Conference in Provo focuses on human connection to prevent suicide
On Monday and Tuesday, the 22nd annual Rocky Mountain Suicide Prevention Conference was held at the Utah Valley Convention Center. Hundreds of people attended including therapists, school counselors, school teachers, Hope 4 Utah advisors and more.
The day after the conference, a Suicide Mortality Data Update was released by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. It reported, “Utah experienced nearly a 12% increase in the number of residents who died by suicide in 2022 when compared to 2021.”
One of the conference’s keynote speakers, Kevin Skinner, co-founder and clinical director of Addo Recovery, Path for Men, Bloom for Women and Domani for Grief, gave a presentation on how attachment connections can help with suicide prevention. The discussion about human connection being a large factor in suicide prevention for young children and adults was a recurring topic in other presentations.
To answer the question of why there is an ever growing number of suicides, Skinner said, “The reality is, we suck at relationships. … The challenge that we have is how do we strengthen society?”
The answer, he proposed, is through human connection. “Everybody needs somebody,” Skinner said.
He explained that all human connection begins with safety. When a baby is born, he said, they have four vital needs from their parents or loved ones to form a secure attachment: healthy touch, eye contact, facial expressions like a smile, and a positive tone of voice.
“My question to you is when do we stop needing it? At what age do we not need healthy touch, eye contact, tone of voice (or) facial expression to smile? At what age should we stop?” he asked the audience, which replied, “Never.”
“How many individuals who complete suicide have not had that, one of those things, in their lives in the last day, three days, week, month, year?” Skinner continued. “If the basic needs never go away, then truly the most important thing that we’re going to do in prevention is actually through meeting those basic needs.”
Wendi Christensen, a licensed clinical social worker who started and piloted the first Hope Squad, gave a presentation about suicide prevention in elementary schools. She focused on the importance for children to form connections and healthy relationships that will help them now, and as they grow, to prevent suicide.
Benee Larson, prevention director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah, told the Daily Herald that males in Utah from 2019 to 2021 had “significantly higher suicide rates than females in every age group.”
Males aged 18 to 19 years old had the highest suicide rates compared to the other age groups, Larson said. Whereas for females, those aged 45 to 54 had the highest suicide rates among the other age groups.
While the adult age groups have the highest rates of completed suicide, suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for children ages 10-17, according to a 2017-2020 report from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. In the early 2000s, the leading cause of death was car accidents, Christensen said.
Youths account for 6% of all completed suicides in Utah. “Every year, an average of 40 Utah youth die from suicide, 1,908 are treated in the emergency department (ED), and 422 are hospitalized for suicide attempts,” the HHS report states.
Christensen explained that when car accidents were the primary cause of death for older children, Utah released the “Buckle up” ad campaign, and the number of deaths from car accidents began decreasing. “So, our hope is that as we continue educating about suicides and getting that information out to the public, that hopefully that will start decreasing,” she said.
According to Skinner, part of suicide education is understanding how, where, why and when people complete suicide. Most people who complete suicide do it with firearms, he said, and 75% of completed suicides happen in people’s own home.
The Suicide Mortality Data Update states, “Reducing access to lethal means, such as firearms and large quantities of medication, are key ways to ensure that someone who is experiencing a suicidal crisis remains safe.” For more than two decades, firearms have been the most common method of completing suicide. In 2022, “53% of individuals used a firearm to end their own life,” the update states.
Explaining when suicides happen, Skinner said, “One-third of youths who died by suicide had faced a crisis within 24 hours.” In a 2001 study, researchers asked how much time passed between the time the participants had decided to complete suicide and actually attempted it; 24% of the people responded 5 minutes and 47% responded an hour or less.
“That’s one of the greater challenges we have, is to help people understand that when you are in a crisis, when you don’t know what to do, you’ve got a somebody,” Skinner said.
There are many why factors for people complete suicide, and among them are substance abuse, physical and sexual abuse, and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. A large factor for youth is consistent sadness or hopelessness.
Skinner said meaningful connections are needed in today’s society because people connect face to face like less often than they used to, which means those basic human needs are not being met. He said society is currently experiencing a “loneliness epidemic.”
Hope 4 Utah is working within elementary and middle schools to address this loneliness and create connections through a program called Jr. Hope Squad for grades 4-8.
Hope Squad is a suicide prevention program in which students are nominated by classmates as trustworthy peers to be Hope Squad members, the group’s website explains.
