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May 04 2017

Hatch Takes on Epidemic of Teen Suicide

“More of America’s youth die each year from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined."

Washington, D.C.—Senator Orrin Hatch, (R-UT), the senior Republican in the United States Senate, spoke on the Senate floor this evening about the epidemic of suicide, particularly in Utah, and legislation he has introduced to help prevent further tragedy. Hatch’s full remarks can also be found on MEDIUM.

 

 

 

On the tragic suicide epidemic in Utah:

In my home state of Utah, the statistics are particularly alarming. Every 14 hours, a Utahn commits suicide, resulting in an average of 630 deaths each year. The problem is so acute that Utah now has the 5th highest suicide rate in the nation. This troubling trend is particularly pronounced among Utah’s youth. Even though Utahns from ages 10 to 17 comprise only 13 percent of the state population, they represent nearly 23 percent of all suicide attempts. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among Utah’s teenagers.

On a roundtable discussion he held with Utah parents, teachers, and community leaders:  

To stem the tide of teenage suicide in Utah, I convened a roundtable discussion in Salt Lake City last December that included community leaders, healthcare professionals, high school principals, and parents from across the state. There, we discussed proven methods to destigmatize mental illness—a critical first step in addressing the suicide crisis. We also discussed the links between bullying and depression.

We learned that teen suicide is something schools, parents, and mental health professionals cannot address individually. Instead, a continuum of care must exist for each child from the first day of school to graduation. We must all work together to ensure that our children feel safe.

On the legislation he introduced today:

To begin, we need to provide better and more immediate access to counseling and mental health services. This was one of the main takeaways from last year’s roundtable discussion. So often we hear that those seeking help are just one positive interaction away from giving life another chance. As Utah State Senator Daniel Thatcher said, “If you talk to someone, they live. If you connect them to support, they live.”

In response to what I learned during this suicide roundtable in Utah, I have joined Senator Joe Donnelly in introducing the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act—a bipartisan proposal that will make it easier for Americans of all ages to get the help and treatment they need when they are experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

The full speech, as prepared for delivery:

Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the epidemic of suicide—a growing crisis that has devastated millions of families across our nation. 

Over the past eight years, the rate of deaths by suicide in our country has tripled. Let me repeat that—it has tripled. And the problem is particularly severe among young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control, for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is now the third leading cause of death. In other words, more of America’s youth die each year from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined.

And this crisis shows no signs of abating. Consider that each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,400 suicide attempts by young people in grades 7 to 12.

In my home state of Utah, the statistics are particularly alarming. Every 14 hours, a Utahn commits suicide, resulting in an average of 630 deaths each year. The problem is so acute that Utah now has the 5th highest suicide rate in the nation. This troubling trend is particularly pronounced among Utah’s youth. Even though Utahns from ages 10 to 17 comprise only 13 percent of the state population, they represent nearly 23 percent of all suicide attempts. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among Utah’s teenagers.

To stem the tide of teenage suicide in Utah, I convened a roundtable discussion in Salt Lake City last December that included community leaders, healthcare professionals, high school principals, and parents from across the state. There, we discussed proven methods to destigmatize mental illness—a critical first step in addressing the suicide crisis. We also discussed the links between bullying and depression.

In the effort to prevent teen suicide, the effect of bullying cannot be overlooked. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that kids who are bullied are more than twice as likely to consider suicide.

In my home state of Utah, dozens of community leaders have drawn attention to the pernicious effects of bullying. Foremost among them is Dr. Greg Hudnall, a nationally recognized expert in suicide prevention. Dr. Hudnall found that between eight and twelve percent of all suicides are committed by young people who have been bullied.

To discourage bullying and to help our teenagers who are suffering most, Dr. Hudnall has led in the development of Hope4Utah. Hope4Utah is a dynamic peer-to-peer program designed to empower students in groups called Hope Squads. Hope Squads identify warning signs of depression in teenagers and offer help to those in need.

