Utah is the perfect living laboratory for public health interventions on suicide prevention.
First, suicide rates in the state have historically been higher than the U.S. average. And since 2007, there has been a notable spike upward.
Second, Utah has rigorous government systems—including a centralized medical examiner’s office instead of independent (and sometimes undertrained) county coroners, as well as a psychological autopsy examiner—for collecting data on suicides and the circumstances surrounding the deaths. Indeed, Utah was one of the first states to contribute to the National Violent Death Reporting System—a system for which Harvard Chan’s David Hemenway, Cathy Barber, and Deborah Azrael helped create the pilot when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention felt it could not collect data on firearm deaths—the major stumbling block being the 1996 congressional budget rider called the Dickey Amendment, which forbade the agency from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” But as Utah State Representative Steve Eliason, a leader in suicide-prevention legislation, notes, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Finally, Utah has high public awareness of the problem. Some 40 percent of the population knows someone who has attempted, or died by, suicide.
“In Utah, there’s a high level of interest and a high level of appetite to say, OK, you can have your fancy research studies and you can publish in your fancy journals. But really what’s going on beneath our feet?” Morissa Sobelson says. “That is what is going to build the momentum that drives change.”