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Utah County sees spike in mental wellness calls during pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic in mid- to late March, Utah County law enforcement authorities and first responders have received an increase in calls pertaining to mental health and wellness checks.

The three most common categories of mental wellness calls that law enforcement officers receive are suicide attempts, suicide threats and deaths by suicide, Utah County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Spencer Cannon said.

From Feb. 1 to May 20, the number of suicide-related calls Utah County law enforcement responded to was 62. During the same time period in 2019, there were 46 calls of the same nature, a 34% increase in calls from year to year.

“We expect to have some variation from month-to-month or year-to-year, but that seems like that would be a little unusual to have a 34% increase,” Cannon said. “Without being able to do a scientific study on why there is an increase, it’s not unlikely that at least part of that increase from last year to this year may be due to the ongoing pandemic.”

This increase, Cannon said, could be attributed to anxiety surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, stress related to potential unemployment, or circumstances from people being isolated in their homes.

Specifically, extreme financial stress and constant fear of contracting COVID-19 can greatly impact mental health, said Kim Meyers, assistant director for the Utah Department of Human Services’ Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

Meyers’ department also has seen an increase in reports of extreme stress, anxiety and fear since the beginning of the pandemic. Likewise, people with existing mental health or substance abuse disorders have seen an increase in maladaptive behaviors from increased stress or losing access to vital treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy.

“It’s really critical if people have lost access to treatment to reach out to find new ways to engage in services so that people can get the support they need and deserve,” Meyers said.

Each person is experiencing the pandemic differently, she said. Students with social anxiety, for example, might be flourishing with the help of remote learning, while a single mother who has just lost her job might be buckling under the stress, she said.

“These are not typical times for most people,” Meyers said. “While we’re practicing our social distancing, it’s critical to stay connected, reach out to people and notice the changes in people around us.”

Law enforcement officials see similar spikes in suicide attempts, threats and deaths during widely celebrated holidays, including Christmas, Cannon said. First responders also see increases in the instances of burglaries, thefts and domestic violence.

“That’s a high stress time, as well,” he said.

Due to increased social distancing and limiting public outings, people may be more apt to missing key signs that friends or family are experiencing anxiety or depression. It is important, now more than ever, Meyers said, for people to be proactive about checking in with people.

When talking with loved ones, noticing changes in behavior or frequently hearing people talk or write about hurting themselves or others are significant signs that an individual could be nearing the point of crisis, she said.

To prepare for suicide-related calls, some police officers undergo Crisis Intervention Team certification, which teaches law enforcement officers, mental health providers and community leaders how to successfully de-escalate mental health crisis situations.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, law enforcement departments that have attended CIT programs see an up to 80% reduction in officer injuries while responding to suicide-related calls as well as a decrease in arrests of people with mental illness and a reduction in repeat calls.

Additionally, Utah County officers and deputies are required to attend an annual, eight-hour training where a large portion of the day is spent discussing mental health crises, de-escalation, and long-term and immediate resources, Cannon said. Officers also are depending more on their victims’ advocates to aid in circumstances.

“We make sure that our deputies are clear on what we’re required to do to ensure that if we’re able to intervene, what we need to do to make sure that this person is not successful in what they’re trying to do,” Cannon said.

When police are called to a mental health crisis, there are a number of avenues for the officers or deputies on scene to take.

If responding law enforcement believes they are in safe hands, the individual involved could be turned over to family members for support and observation, Cannon said.

In doing so, authorities must also be sure that individuals will see improvement in their mental health and that being returned to their family will not be a detriment to their mental health.

However, if the individuals are a danger to themselves or others, they can be placed in a psychiatric unit, even against their will.

“We train our people to err on the side of caution,” Cannon said. “You want to be as careful as you possibly can.”

There are only a handful of groups that can commit individuals to a psychiatric unit or facility against their will if they have not committed a crime, he said, including crisis workers, medical professionals and law enforcement.

Individuals experiencing a mental health crisis are urged to reach out to the free Utah Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. More resources can be found online at http://dsamh.utah.gov.

Grads from Maple Mountain, Payson, Springville optimistic about future

As graduation activities move forward in Utah County and all around the country, seniors are returning to campuses for the first time since the COVID-19 virus closed all schools two months ago. Graduates were riding in vehicles with their families to maintain social distance during the ceremonies and many were seeing friends for the first time since mid-March, calling out their names in excitement.

