ST. GEORGE — In observance of National Suicide Prevention Month, St. George News spoke with suicide prevention specialist Teresa Willie of Southwest Behavioral Health Center in St. George about the sobering statistics of suicide in Utah as well as resources available for prevention.
“We’ve been afraid to say the ‘S word’ for years,” Willie said “We’re not going to increase somebody’s likelihood by talking about it; that’s one of the big myths. It’s like if we talk about it, someone’s going to do it, and that’s so not true. If they’re not thinking about it, it’s not going to encourage them. If they are thinking about it, then it gives them permission to talk and unload that burden.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide was the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2019. No place is immune. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control has reported Utah to have the sixth highest suicide rate in the nation in 2019.
Speaking specifically of Southern Utah, Willie said the problem affects every age group.
“Oftentimes we hear about the young people that die,” she said. “We don’t hear about the elderly, or sometimes even our middle-aged population, because there’s a lot of stigma and families don’t disclose.”
There is some encouraging news, however.
“Overall, we’re making some good progress, though,” Willie said. “Several years ago, Utah was consistently No. 5, and we are moving in the right direction. I think we’re No. 7 now in the nation for suicide. I haven’t seen the new data in the last six months, but the real point is we’ve been really high on a national scale. But we are definitely moving in the right direction and we are proactively addressing this issue in a way that is evidence-based, and we’re using the data and the science to move forward in a way to help people effectively.”
With over 18 years of experience as a prevention specialist, Willie says that one of her biggest goals is to reduce stigma and start having more conversations.
“We are encouraging people to talk about it,” she said, “that’s one of the things that we can do and encourage: help-seeking behavior.”
“There’s no shame or weakness when you have a mental illness,” she said. “It’s just that it happens in the brain instead of in another part of our body.”
Through open communication and community effort, many resources are available to assist anyone struggling find help. Organizations like Live On Utah are helping local communities see signs of suicide and training them to help.
Much like any other illness, people usually show signs and symptoms of considering suicide before following through with it. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has information regarding ways to help communities prevent suicide, and much of it comes down to communication.
“We have a coalition in Washington County, and it’s called Reach 4 Hope. We have a lot of resources on there for people who might be struggling or if they want to help someone who is struggling,” she said, noting the coalition’s resources also include “postvention,” a type of intervention that takes place after a suicide.
A new suicide national emergency line proposed by Utah Congressman Chris Stewart is also in the works. While the number “988” has been chosen, the service has yet to become fully operational.
“The infrastructure takes time,” Willie said of the forthcoming suicide help line. “We’re hoping for within the year that we’ll have that number so that people can call that instead of 911.”
For those wanting to get involved, Willie and others hold suicide prevention classes on request.
“We’re teaching people how to ask the question about suicide, how to ask a friend or family member that might be struggling, how to persuade them to get help and how to refer them to appropriate resources. And those classes are free,” she said. “The only requirement is that they have five or more people.”
To set up a class, call 435-634-5600.
Whether or not someone has recently been affected by suicide, Willie said taking the initiative to educate oneself and others can help prevent future tragedies.
“Something really important to point out is that suicide is a really complex issue,” Willie said. “It’s never the result of one thing.”
Watching for key signs can help identify someone having suicidal thoughts.
“If they’re talking about it, that’s one of them. If they’re making comments about, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ ‘I feel like a burden,’ ‘I am tired of everything,’ — those kinds of things are kind of indirect clues that people might give,” Willie said. “Behaviors might look like giving away prized possessions or putting their affairs in order. It might be things like a sudden interest or disinterest in religion. It could be isolation — a disinterest in activities that they’ve always been interested in.”
Another key point Willie touched on is that suicide isn’t always brought about by big life events like losing a job or struggling financially.
“Those things are not ultimately the reason why people die by suicide. They might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but there are a lot of other things going on in the background that contribute to that.”
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