Christensen, who is also the parent advisor for her children’s elementary Hope Squad and helps other squads teach suicide prevention in Davis School District, explained the squad at each school is led by an advisor who has been trained by Hope 4 Utah and educates students about suicide prevention.
The Hope Squad members become the eyes and the ears of the school, watching for those who are alone, feeling sad, do not have many friends, or have come to them talking about being bullied or wanting to hurt themselves. The students on Hope Squad are taught to immediately tell a parent, advisor or a trusted adult to get the struggling student the help they need. Christensen said teaching this to the Hope Squad students also ensures the burden of their peers and the pressure of saving their peers is not placed on the squad members.
A survey, found on Hope Squad’s website, was given to Hope Squad students at the beginning and end of the 2020-2021 school year. In the pre-survey, 47.73% of students said they “strongly agree” that they could recognize the warning signs of suicide. By the end of the year, the number rose to 69.75%. Another question asked the students if they know where to get help for a friend who is thinking about suicide. To this, 68.61% of students selected “strongly agree,” and at the end of the year that number rose to 82.28%.
Students on Hope Squads are also those who will sit with someone alone at lunch or talk to a student who is playing alone at recess. They must be friendly and kind, never bully and be good listeners, Christensen said.
Hope Squad focuses on creating connections between students throughout the school, to help students as they move forward in their lives. Christensen spoke about the importance of friendship in elementary school, explaining that when a school has a group of students who will reach out to a student who feels isolated, connections can be made so the student does not feel so alone. “That’s something that really builds a bridge as they’re going into junior high,” she said.
When schools emphasize inclusion, support for their students, social and emotional learning, and embracing diversity, Christensen added, the mental health climate of the school starts improving.
“When they feel connected to their school, that helps them to develop these positive relationships with adults in their lives — because not everyone has that; not every child has access to a positive adult relationship,” she said. “They have found also that there are increased positive behaviors and they’re avoiding behaviors that can harm their health. That’s the importance of having some type of connectedness at your school.”
Through organizations like Hope Squads, work is being done to prevent future loneliness in upcoming generations, but for today’s adults, Skinner said, “We’re the loneliest that we’ve ever been. … Because of current technology, we feel like we’re connected and yet we’re actually not connected; we’re alone.”
He suggests three things to address the loneliness epidemic. The first is to inspire more connectors, and look in the mirror yourself to ask if you are a connector, if you are reaching out to people and spending time with them.
The second is to teach relationship skills and engage in social activities in your community. As Skinner said, “It’s not just enough to have someone say ‘Go be social,’ but we have to actually practice with our youth and with our children how to be social. And if we struggle with that ourselves, we’ve got to learn to be social ourselves. Asking questions, being curious, having fun, making jokes (and) being playful.”
The last is to rebuild trust. To eradicate suicide, he said, people must learn to trust one another and communicate to let other people know they have someone who is there for them. “Trust is the foundation, just like safety. If we don’t trust, if we can’t create safety, we will not make progress in this situation,” Skinner said.
“The fabric of our society is only as strong as our relationships,” he continued, “and this society is less trusting, more lonely, more depressed, more anxious, and I firmly believe it’s because we are not creating a safe enough environment where we’re connecting with each other.”
While suicide rates are continually rising, so are resources to help those struggling. The national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 where a trained crisis worker will answer 24/7.
The HHS encourages all Utahns to learn the warning signs for suicide so they can get a loved one or friend who is struggling to someone who can help.
The suicide mortality report advised to listen for:
- Talk of suicide, including phrases like “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up” or “If X happens, I’ll kill myself.”
- Talk of feeling hopeless, including phrases like “What is the point?” and “Nothing is going to get better.”
- Talk of feeling like a burden, including phrases like “They would be better off without me.”
And also watch for:
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
- Withdrawing from activities.
- Looking for methods to kill themselves.
- Isolation from family and friends.
- Change in sleeping habits.
- Depression, anxiety, loss of interest, irritability, humiliation, agitation or rage.
- A sudden, unexplained calm or euphoria after a long period of depression.
- Saying goodbyes or giving away possessions.
In addition, the report states:
- Watch out for signs that the people you care about might be struggling. Let them know you’re there to support them.
- Ask directly if they’re thinking about suicide. It won’t make them more likely to attempt it. Research shows that direct, open conversations can actually reduce suicide risk.
- If a friend or loved one tells you they’re thinking about suicide, take them seriously and ask open-ended questions to find out more. Stay calm and listen without judgment.
- Invite them to seek out professional resources, like the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or a therapist. You could even offer to help them set up an appointment.