Maple Mountain, Springville and Payson high schools were among those in Utah holding graduation ceremonies Wednesday, and despite the windy, overcast day, one common theme as life returns to some semblance of normalcy was optimism.

“I feel like there is hope again,” Springville graduate Tenley Nuttall said.

Maple Mountain student body president Brinley Holmes has had a busy and emotional week. On top of graduation, her grandmother passed away on Sunday.

“It’s just shocking because so much has happened this week,” she said. “I’m wearing her ruby ring to honor her. It’s hard but I definitely feel her with me today.”

As a member of the student council, Holmes was able to help administrators and teachers who were planning the event.

“We did some run-throughs and they asked our opinion on things,” Holmes said. “I think it was super helpful to get it all done. ‘We unite and we soar’ was our theme this year. Everything they’ve done has been fun, inviting and shows our school spirit.”

Like her classmates, Holmes is looking to the future.

“There was a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “We were asking ourselves ‘What’s going on? What are we doing? What’s going to happen?’ It was sad and hard and I was confused. But honestly, just getting to see the way the community has come together to make it better and make this a good experience for everyone has touched me so much. It shows me how much the community cares and how lucky I am to be a part of this great school at Maple Mountain. I’m optimistic, and coming here today has made it all worth it. I can’t imagine a better way to leave this school I love so much.”

Holmes plans on attending Utah State in the fall and will be a school ambassador.

“Basically it’s a leadership scholarship,” she said. “I get to go up to Logan and recruit for the school. I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Another one of the 509 Maple Mountain graduates is Michael Funk, who is going to work this summer, attend fall semester at BYU and begin a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints next winter.

“I think as time has gone on, it’s gotten a little easier to think through what’s happening,” Funk said. “Initially it was shocking and threw me a curveball. I didn’t know what to think. I’ve just taken it one step at a time. I think today has been awesome, and it’s been really impressive how they have been able to pull this off. It shows how much love they have for students. I’ve been really lucky to go to this school. We have such awesome teachers and administrators.”

Springville had 450 seniors who were graduating on Wednesday. The graduates and their families drove through the parking lot while “Pomp and Circumstance” and “God Bless the USA” played through the speakers.

“I’d prefer a real graduation but at this point I will take what I can get,” said senior Tyson Lee, who is planning to attend Utah Valley University to become a Certified Registered Nursing Aide.

“I like the school pride we have here at Springville,” he said. “With the virus, I started to feel like I would never really see the end. Now that I’m graduating, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It feels nice.”

Nuttall, whose family rented a large Army transport truck for graduation, plans to attend UVU and major in special education with an emphasis on autism.

“This is a new experience but having everybody coming together as one is pretty awesome,” she said. “We’re still here supporting each other saying, ‘Go, our school!’ ”

While the district isn’t allowing large senior parties, most graduates are having some sort of celebration with family. Nuttall said someone in her family has put together a video and slideshow.

“I told them they couldn’t put my double chins in there,” she said. “That would be bad.”

Payson High School has a graduating class of 425 students. Hayden Roundy, who will attend Snow College in the fall, waited in line in a truck with his girlfriend, sophomore Arlington Latham.

“I’m happy they had a graduation for us but I think it’s very different,” he said. “It’ll be very memorable for all of us and something we can look back at. I’ll miss my girlfriend and seeing all my friends in the hallway at school. I’m already missing it. I feel good, though. I feel like everything will be back to normal soon.”

Classmate Logan Brookes, who will go to Southern Utah in the fall and plans to study in the medical field, said she’s excited to start something new.

“It’s been really crazy,” she said. “I’m glad we got a graduation. I didn’t think this would happen. It’s cool to have something to tell my kids.”

Classmate Erika Villalobos plans to study criminal justice at UVU.

“It feels special because they are doing this specifically for us,” she said. “They wanted to make it memorable and it feels great.”

UTA celebrates superhero days

It’s not every day Superman, Wonder Woman or Ironman can be found driving a Utah Transit Authority bus around town, but according to their bosses, the drivers are superheroes, nonetheless.

That is what UTA Regional General Manager Mary DeLaMare-Schaefer is saying about her Utah County team — they are frontline heroes.

