1 in 10 high school students will attempt suicide this year, 1 in 3 will need serious medical attention, and 5,000 young Americans (15 to 25 years old) will die from self-inflicted injuries. While statistics can be haunting, they are hard to connect with if we do not take the time to see these numbers as our friends, neighbors, family or peers. Comprehending the impact of suicide in our community is vital. Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth (10-17) in Utah, and prevention programs have done little to halt the upward trend. After 7 suicides this past year at Herriman High School, located in the southwest end of the Salt Lake Valley, Jordan School District is working to better address mental health in their schools by adding more trained psychologists to their staff. However, many of these psychologists are expected to serve hundreds of students, as Utah’s public school enrollment has exceeded 650,000 students. To better protect and support Utah’s youth, more resources need to be delegated to mental health service and education.
After the 7th suicide, Herriman High School officials and other community members began showering students with superficial support, everything from post-it notes with kind words to balloons bearing the message “You are worth more than gold!” A junior at Herriman, Trevor Nelson, while appreciative of the community’s efforts, did not believe these responses truly benefited at-risk students. While there is no clear formula on how best to help students contemplating suicide, The Suicide Prevention Resource Center recommends utilizing mental health professionals to identify those at risk and treating them. Community members and businesses eager to address the need at Herriman High could have donated resources to bolster the high school’s current counseling services as only two counselors serve this high-need population of almost 3,000 students.
In the first Utah Core Standards for Health Education, it reads, “Students will demonstrate the ability to use knowledge, skills, and strategies related to mental and emotional health to enhance self-concept and relationships with others.” Teachers are encouraged to discuss the prevalence of mental illness in our state and educate their students about the resources available to address mental health issues. Sadly, these important conversations can be stifled by societal stigmas or a teacher’s fear of creating a suicide cluster in their school. However, a disruption in the public’s knowledge does not translate to disruption in suicide rates. Teachers can and should talk about mental health and suicide without focusing on actual means of self-harm.
In the student-run publication, The Herriman Telegram, News Editor Conor Spahr wrote about the rash of suicides affecting his high school community, “[It’s] clear that Utah has a serious problem on its hands. What isn’t clear is the solution.” Until researchers are better able to isolate what methods best protect youth from suicide, increasing the number of trained mental health professionals in schools and educating teachers on how best to talk about suicide in their classrooms is our state’s best way to prevent student suicide. This problem will not be solved quickly, but progress is vital. Wars come and go, epidemics come and go — suicide thus far has stayed.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, confidential free help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to see 24-hour help.