Wendy Nelson, the Principal of Utah’s Syracuse High School, recently told me how Hope Squads have helped students at risk of suicide to connect with therapists that the school has made available on a regular basis. The high school has since partnered with a local community health center to help address the need for more mental health professionals in schools. This shortage of mental health counselors is a serious problem—not only in Utah but in schools across the nation.

In our December roundtable discussion, we learned that teen suicide is something schools, parents, and mental health professionals cannot address individually. Instead, a continuum of care must exist for each child from the first day of school to graduation. We must all work together to ensure that our children feel safe. 

Educators play a vital role in maintaining an infrastructure of support for teenagers struggling with mental illness. Because educators are often the first to identify warning signs in vulnerable students, hundreds of teachers in Utah receive training on how to identify and respond to these signs. Once we know a teen is suffering, parents and mental health professionals can step in to provide ongoing care.  Building community partnerships that involve everyone and that focus on evidence-based practices can save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. 

My main purpose in organizing the roundtable discussion was to find ways I could help prevent suicide on a national level. Increasing access to mental health care has been a fixture of my Senate service. Nearly twenty years ago, I convened the Senate Finance Committee’s first hearing dedicated to mental health. More recently, I’ve focused my legislative efforts on fighting prescription drug abuse—an epidemic that has only accelerated our nation’s mental health crisis.  I played a leading role in passing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and helped draft the 21st Century Cures Act, which President Obama signed into law in December. Both bills take aim at the opioid epidemic that is ravaging entire communities across the nation.

As a legislative body, we have set aside partisan differences in recent months to combat the opioid crisis as part of a broader effort to address growing rates of mental illness and death by suicide.

But Mr. President, there is more we can do to help.

To begin, we need to provide better and more immediate access to counseling and mental health services. This was one of the main takeaways from last year’s roundtable discussion. So often we hear that those seeking help are just one positive interaction away from giving life another chance. As Utah State Senator Daniel Thatcher said, “If you talk to someone, they live. If you connect them to support, they live.”

Laura Warburton—a Utah mother who lost her daughter to suicide—said that the day her daughter died, she had attempted to make one last call to her therapist and couldn’t get through. While this is a complex problem with no simple, immediate answer, there are steps we can take to help. And today, we are taking those critical first steps to prevent future tragedies from taking place.

In response to what I learned during this suicide roundtable in Utah, I have joined Senator Joe Donnelly in introducing the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act—a bipartisan proposal that will make it easier for Americans of all ages to get the help and treatment they need when they are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

The current Suicide Prevention Lifeline system and Veterans Crisis Line are in desperate need of reform. Our bill will require the Federal Communications Commission—in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs—to study the current national suicide hotline system and make recommendations to Congress on how we can improve it.

Across our great nation, there are millions of people, especially young people, who are alone and suffering in the shadows of depression. Many of them are bombarded by suicidal thoughts and have no idea where to turn for help.  To make matters worse, the national suicide hotline number, 1-800-273-TALK, is not an intuitive or easy number to remember—particularly for those experiencing a mental health emergency.

Fortunately, the success of the 911 emergency system provides a model for addressing this problem. My bill will require the FCC to recommend an easy-to-remember, three-digit number for the national suicide prevention hotline.  I believe that by making the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline system more user-friendly and accessible, we can save thousands of lives by helping people find the help they need when they need it most.

In introducing this legislation, I wish to thank my fellow Utahn, Congressman Chris Stewart. Congressman Stewart has been an invaluable partner in authoring some of the most important measures of this bill.  Additionally, I would like to thank the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I also wish to express my appreciation for the support we have received from Utah’s State Legislature, Utah’s Attorney General, the Utah Department of Human Services, as well as several groups from the law enforcement community. 

Mr. President, this proposal transcends party lines and stands to save thousands of lives. We cannot delay in the effort to prevent suicide. And so I call on my colleagues in both the House and the Senate to act quickly to pass this bill. Your support for this legislation represents your commitment to preventing future tragedies. I ask all of you today—regardless of party affiliation—to co-sponsor this legislation. In doing so, you can help us help those who need our help the most.

There is no time to lose.

I yield the floor.