Legislature seeking to combat suicide with statewide 24/7 crisis line, other measures

ST. GEORGE — Efforts to help prevent suicide, particularly among teenagers and young adults, have been attracting the attention and support of Utah lawmakers during the 2018 legislative session.

Among the measures introduced is House Bill 41, also known as “Hannah’s Bill,” named for 16-year-old Huntsville resident Hannah Warburton, who died by suicide in 2014. According to family members, the teen, who had suffered from concussions, had tried to call a therapist for help in a moment of crisis, but her call wasn’t answered. Shortly thereafter, she was dead.

In order to ensure such pleas for help don’t go unheeded, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, and Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, have teamed up to co-sponsor the bill, which provides for a statewide crisis line to be staffed by qualified mental health counselors 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Utah Sen. Daniel Thatcher (R-West Valley) | Photo courtesy of Utah State Legislature, St. George News

“This bill takes the roughly 20-something 24-hour crisis line numbers from around the state of Utah and consolidates all of our crisis intervention services to a single location,” Thatcher said as he introduced the measure on the Senate floor Feb. 20.

“No longer will someone reach out for help and end up going through a push-button menu and getting a voicemail,” Thatcher added. Additionally, he said, crisis calls won’t be going to police dispatchers who aren’t trained and qualified to handle mental health calls.

“Under this bill, any call for help, anywhere in the state of Utah, will be answered by a live LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute,” Thatcher said, noting that such workers are people “trained in how to walk people through what they’re struggling with … trained to save lives.”

“Once the patient is stable, once they’re no longer in immediate danger or risk, then their information can be passed on to the local mental health authorities, where the people in their communities can help them with regular visits and follow-up, but the immediacy will be handled on a state level,” Thatcher said.

Eliason, when he introduced the measure on the House floor, said although Utah’s crisis centers typically field more than 10,000 calls each year, only 1 of the 20 or so crisis lines within the state is staffed 24/7 by a licensed clinical social worker.

“Having those lines available at all times is critical,” Eliason said. “Can you imagine if you called 911 and received voicemail, or a busy signal or were routed through a phone tree? It wouldn’t be acceptable.”

Utah Rep. Steve Eliason (R-Sandy) | Photo courtesy of Utah State Legislature, St. George News

As he introduced the bill in the House, Eliason shared Warburton’s story, saying Hannah had “in a moment of crisis, called a help line. She received no answer. The call was disconnected and Hannah then exited this life.”

“This bill is designed to ensure that never happens again in the state of Utah to one of our citizens in a moment of crisis,” Eliason said, adding the measure would help ensure that any calls that aren’t able to be answered immediately would roll over or be forwarded to a live person on another line or at another available center.

House Bill 41 is one of four bills co-sponsored by Thatcher and Eliason designed to address the epidemic of suicides in Utah. The measures are the result of extensive effort and research by the members of the Statewide Mental Health Crisis Line Commission.  

Thatcher noted that suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns age 10 to 24. Last year, he said, 657 Utahns lost their lives to suicide, and another 16,000 attempted suicide.

If someone is seriously considering suicide, timely and appropriate intervention is critical to prevent it from happening, he said.

House Bill 41 calls for $2.38 million in annual ongoing funds to pay for the operation and staffing of the 24/7 crisis line. The measure passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, where it is still being held, pending approval of the final state budget.

Thatcher told St. George News he is grateful to see so much cooperation and support for the commission’s efforts.

“There’s all these people out there trying on their own to tackle the suicide problem,” he said. “We need to find a better way to connect groups to each other so they can work together and can refer to each other.

This takes effort but we need all hands on deck here, simplifying things and bringing everybody together, getting everybody on the same page so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just pool all the resources and get everybody together, so that no matter where you’re calling from, it will be handled and it will be handled appropriately.”

Another bill co-sponsored by Thatcher, Senate Bill 31, creates a new type of certified first responder specializing mental health.

“It will essentially be the mental and behavioral health equivalent of a paramedic,” Thatcher said, adding, “I’m telling you, that is groundbreaking. It is revolutionary. It is very, very exciting.”

State-certified Mobile Crisis Outreach Team members would include licensed mental health therapists or other mental health professionals who meet established licensing requirements. That bill, after being amended, has passed both the House and the Senate.

To help pay for such services, House Bill 42, co-sponsored by Eliason and Thatcher, directs the Utah Department of Human Services to amend the state Medicaid plan to include mental health crisis services, including the statewide crisis line and the mobile crisis outreach teams. Federal waivers would help local mental health authorities cover their costs, Thatcher said.

“We believe that if they were willing to pick up the tab for intervention services, we could mitigate a tremendous amount of cost, both to Medicaid and the state,” Thatcher said as he talked about the bill during a Senate session Feb. 20. The measure has also passed both the House and the Senate and is pending final budget approval.

The fourth and final piece of legislation in the group of related bills is Senate Bill 32, which authorizes the Mental Health Crisis Line Commission to continue its work for five more years, with the sunset or expiration date being extended from July 1, 2018 to July 1, 2023. That bill also has passed both chambers and awaits enrollment.

In addition to the various legislative efforts, suicide prevention has also been emphasized recently by Utah’s governor and lieutenant governor.

Gov. Gary Herbert talked about teenage suicide his “State of the State” address Jan. 24, and created a task force to come up with solutions.

Read more: Utah suicide task force urges parents to keep guns locked up

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox also wrote an essay titled “Let’s Talk About Suicide,” which has been widely shared since it was first published online Sunday.

Kimberly Myers, suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services, hailed the various legislative efforts, which she said would increase access to crisis services, provide needed funding and bolster available resources for those who are struggling.

“These bills are definitely not the end, but they are a great step in the right direction,” Myers said. “We will need to continue to assess outcomes and gaps along with what is working well in order to create communities that are better able to prevent a crisis from developing, are smarter about mental health and intervening early in problems, and have resources adequate to truly turning the tide on the problem of suicide in Utah.”


Legislative Resources

Read more: See all St. George News reports on Utah Legislature 2018 issues

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • comments February 27, 2018 at 8:20 pm

    “suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns age 10 to 24. Last year, he said, 657 Utahns lost their lives to suicide, and another 16,000 attempted suicide.”

    oof! way to go mormons. I guess all that “heavenly father loves you” bs isn’t working out so great for Utah’s youth, huh? Not enough to keep them from putting a gun to their heads at least.

    • desertgirl February 28, 2018 at 8:15 am

      One of the main contributors of teen and youth suicide (nationally, all ages, not just Utah) is the internet, social media. People like you making stupid, bigoted, judgmental remarks. Congratulations on being part of the problem.

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