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Kids often have difficulty asking adults for help when they're being bullied or having suicidal thoughts these are sensitive issues, Barry Rose said, that are difficult to say out loud.
But sending a text message about it can be much more comfortable than talking to a stranger on the phone, said Rose, crisis services manager for University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) at the University of Utah.
That's why SafeUT, a free app kids can download on their smartphone to chat or text confidentially and anonymously with UNI crisis counselors, has been so successful since its launch in January, he said.
Usage of the app has increased every month, and Rose said that last month crisis counselors received about 1,000 text messages from students in distress.
Kids who request a chat through the app have access to 24/7 licensed clinicians who can provide counseling, suicide prevention and referral services, Rose said. If the situation is life-threatening, Rose said, emergency services are called. If not, clinicians can talk to students about topics ranging from bullying and relationship problems to thoughts of killing themselves.
Access to these types of services is important given the high rate of youth suicide in Utah.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among Utahns between ages 10 and 17, and two youths are treated for attempting suicide every day, the state Department of Health reports.
And according to this year's Kids Count Data Book, the number of Utah youths ages 10 to 19 who killed themselves more than doubled in 2014 compared with 2008 60 and 27, respectively.
"The real goal of this [app] is to decrease the rate of Utah suicide in Utah," Rose said. "Crisis intervention is suicide prevention: It's all about helping people get what they need when they need it."
Kids also can submit tips about bullying, threats of violence or friends they are concerned about through the app. Those tips are screened by institute officials in case it's an emergency or after hours and then passed on to administrators at participating schools across the state, Rose said.
"Typically [these tips] are a friend is concerned about someone else because maybe they're read something on Facebook that [the friend has] thoughts of harming" or suicide, he added.
Almost a year since the app's launch, about half the schools in the state around 300 have signed up to receive tips.
Among those are all schools in the Salt Lake City School District. In a statement, district officials said they have received "relatively few tips" at their schools, but the ones they have received were helpful "in providing responsive services to students."
District officials did not know the total number of students who have downloaded the app, but said they advertise it through school assemblies, posters and promotion videos.
And they make sure students understand how to use it, officials added.
Rose said the goal is to get all schools in the state enrolled to receive tips by July.
Part of the reason that hasn't happened yet, he added, is because the institute wants to ensure it can handle the potential volume of information.
"We have to do this in a structured way so we have time to make sure schools get trained adequately and have time to work with students," Rose said. "We're doing it in a strategic way so that our crisis counselors can gauge the volume so we're prepared and have enough people on duty."
Rose said there are never fewer than two crisis counselors working at any given time, but that can increase to 10, depending on the time of day and year.
Officials hope to increase those numbers as the app becomes more popular, especially because they want to expand to higher-education institutions and their students. So additional funds will be sought from the Legislature in the coming year
"Not everyone is suicidal, but they can become suicidal without support and intervention," Rose said. "We're hoping that this is a tool [students] will use because it's anonymous, and as it grows and we can show that there are lots of successes ... we're hoping to break through the stigma [of suicide] and get students to use it more and more."