In the shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic is a more silent epidemic: mental health and suicide.
Health advocates in the county are hoping to promote resilience and awareness of suicide prevention resources in March.
The effort comes after roughly a dozen deaths by suicide were handled by the Cache County Attorney Office’s Victim Services from December through February, though the state medical examiner has not released confirmation. The office handled five suicide cases over the same period in 2019-2020.
But as any advocate or loved one will say, even one death due to suicide is too many.
“Suicide is tragic,” said Adam Boman, with Bear River Mental Health Services. “It’s a loss, and so any numbers that are out there, it’s important to remember they are people. Our family, friends, neighbors, everybody’s impacted.”
As suicide prevention and awareness are the main ways to stop deaths before they occur, Boman and others in the area are promoting the many options for health available to those struggling.
“We’ve got to remember that hope, treatment and support are out there and can help,” he said. “It’s definitely important to seek it out as soon as you notice things, as soon as there is a concern. Call somebody. Talk to somebody. If you see something, ask somebody how they’re doing.”
Charity Jenson, a health educator with the Bear River Health Department and chair of the Cache Suicide Prevention Coalition, said being proactive is crucial because suicide is considered one of the most preventable causes of death.
“There are resources out there,” Jenson said, “and getting rid of that stigma or stereotype around mental illness or thoughts of suicide will just be really, really helpful.”
Jenson gives free QPR — or Question, Persuade, Refer — trainings in the area to teach people the warning signs of depression and suicide ideation through the health department.
The virtual events put on during the pandemic were just as important and well-attended as in-person events.
“If we can get people trained in QPR, if we can increase awareness and increase having an open conversation in our community about it in an appropriate way,” Jenson said. “People can know it’s something that a lot of people struggle with.”
More information about how to sign up for future QPR trainings is available through BRHD by calling (435)792-6500.
According to Jenson and Boman, just asking “how are you doing?” is one of the best ways to help a person who’s struggling, and it de-stigmatizing the issue to help others open up to their struggles.
“There’s hope, there’s support, there’s treatment,” Boman said, “and no matter how dark, it can improve.”
Cost should not be a barrier for treatment, he added, and there are multiple free options available through local efforts, such as those through The Family Place, Bear River Mental Health and Intermountain Healthcare — which launched a hotline to help people deal with COVID-19 related stress.
Trend or not, a problem in the county
A state report released in January analyzed the first 39 weeks of 2020 and found no new trends in terms of deaths by suicide, and Michael Staley, the suicide prevention research coordinator with the Utah medical examiner’s office, said Cache County has been typically below the state average.
From 2017 to 2019, Utah saw a rate of 22 occurrences per 100,000 residents, though in 2019 alone, its rate dropped to about 20.4. In both 2018 and 2019, there were 24 confirmed deaths by suicide in Cache County — about 19.0 and 18.7 per 100,000, with population adjustments.
“Preliminary data for Cache County … indicates no increase or decrease through the span of the year for 2020,” Staley wrote to The Herald Journal. “Final, official data, which is typically what we rely on to assess what’s happening at the county level, is not released for 9 to 16 months … We will likely see official counts for Cache County for 2020 in September 2021.”
Terryl Warner, a victim’s advocate with the Cache County Attorney Office, was concerned after learning the staff worked on 13 cases of deaths by suicide from December through February. During the same time in 2020, her office had worked on five.
She brought her concerns to Cache County Executive David Zook, who — along with several Cache County Council members — raised concerns of if the pandemic had had any influence on the apparent rise, but Warner said it’s hard to determine causation from correlation.
“Most of them are saying they’re lonely, they’re depressed, they’ve struggled with it,” she said.
On the other hand, the pandemic and schools moving online have been a positive for some people who suffered from anxiety or bullying, Staley said.
“The takeaway, for me, is that we don’t yet know how these changes to our every day lives play out when it comes to behavioral health and suicide,” he wrote to The Herald Journal.
“My hope for folks in Cache County is that this situation is a call to action: learn the warning signs of suicide, engage with neighbors and friends, and know how to get help when it’s necessary to do so,” he added. “Suicide is a problem in Cache County, just like it is in every other county throughout our state. If the situation is to improve in Cache County, the narrative has to be one of hope, resilience, and getting help — not the tragedy of multiple deaths.”
Local advocates agree. Jenson announced a Suicide Prevention Walk on May 1, sponsored by Bear River Mental Health Services and the local coalition, to coincide with National Mental Health Awareness Month.
The health department has a large database of mental health resources in the area, available at https://brhd.org/services/other/#communityresources, but other options include:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (800-273-8255), for talk or text, or online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
The Crisis Text Line is available for 24/7 counseling for anyone considering suicide — or in any other crisis — by texting “Home” to 741741.
Therapists and the Bear River Mental Health’s crisis teams are available through the 24-hour call line at (833)SAFEFAM, or (833)723-3326.
The Utah Strong Recovery Project can be called or texted at (385)386-2289 or emailed at email@example.com from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m, seven days a week.
Intermountain Healthcare’s Emotional Health Relief Hotline is also available every day, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., at (833)442-2211.
The free SafeUT app lets anyone text or message a therapist, 24 hours a day. This app also allows for anonymous tips and has been used to identify students of concern throughout the state.