“Our employees are coming to work and getting people to where they need to be every day,” DeLaMare-Schaefer said. “I feel really proud of everyone working for UTA. It’s difficult, but our employees have risen to the occasion.”

For that reason, Wednesday and Thursday have be dubbed Superhero Day. Drivers with UTA are all dressed up as superheroes and in turn they are fed a lunch that included Hero Sandwiches.

DeLaMare-Schaefer said that while UTA had dropped the number of buses in service, drivers have continued to come to work through the whole COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

Drivers are taking shifts, and when they aren’t driving they are catching up on in-class training.

“They are on call to do training catch-up with virtual classes and coaching,” DeLaMare-Schaefer said. “Training our employees is a good use of time.”

Employees are also spending time disinfecting buses.

“Every night all the buses get completely disinfected,” DeLaMare-Schaefer said. She added that drivers use hand sanitizer, wipes and will soon have plexi-glass barriers installed in all the buses while driving.

The popular UVX route is down about 80% in ridership right now. That is in part due to both Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University not having students on campus.

Still, that means community ridership has moved up from 14% to 20% and ridership is still higher than when UTA had the old 830 route.

The 850 route that travels State Street from Provo to Lehi is the workhorse and constantly has riders that use it to get to work, shopping and other appointments, according to DeLaMare-Schaefer.

UTA is watching daily to see how ridership is changing. If a bus consistently has 20 riders at any given time, another bus will get added to the route.

DeLaMare-Schaefer said that will be the pattern for the near future. For now, routes like the 850 seem to be the most used. UTA is seeing the route is helping essential workers get to work.

The 850 route is currently part of a study on a central corridor rapid transit route. That new route will be determined sometime in the early fall.

Until further notice, the UVX route is running every 15 minutes and the 850 route is running every half hour.

Provo adjusting to Herbert's surprise quick shift to yellow phase

When Gov. Gary Herbert announced he was moving his Utah Leads Together colored phasing program from the orange medium-risk phase to the yellow low-risk phase in less than a two-week time period, Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi and her administrative team were caught off guard.

“While the loosening restrictions came more quickly than we anticipated, and perhaps sooner than some of us are comfortable with, we feel confident the data cited and the health expertise support the decision to further continue opening our economy,” Kaufusi said.

Simply put, while it takes a lot to shut down a city, it takes much more effort to bring it back, said Nicole Martin, city spokeswoman.

Kaufusi’s “Proceed With Caution” program for the yellow low-risk phase takes time to prepare for and implement. Places like the Provo Rec Center opened this week, but to get it there took hours of preparation.

“It’s a Herculean effort, moving machines and marking floors with new calculations for social distancing,” Martin said. “It takes a lot of work to implement.”

Martin said it is not only the physical changes that need to take place, but it is also an educational challenge to get the community moved mentally to the next phase.

Martin did note members of the public have been receptive to the new health safety standards they must go through, like having their temperatures taken before they can enter a facility.

As of Tuesday, Provo City instituted the “yellow” restrictions in all facilities.

Kaufusi noted in a letter to residents, “The Governor’s Executive Order calls out the following reasons for reducing restrictions: Utah has maintained a COVID-19 transmission rate of less than 1.5% for 14 days, and statewide intensive care unit bed usage has not exceeded 10% for 14 days.”

The Utah Department of Health agrees that some areas should remain at orange, but did not include Utah County or Provo City in those exceptions, Kaufusi said.

“Before making our decision to follow the state’s lead, we consulted with the Utah County Health Department and received similar direction,” Kaufusi added. “We deliberately and thoughtfully chose the phrase, ‘Proceed With Caution’ to guide Provo City’s response because it captures the balance between cautiously opening our economy and minimizing health risks.”

From the initial outbreak, the city’s response has been and will continue to be one of calm preparedness, the mayor’s letter stated.

“Decisions are made based on current data and by consulting experts with Utah’s Coronavirus Task Force and both Utah County and state health departments,” Kaufusi said.

Residents may find information on yellow phase procedure by visiting the state’s website at http://coronavirus.utah.gov.

“As many of us begin to enjoy a little more normalcy in our lives, let’s continue to adhere to social distancing and other guidelines,” Kaufusi said.

For information on Provo’s “Proceed With Caution,” instructions visit http://covid19.provo.org.