Youth Suicides in Utah Are on the Rise

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State officials aren’t sure exactly why, but there are several likely culprits — and targets for intervention.

By Kate Wheeling

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(Photo: Ffion Atkinson/Flickr)

Earlier this month, the Utah Department of Health released a report showing that the rate of suicide among the state’s youth has tripled in less than a decade. While health officials have yet to identify any definitive cause for the sharp rise in suicides among 10- to 17-year-olds, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, there are several likely risk factors.

Our trash, for one, may be a culprit. In 2014, John Upton wrote about the work of Amanda Bakian, an assistant professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, on the link between pollution and suicide, for Pacific Standard:

Bakian and her colleagues found that the odds of committing suicide in the county spiked 20 percent following three days of high nitrogen dioxide pollution — which is produced when fossil fuels are burned and after fertilizer is applied to fields. They also found that Utahans were five percent more likely to kill themselves following three days of breathing in air laced with high levels of fine particulate matter, also known as soot.

Utah is nearly as well known for it’s smoggy cities as it is for its beautiful landscapes. Salt Lake City is the seventh-most polluted city in the United States, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2015 report. And things don’t appear to be improving any time soon: The 2015 report represented an increase in the region’s number of days with spikes in harmful particle pollution and smog from the previous year.

It’s not that Utahans in Salt Lake County necessarily produce more emissions than other big cities, as the New York Timesexplains. Rather, they’re at a topographical disadvantage: Warm, high-pressure weather systems trap cold air within mountain valleys like a lid in the wintertime, allowing dirty air from, say, car exhaust to build up. The state’s high altitude — an average of 6,100 feet above sea level — doesn’t help either. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that altitude is a strong risk factor for suicide.

But these factors cannot entirely explain the steep rise in youth suicides. The state’s altitude clearly hasn’t changed since 2007, when youth suicides began to climb, and the average air quality statewide has generally improved over the same time period.

In the Huffington Post, Benjamin Knoll, an assistant professor at Kentucky Centre College, described his (as yet unpublished) research on the potential relationship between the Mormon church’s stance on LGBT youth and suicides in Utah. He writes:

In 2014 (the year the most recent data is available), the % Mormon in a U.S. state is associated with a higher level of youth suicides in that state. This relationship holds even after statistically controlling for other potential causal factors of suicide such as elevation (altitude), rates of gun ownership, rates of serious mental illness, rural vs. urban, state spending on mental health, and a variety of demographic and socioeconomic factors.

None of these factors are associated with an increase in levels of youth suicides in a state between 2009 and 2014 except for % Mormon in a state. Further analysis finds that this relationship is due solely to the increase in youth suicides in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming — the three states with the largest Mormon population in the country.

Another risk factor not to be overlooked: Utah’s gun culture. Nearly half of all households in the state own a gun. (Officials in the tiny town of Spring City even passed an ordinance encouraging every legally eligible household to own a firearm.) Almost half of youth suicides in the state involved guns, and one report found that more Utahans are killed by firearms than car accidents. Gun access is a known risk factor for suicide for individuals of all ages, and young Utahans have more access than average; more high school students in Utah report occasionally carrying a firearm than the national average. While gun ownership rates in the state have remained fairly unchanged over the last decade, it is still a viable target for intervention.

Not surprisingly, pro-gun lobbyists oppose increased regulation. “It is not a gun problem — it is a suicide problem,” Clark Aposhian, a pro-gun lobbyist, told the Tribune. According to the Tribune, Aposhian argued that “restricting guns wouldn’t stop people intent on ending their lives; they may try pills or poison or some other way.”

But firearms are the most lethal method of suicide; 85 percent of suicide attempts with guns end in death, compared to just 2 percent of poison or overdose attempts.

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