ST. GEORGE – The mental health of Utah’s people presents a dichotomy: According to several studies, Utah ranks as one of the happiest states in the U.S., yet at the same time the state has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. How is this possible?
According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways well-being index (for 2014), the state of Utah ranks eighth in overall well-being. In the report, Gallup-Healthways interviewed over 175,000 people in all 50 states. They measured five metrics:
- Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
- Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life
- Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
- Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
- Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
Utah ranks 23rd in purpose, ninth in social, 33rd in financial, seventh in community and fifth in physical.
Wallet Hub, a finance website, lists Utah as the happiest state in the nation. In the report, Wallet Hub looked at three different aspects: Emotional and physical well-being (with 13 further metrics), work environment (with six metrics) and community, environment and recreational activities (six metrics). The site utilized findings from four different, comprehensive studies.
However, according to the recently released report by America’s Health Rankings, Utah is 47th for suicide deaths, 50 being the highest, with 22.1 such deaths per 100,000 people. The national average, according to the same report, is 13 deaths per 100,000 people.
Furthermore, according to Utah’s Public Health Data Resource, suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns age 10-17 and 18-24, the second leading cause of death for ages 25-44, the fourth leading cause of death for ages 45-64. Overall, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the state.
Contrast those numbers with overall national statistics: The U.S. experiences anywhere from 36,000-40,000 deaths per year from suicide, ranking suicide as the 10th leading cause of death, said Lynn Bjorkman, co-director of Reach4Hope, a nonprofit organization in Washington County whose name stands for “Reduce suicide through Education Awareness Collaboration and Hope.”
“It’s like an airliner with a hundred people crashing into the mountainside every day of the year,” he said. “Nobody would stand for that kind of thing.”
Why so high in suicides?
There are a lot of reasons Utah has such a high suicide rate, said Wayne Connors, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Utah Southwest, part of which is location; for factors that remain unconfirmed, mountain states tend to have some of the highest suicide rates. The region is often called the “suicide belt” and includes Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
Large family size and the accompanying stress, societal pressure and isolation all contribute to a sense of hopelessness, Connors said. Adding to that is the rural population, which has limited access to mental health services.
“You don’t have the services and there is a shortage of psychologists, sociologists, counselors throughout the United States and even here in St. George,” Connors said. “We get a monster turnover … every six months. They contract for six months and boom, they’re gone so we get somebody else.”
Assisted Outpatient Treatment is a method Connors pointed to as a way to get help for the mentally ill instead of jailing them, a common result for those who are a danger to themselves or others.
“That is much more effective than jail,” Connors said, and:
Sixty percent of the people in jail have some form of mental illness, 40 percent have a severe mental illness. The jails are becoming our new insane asylums.
Several studies have shown a correlation between altitude and higher suicide rates, Bjorkman said.
Western culture, with its emphasis on self-reliance and “rugged individualism” also contributes to the high suicide rates, Bjorkman said. People are less likely to seek help when they feel they must deal with their problems on their own.
“Everybody kind of thinks they’re tough and they don’t have to ask for help.”
There is a large discrepancy, Bjorkman said, between the “tough guy” attitudes of people living in the mountain regions – where the suicide rates are high – and those of people living in other regions of the country where suicide is not as prevalent. He added:
People in the Intermountain West say you have to be crazy to go see a therapist. People on the coasts say you have to be crazy not to go see a therapist. When you think of the underlying message there, it really says something about the attitude of the pioneer, rugged individualist, it really is a misguided attitude.
Warning signs and suicide prevention
Through the collaborative efforts of multiple agencies and medical professionals, the Reach4Hope task force works to educate the public about how to prevent suicide, Bjorkman said. The organization utilizes a technique called QPR: Question, Persuade and Refer, teaching people what to look for, what questions to ask, how to persuade people to get help and where to get help.
“We teach people the warning signs of suicide, and how to spot warning signs and take action,” Bjorkman said. “We use this QPR method to catch people before they get to that point where they are ready to take their own lives.”
According to Hope4Utah, the following are some of the warning signs of those considering suicide:
- Suicidal talk – talks about wanting to die or being a burden
- Preoccupation with death or dying
- Signs of depression – loss of interest in usual activities
- Behavior changes – extreme mood swings
- Giving away prized possessions and making arrangements for unfinished business
- Difficulty with appetite and sleeping too little or too much
- Taking excessive risks
- Increased drug use
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Withdrawn – isolated
Prevention requires education on a multi-faceted level, according to Hope4Utah. Those who work in education, students, parents and family members need to be trained on awareness of the factors that contribute to depression and despondency, as well as the resources available to those in crisis.
Creating a safe environment for students, peer mediation, peer counseling, and allowing mental health professionals to make their services known to students are all also important factors in assisting those who are facing mental health issues.
In Southern Utah there are a multitude of sources available to those in need. The NAMI Southwest Chapter, Hope4Utah, Reach4Hope, the Southwest Behavioral Health Center and Behavioral Health at Intermountain Dixie Regional Medical Center all offer services and assistance for people in crisis.
Washington County Crisis Lines: Telephone 435-634-5600 or 800-574-6763
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Telephone 800-273-TALK (8255)
- Gallup-Healthways State of American Well-Being for 2014
- WalletHub rankings of happiest states
- America’s Health Rankings: Utah
- Utah’s Public Health Data Resource
- National Alliance on Mental Health, Southwest Utah Chapter
- National Institute of Health study showing positive association between altitude and suicide
- Southwest Behavioral Health Center
- Behavioral Health at Intermountain Dixie Region Medical Center
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