Summit County emergency responders have been called out on three suicides this month. The separate incidents, one involving a local high school student, two involving adults, have left residents reeling and wondering how the community can prevent further tragedies.
The recent cases have heightened concerns among local law enforcement and health care professionals who say that Utah already has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. According to Summit County Health Department Director Rich Bullough, a number of agencies are working together to ensure resources are available to help curb that trend.
"It has been tough because, as a local health department, we are not mental health experts, but we touch families and we do have a role to play in this moving forward," he said. "We have known there is a suicide issue, not just in the county but statewide and nationwide."
Summit County Deputy Sheriff Justin Martinez, whose coworkers are often first on the scene, said suicide cases are among the toughest cases deputies handle. "Family members may have just discovered a loved one. Emotions are raw, it is a very tense situation."
Martinez said local deputies undergo Crisis Intervention Training and renew it every two years to learn how to calm family members -- or in a better scenario, how to prevent someone from taking his or her life.
Statistics from the county health department show there were nine suicides in Summit County in 2013. Of those, seven were Summit County residents, up from four residents in 2012 and the highest number in the last five years.
That increase mirrors the statewide suicide rate and reinforces research showing higher suicide rates in rural communities and throughout the Rocky Mountain states.
Those figures are especially troubling to Veronica Delheimer, Rural Services Director of Valley Mental Health, the county's longtime mental-health care contractor. With offices in Coalville, Kamas and Park City, Delheimer says, at the urging of the state health department her staff had already begun stepping up suicide prevention training, even before the most recent rash of incidents.
"But having three so quickly in the last month increases everyone's alarm and concern," Delheimer said.
Valley Mental Health was called in to counsel students at South Summit High School the day after a student committed suicide at his home nearly two weeks ago. "We received a call from the school district requesting help. We sent three full-time, licensed clinicians to meet with the school's staff and students," she said.
Kathy Day, Valley's prevention specialist, said the students' were in shock and many were dealing with a sense of guilt. "There is the initial shock, sadness and feeling of loss and wondering if they should have known or could have done something to help," Day said.
"They also tend to get a heightened sense of emotion and concern about their other friends, whether they could be next," she said.
Having just returned from an intensive suicide-prevention course, Day said she was keenly aware of research about the danger of over-dramatizing the issue in a school setting. The biggest fear, she said, is inspiring others who might be at risk to become copycats. Instead, she said, the clinicians focused on listening to students and allowing them to air their grief and anger individually.
Going forward, Day said she is redoubling her efforts to set up a series of suicide prevention workshops in the community. The workshops are dubbed QPR Training which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer.
"It is really for lay people - for teachers, bus drivers, even for high school kids. What I really like is the analogy that it is like CPR and can saves millions of lives," she said, explaining the sessions take about an hour and 15 minutes. She is hoping to offer the training to churches, seniors and any other community groups that may be interested.
According to Delheimer there are a number of agencies in the county that offer support to at-risk individuals. "It is a matter of not being afraid to address the situation. If a person says they are thinking of committing suicide, call us or a private therapist or a doctor, a crisis line or the sheriff. We will respond and get the right person there to help."
Unfortunately, one of the biggest obstacles to lowering the suicide rate, she said, is that people are afraid to talk about it. "There is a stigma attached to suicide that we have to get rid of so people are more comfortable talking about it up front."
Valley Mental Health maintains a 24/7 crisis line. The number is 435649-8347.
To request a QPR Training class for a group or to participate in one, call Kathy Day at 435-649-8347.