Hands of old people supporting each other
According to the Utah Department of Health, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for Utah residents, with an average of 657 suicides annually. Utah’s suicide rate is consistently higher than the national rate, and more deaths result from suicide than from automobile accidents, breast cancer, or other chronic physical health problems. And according to the Utah Public Health Indicator-Based Information System, suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah youth.
For Tim Keady, assistant professor of health and wellness at Utah State University Extension in Cache County, suicide prevention is a professional and personal pursuit.
“I experienced both the deep sense of loss of life and the exhilaration of saving a life,” she said.
Having been a first responder and EMT for over 30 years, Keady has responded to many scenes where patients have suffered traumatic injuries from accidents and situations resulting from a mental health crisis. In many cases, patients felt they had no hope and the pain they were experiencing was without resolution.
“It was after these experiences that I wanted to increase my ability to help with prevention efforts,” Keady said. “As an EMT, I have been trained to assess a patient’s condition and manage respiratory, cardiac, behavioral and traumatic emergencies. But the care provided after these traumatic events can be just as important and is an area that is still evolving.”
Aftercare provides patient education and training that Keady focuses on as part of her role with USU Extension’s Health: Advocacy, Research, & Teaching (HEART) Initiative. HEART’s mission is to educate and reduce deaths caused by overdose and suicide from substance use disorder (SUD). The initiative has spearheaded community prevention efforts since 2018, including prescription pick-up days, recovery day events, and harm reduction training. Efforts are targeting populations at greatest risk, which include veterans, chronic pain patients, youth, people with mental illness, depressed, hopeless, and homeless people, among others.
Keady said her group teaches community members basic skills to advocate for people with SUDs and those at risk of suicide. The team provides harm reduction training and skills development opportunities for individuals and groups, as well as organizational support for community coalitions and non-profit organizations. They also offer education and training for Naloxone (also known as Narcan), a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses.
“Naloxone can literally be a lifesaver if people know how to administer it,” she said. “We’ve also provided education on how to do manual CPR and taught people about available community resources they can turn to in an emergency.”
Keady said that through this community training, his team has seen lives saved, including those who were suicidal, had a SUD, or both. You said that in the case of naloxone administration, there is a lasting impact on both the person who overdosed and the person who administered the drug.
“This can be a life-changing experience that proves to both of us that they have value,” Keady said. “Self-esteem is hard to improve in discouraged people who are without some form of hope. Providing this drug and learning simple first responder skills can change lives, including the lives of the person administering it.”
Keady said the HEART team’s goal is to train community members to feel comfortable taking some form of action in an emergency, whether it’s naloxone training for a SOUTH or talking to someone who may be suicidal.
He said the Liveonutah.org website states: “You have the power to save a life. If you think someone might be considering suicide, ask them! Asking doesn’t make them more likely to attempt suicide and may save their life.
Keady said this motto fits in well with Team HEART’s training. Friends, family and community members shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and confront people who concern them.
“We have to keep people alive to get them the care and help they need,” he said.
Susan Madsen, founding director of USU’s Utah Women & Leadership Project, authored a recent research report on Utah women and suicide. She said that for every death caused by suicide, there are 25 suicide attempts and even more people who are seriously considering suicide.
The report includes multiple recommendations to help reduce suicidal behavior among Utah girls and women that apply to everyone. Some include: 1) Avoid normalizing or glamorizing suicide and point out that many people who have contemplated or attempted suicide have gone on to live normal, healthy lives. 2) Create preemptive messages that promote hope and healing through empathy, warmth, and inclusiveness, avoiding negative language and judgments. 3) Teaching coping skills, problem solving strategies, communication and resilience training. 4) Increase gender-specific training for programs and resources already in place, such as the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, Live On Campaign, and crisis helplines. 5) Increase connectivity by encouraging healthy social connections, meaningful and supportive relationships, and inclusion.
An additional goal for the HEART team is to reduce the prejudices and stigma surrounding suicide and SUDs. Keady said her team recently interviewed four community members for National Recovery Month in October. Each shared that they know that treatment is possible and can be successful. However, the stigma they feel in relationships, housing, jobs and finances make it difficult for them to feel integrated into society, even after completing treatment. Respondents agreed that we need to normalize conversations about substance abuse and treatment across communities and at an early age. To achieve this goal, increasing positive communication within families is a crucial factor.
Keady said her team uses an Iowa state-based program that strengthens families through communication and the development of interfamily skills.
The course, “Strengthening Family Program 10-14,” is a seven-session program that provides protective parenting and youth skills to improve family relationships, reduce conflict, teach resistance to peer pressure, and reduce risky behaviors, including substance abuse. Sessions provide skills in coping with stress, effective discipline, nurturing children, planning for the future, and appreciating family. The program was introduced through USU Extension grants to select communities throughout Utah with the help of school districts and local health departments.
Ken White, vice president of USU extension, said it’s sobering to hear of Utah’s high suicide rates.
“We know that many people struggle with SUDs and other challenges and need somewhere to turn,” she said. “We are grateful that our HEART team and other outreach programs are reaching out to those at-risk populations and providing them with lifesaving education and programs. If a life is saved, these programs are making a real difference.”
Keady said that even after his 30 years as a first responder, it’s still surprising that community members are expressing gratitude that they were able to save a life through the training they received from extension programs.
“Having a person who believes they are hopeless express gratitude for being given the skills and resources necessary for continued progress keeps me engaged in this work,” Keady said. “It’s extremely rewarding.”