As everyone who has navigated the rocky shoals to adulthood knows, it’s never easy getting through the teenage years. Now, in an unfolding tragedy reaching into communities across the country, more teenagers are foundering on those shoals and taking their own lives.
According to an August 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of girls age 15 to 19 committing suicide doubled from 2007 to 2015, to a 40-year high of 5.1 per 100,000. The most recent statistics for boys, whose suicide rates have always been higher, are also grim. After peaking in the 1990s and declining for a decade and a half, their suicide rate climbed by more than 30 percent between 2007 and 2015, to 14.2 per 100,000.
As troubling as those national numbers are, the crisis in Utah has become particularly acute. The suicide rate among children in the state between the ages of 10 and 17 doubled from 2011 to 2015, five times the average increase for the nation, according to the CDC. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among Utah teenagers.
Those statistics led Gov. Gary Herbert in January to announce the launch of a teen suicide task force. Its mandate is to evaluate existing suicide prevention programs, as none of the state’s three major programs has undergone “rigorous evaluation” for effectiveness. The task force will also come up with legislative recommendations that combine resources from the public and private sectors. Existing efforts are “an inch deep and a mile long,” says Kim Myers, the suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah Department of Human Services. “We just need to dig deeper.”
For the most part, suicide risk factors in Utah don’t stray too far from national trends. A third of Utah teens who committed suicide had been diagnosed with a mental health problem, and 20 percent had past experience with cutting or other forms of self-harm. Researchers also found that 13 percent had experienced some form of technology restriction, such as a parent taking away a cellphone. It’s hard to unpack the meaning of that statistic, given the hypothesis among researchers across the country that “these gadgets are making us less connected,” as Mike Friedrichs, an epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health, puts it.
But there also are factors specific to the state. While its demographics are changing, Utah has a more racially and ethnically homogenous population than most states, with non-Hispanic whites now making up 79 percent of its residents. That makes it easier for troubled teenagers to compare themselves to similar peers, according to Myers, which can lead to perceiving themselves as inadequate and make them fall further into despair. And the state has a culture of perfectionism that can be tough for young people. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has an emphasis on higher education and marrying young. “So when people fall out of that, it can feel lonely,” Myers says.
As Utah’s task force grapples with these and other factors, one thing most researchers agree on is that reversing the teen suicide statistics can’t be accomplished by state government alone. It also will require involvement at the community and personal level. “Government can play a role in funding, coordinating, evaluating and regulating the public health system,” Myers says, “but it’s critical to have community partnerships and to have people with lived experience involved.”