Communities come together for suicide prevention

Image result for hannah warburton
Hannah Warburton died by suicide at the age of 16 in 2014. In her memory, her mother has become a strong advocate for suicide prevention and hopes to change the stigma of shame that inhibits those who are struggling to reach out for help. (Live Hannah’s Hope)

On June 19, 2014, Laura Warburton lost her 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, to suicide.

“When people choose suicide, they think in their broken thinking that they are doing their families a favor,” Warburton said.

According to Warburton, Hannah wrote in a note to her family that she felt like a burden to them. Warburton said if her daughter had only asked, she would have explained no one is a burden on their family and would have done everything in her power to give her daughter hope.

But Hannah never asked.

Unfortunately, the Warburton’s are not the only family to deal with such a tragedy — suicide is something Utahns are all too familiar with.

Utah ranks fifth in the nation in suicide rates; the rate increased by 141.3 percent from 2011 to 2015, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah youth ages 10–17.

As a society, people have been trying to understand the causes for suicide for decades, but according to Warburton, a person attempts suicide when he or she has no hope, when the thought of taking his or her life is no longer scary and when he or she feels like a burden on loved ones.

Experts have attributed the rise in suicides to a variety of factors including societal pressures, increased amounts of stress and anxiety, underlying mental health illness, alcohol and drug abuse, conflict with loved ones, unsupportive families of LGBTQ individuals and a genetic history of mental illness or chronic diseases, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Utah government, communities and schools are implementing serious changes by placing a greater emphasis on suicide prevention through heightened mental health resources and by asking others to take a more active role in the conversation.

Government changes

In a past legislative session, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and others formed a suicide prevention task force. This task force is comprised of government representatives, community leaders and health experts. Together they helped push legislation through to provide more resources for suicide prevention, helping to pass six bills centered on this purpose.

With the legislation passed, the task force gained funding for Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams. These teams provide free mental health intervention, consultation and support for residents and their families experiencing mental health crises.

“When someone experiences a crisis, instead of sending the fire department, we roll out a car or van with trained mental health workers,” Cox said.

According to Cox, the task force was initially intended to be short-term, but it may be implemented again in the future because of its success.

The Utah government has also backed a crisis app called SafeUT. The app allows people to anonymously communicate with licensed mental health professionals through a chat and call crisis line. Additionally, it allows students to submit a tip if they see something unsafe happening in their school. Although the app was initially for students, anyone can download it.

“The SafeUT app is saving lives every day. It’s mind-boggling,” Cox said.

In addition to affecting change locally, Utah leaders are making a difference at the national level. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Rep. Chris Stewart, (R-Utah), introduced the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, signed on Aug. 14 by President Trump. The act will create a three-digit hotline, similar to 911, allowing people to access mental health professionals in a more efficient way than currently provided.

In a press release, Hatch said, “With this topic, my heart is both heavy and hopeful — heavy because suicide has already taken so many lives; hopeful because this legislation can turn the tide in the campaign against this epidemic.”

Community changes

Utah communities are also taking a stand against suicide.

The Utah chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is an organization dedicated to bringing awareness about resources and aid to those affected by suicide. Taryn Aiken is a founding member of the Utah chapter. (AFSP Utah)

Taryn Aiken, a founding member of the Utah Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said prevention starts with education and reform.

“I’m tired of creating awareness — it’s time to take action,” Aiken said.

As a member of the task force, Aiken has certainly taken action. But her reach goes beyond government legislation. As a trained mental health professional, she uses her expertise to educate others on suicide prevention and travels as a motivational speaker.

Aiken said she shares her personal experience as someone who attempted suicide multiple times throughout her life and her intimate understanding as a daughter whose father died by suicide in 2002.

“We need to be vulnerable, and we need to be open,” she said. “None of us are immune.”

Aiken said she is tired of people waiting until a suicide happens to take action. Aiken said she believes the community needs to get in front of the issue and proactively seek solutions to end the health crisis.

“We need to let people know that seeking help is a sign of courage and strength,” she said. “It’s okay to struggle, but you don’t have to do it alone.”

Through peer-to-peer intervention, a group called the Hope Squad is another organization seeking to make a difference.

Greg Hudnall, founder and executive director of Hope4Utah said this peer-to-peer interaction is what has been missing from suicide prevention initiatives. Hudnall said he believes it is going to take more than health professionals and teachers to save Utah teens; it also needs to include the very teens people are trying to save.

