Suicide rates are high in Utah – but the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made them worse, according to a study.

publisher’s Note • This article is about suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of harming themselves, the national lifeline of suicide prevention offers 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

Suicide and drug overdose rates in Utah have not changed significantly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Department of Health reported – although one Utahn dies from suicide every 13 hours, the rate remains high.

In an annual report, the Utah Department of Health said Thursday that the number of deaths in Utah from suicide and accidental drug overdoses had remained constant from March 2020 – when the Utah pandemic began – through June 2021.

And those rates, roughly between 50 and 70 suicide deaths per month, are in line with 2015 levels, said Michael Staley, suicide prevention research coordinator at UDOH.

“The suicide rates in Utah were high before the pandemic. That hasn’t changed, ”Staley said in a virtual press conference to present UDOH’s results. “There is still a great deal of urgency to prevent suicide.”

According to the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition – in its Five-Year Suicide Prevention Plan, also released Thursday – an average of 640 Utahners die from suicide each year, and another 6,500 are treated for suicide-related reasons in hospital emergency rooms.

Suicide touches almost every Utahner’s life, the coalition reported. An estimated 91% of Utah residents surveyed said they knew someone who died of suicide, attempted suicide, or discussed thoughts of suicide.

“The work of suicide prevention will never stop until that number is zero,” said Staley.

National trends showed an increase in suicide attempts in other parts of the country during the pandemic, the report said. It cited a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said suicide attempts by adolescent girls ages 12-17 increased by 51% in the first three months of this year.

The UDOH data showed that the number of suicide attempts in Utah – as measured by people who went to an emergency room after trying – remained the same from January 2020 to August 2021. Likewise, the number of people who went to an emergency room because they had suicidal thoughts remained constant over the same period.

These metrics are imperfect, Staley noted, because they don’t measure the number of people who attempt suicide or are contemplating suicide and don’t end up in an emergency room.

Even broken down by age group, the researchers saw “no statistically significant changes” in the number of Utahns who have died by suicide since 2018.

Staley noted a “modest” decrease in suicide deaths in the 18- to 44-year-old age group from January to June this year. He added, however, “It’s far too early to say teen suicide will decrease in 2021, but any decrease is welcome.”

The number of deaths from accidental drug overdoses was roughly between 40 and 60 per month in the first half of 2021, said Megan Broekemeier, coordinator for research on opioid deaths at UDOH. That is in the same range as in the past three years. (These numbers also cover the less than 2% of overdose deaths where the state coroner could not find enough evidence to determine whether the death was accidental or suicidal.)

Similarly, Broekemeier said the number of people going to hospital emergency rooms for a drug overdose remained constant from January 2020 to August 2021. There were also no significant changes in these numbers when broken down by age group.

One bright spot in the UDOH results, Staley said, is a gradual but steady increase in the number of calls to the Utah Crisis Line, the state’s lifeline for suicide prevention – at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The number of calls has grown from around 5,000 per month in early 2019 to nearly 9,000 calls per month this summer.

Staley said the upward trend for the crisis line began long before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He said the surge could be attributed in part to efforts by the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition to promote the line, “therefore, more Utahners than ever were more aware of the lifeline.” In addition, several counties have consolidated their crisis lines with the nationwide service, so that their lines were covered around the clock.

Other crisis services that the state of Utah offers – such as the “warm line” for non-crisis calls and the SafeUT app – have generally remained flat over the same period, the report said.

The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition’s five-year statewide plan, the third of its kind the public-private group has issued since its inception in 2012, sets goals to lower suicide death and attempt rates from 2022 to 2026.

The 73-page plan describes the state government’s infrastructure for prevention, presents data on suicide deaths and attempts, identifies risk factors, and suggests actions that people, families, and other groups can take when someone shows signs of suicidal ideation. It is available on the coalition’s website liveonutah.org/about.

The plan “really outlines what we can do at the community, state, and various companies across the state,” said Allison Foust, coalition co-chair and administrator for the suicide prevention program for the Utah Department of Human Services. “But we as individuals always have a role to play in prevention.”

Foust urged people – at home, at work, in schools and communities – to watch out for warning signs. These include: talking about suicide, expressing feelings of hopelessness, withdrawing from friends and activities, showing depression or anxiety or mood swings, sleeping too much or too little, or “just starting to say goodbye and make ends meet”.

Anyone can do their part to prevent suicides, Foust said by reaching out to friends and family members, identifying the warning signs, and becoming familiar with the mental health and crisis resources around them.

For more information on suicide prevention in Utah and what to do if you or someone you know thinks of suicide, visit liveonutah.org.

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