SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — Advocates gathered at the Utah State Capitol Thursday to raise awareness of suicide prevention and highlight bills that will provide more mental health support for Utah residents.

Suicide was the leading cause of death for Utah teens and adults aged between 18 to 24 in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Advocates from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the largest suicide prevention
organization in the United States, met with Utah legislators today to help them understand that making investments in mental health and suicide prevention can save lives.

“As advocates, we have the unique and valued opportunity to share our stories directly with the men and women we’ve elected to represent us in Utah,” said Tori Yeates, AFSP Utah Chapter Board Member. “Our personal stories are the most meaningful tool we have. As an advocate, one person truly can have a direct impact on public policy, legislation and fiscal priorities.”

Lawmakers who are currently sponsoring bills related to behavioral health were also present at the rally.

“This is a day for people who have been affected by suicide and mental health conditions to come together to share their voices with our legislators,” said Taryn Hiatt, director of the AFSP Utah Chapter.

Rep. Steve Eliason (R-Sandy) has been a long-time sponsor of mental health bills since he first joined the Legislature in 2011. During the 2023 legislative session, Eliason is backing H.B. 66, which will require the existing Behavioral Health Crisis Response Commission to develop mobile crisis teams, up to two crisis receiving centers in smaller counties and a virtual outreach team.

“There are many more bills related to mental health this year than ever before,” said Rob Wessman, executive director for Utah National Alliance on Mental Illness.

H.B. 248, sponsored by Rep. Marsha Judkins (R-Provo), calls for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services to create a long-term, statewide assertive community treatment team plan. The bill states that an ACT team will primarily work with individuals to secure housing as well as get them access to wraparound services including clinical support, case management, and peer and employment support.

“Mental health affects all of us,” Hiatt said. “We need to make sure we understand what it looks like when our mental health is declining so that we can get help. People are trained to help us when we do reach out. It really takes all of us.”

Many of the advocates at the rally agreed that Utah is heading in the right direction in terms of introducing infrastructure and mechanisms related to behavioral health care.

One example would be the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which can be traced back to Sen. Daniel Thatcher (R-West Valley City), who has worked to rally support for the creation of a three-digit crisis line since 2014.

While the plan for a nationwide hotline was in the works, Utah lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 to consolidate more than 20 local crisis lines into one number that will offer 24/7 support. In 2021, that crisis line received more than 92,500 calls, according to the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

Even so, there is always more work to do.

“This has been a really hard [legislative] session on the LGBTQ+ community, especially our transgender community,” said Amanda Darrow, director of Utah Pride Center. “We need more mental health services than ever before.”

A bill that will ban gender-affirming care for minors passed the Legislature recently and was signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox, prompting a local civil rights group to consider suing the state of Utah.

Just today, Rep. Jeff Stenquist (R-Draper) unveiled a new bill in the legislature that would limit the discussion of gender and sexuality in the classrooms of any student in grades 3 or below.

Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross), gives parents the right to access their children’s information at school, including their gender identity. It passed the Utah Senate earlier this month and is heading to the governor’s desk.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide Crisis Lifeline at 988.