The Delta High Hope Squad gathers together for a photograph. Hope4Utah focuses on peer-to-peer suicide prevention intervention. (Hope4Utah)

The Hope Squad is formed by students. Students nominate fellow classmates who they feel comfortable sharing sensitive information with, and the top-nominated students come together as the Hope Squad. Hope Squad students are trained to recognize the warning signs of suicide and alert adults to provide help to students who might be struggling.

At Independence High School in Provo, where Hudnall was once a principal, there was an average of 1–2 suicides a year. He said he realized students are far more likely to form connections with other students and will confide in them first.

“We really promote connection. It’s all of us working together that is going to make a difference,” Hudnall said.

The Hope Squad works as a reference for community partners. According to the former principal, Hope4Utah partners with a variety of local mental health organizations that provide the necessary care and assistance for students who may be at risk for suicide.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Hudnall said. “I think it takes a community to save one.”

School changes

In addition to the Hope Squad, schools are providing other resources for students to get help. The Jordan School District, in particular, is making serious changes. Recently, the district implemented full-time psychologists in every elementary school, middle school and high school.

Jordan School District Health and Wellness Specialist Mckinley Winters said these psychologists will help students get more access to help inside and outside the school.

“A school isn’t built to treat illness,” he said. The on-site psychologists are not necessarily there to treat all students but to connect them to more help outside the school.

This additional resource will allow for help to be provided at an earlier stage and, hopefully, prevent suicide further upstream.

“Jordan School District is really getting serious about making changes,” Winters said. “And it’s just the beginning.”

Utah State Board of Education Suicide Prevention Specialist Cathy Davis said Utah schools have additional ideas up their sleeves.

“We’ve recognized as a state that mental health illness has increased, and we need to do something about it,” Davis said.

Although schools are dedicating more resources toward mental health, Davis said she believes it is important to understand the need for change does not just fall upon schools.

“You have to realize that suicide is a public health issue — it’s not just the school responsibility,” Davis said, expounding on how it will take everyone working together to make a difference.

Conversation changes 

That difference can start with the conversation.

“Instead of thinking about ‘what if,’ I think about ‘because of,” Warburton said.

Because of Hannah, Warburton said she became an advocate for suicide prevention. Because of Hannah, she said she’s learned how to be more open about her own pain. Because of Hannah, she created Live Hannah’s Hope, an organization dedicated to providing suicide prevention education.

And, because of Hannah, Warburton has been an activist to change the conversation surrounding suicide prevention.

“We should normalize the experience that life is hard but also help people understand that you can seek out others when you need help,” Davis said.

There is a stigma surrounding suicide, according to Davis, and people believe it is an uncommon experience. However, Davis said that stigma is wrong and needs to be eradicated.

“You don’t have to go through this alone,” Davis said.

Cox expanded on this sentiment.

“Those who are thinking about suicide, they think they’re alone, but this is fairly common for many people. And once we begin to understand this, then we can start to change the culture,” Cox said.

Cox, like many youth, struggled with his own suicidal thoughts as a teen. And he, like Davis, also said he believes suicide has a stigma around it.

“We need to change the conversation,” Cox said. “Wherever you are in the world, it is a better place because you are here.”

Warburton interpreted the stigma surrounding suicide as one that embodies shame. She said people are ashamed to admit they need help, but that is a serious problem in the conversation.

“It’s OK to be struggling, it’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to be depressed, it’s OK to get help,” Warburton said. “But we need to be OK with not being OK.”

After losing her daughter, Warburton said she has done all in her power to ensure it never happens to someone else’s daughter.

“It’s all I do. It’s all I live for,” Warburton said.

She also emphasized the importance of practicing self-acceptance and kindness toward ourselves.

“We need to practice more self-love and kindness, and once we can love ourselves, we give permission for people to do the same,” Warburton said.

In a BYU devotional on Aug. 7, professor Eric D. Huntsman touched on this topic of expanding love. He spoke of creating safe spaces for people to create a culture of love and openness, and he shared how this love can save lives.

“The choice to love can literally make the difference between life and death,” Hunstman said. “I submit that these struggles are necessary to our progression, but they are not struggles that we should ever face alone.”

If anyone is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help via the following crisis hotlines:

Statewide Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 74-741


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