Institute.

He said the app itself was created with donated resources, and the state funds were used to hire two additional clinicians at the UNI CrisisLine and upgrade the UNI system to receive text messages.

"We may need to come back and we may need to continue expanding," he said. "There is nothing more important that we can be doing right now than taking care of these kids."

Twitter: @bjaminwood