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Youth Suicide Is Pervasive in Utah. An App, SafeUT, Is Fighting Back.


The digital health tool connects patients to mental health providers — and much more.


Photo courtesy of SafeUT.

One morning in 2018, a Utah student decided to take an entire bottle of medication before heading to school. Coincidentally, the school was holding an assembly to discuss the problems of suicide and mental health in the state. Presenters shared the SafeUT app, an online place where students can go to get support. In response to these overtures, the student who had overdosed on a cocktail of medication reached out to ask for help while in class. School officials were notified. The student received medical care and, after a weeklong stay in the hospital, survived. Without a timely intervention, they would have died. That assembly helped save their life.

@Safe_UT #SuccessStory #Utah #utpol #mentalhealth pic.twitter.com/d80FQDmPnV

— Utah Attorney General (@UtahAG) May 17, 2019

Two young people are treated for suicide attempt every day in Utah, more than the national average. In 2014, suicide was the leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 17. In one high school in Herriman, Utah, seven students and one recent graduate died by suicide during the 2017-18 school year. The question of whether suicide prevention efforts are working in Utah is routinely covered in the news. Finding root causes of the increase in suicide and enabling better access to care for vulnerable patients is a top priority — and technology can help in prevention efforts.

Utah faces a dearth of physicians and mental health providers. At the same time, suicide attempts among females are spiking, and suicide remains a leading cause of death for male youth. A 2019 Utah State Audit reports that crisis service demand has increased more quickly than anticipated. It is predicted that in 2020 the funding will fall $3.6 million short of the need. No one seems to want to pay for mental health. UnitedHealthcare recently lost a class-action lawsuit and was found guilty of excessive and unnecessary restrictions on mental health care access within their policy. Combine this with a shortage of physicians and mental health services, and students are not getting the support they need for mental health.

SafeUT’s Digital Push for Suicide Prevention

Research suggests that when youth in Utah attempt to access emergency mental health services or are sent home for physician follow-ups, wait times can be weeks or months before they meet with a doctor or counselor. The state-funded SafeUT app started in the K-12 schools and has expanded to secondary education to fight this problem, connecting patients to providers and schools to emergency services quickly. Parents can also use the app for support.

For patients, simply finding a mental health provider who takes their insurance and practices nearby can pose a significant barrier to mental health access. SafeUT developers recognized that ongoing care and availability in a crisis are necessary. In addition to threat reporting and suicide prevention, SafeUT has done manual work to unearth provider and insurance information, partnering with students who manually called providers across the state. If a patient wants to find a therapist who specializes in supporting students with autism, who takes a specific insurance, SafeUT can provide that information. Matching providers who take a specific insurance plan with patients on that plan is a huge benefit over the outdated provider directories that are available to most patients through their insurance companies.

So what else does the app do? SafeUT offers threat reporting and emergency access through texts or calls. Students can report a threat of violence or mental health risk, and law enforcement can intervene when necessary.

The Need for SafeUT and Behavioral Health

Since the program’s inception, the need for support to answer crisis calls meant SafeUT exceeded its original budget figures by $230,000.

Approximately one credible threat of violence in Utah schools is reported and addressed every day. In one case, responders found 18 pipe bombs in various stages of fabrication. With school violence increasing across the nation and students wondering if they are safe at school, more work should be done.

@Safe_UT #SuccessStory #Utah #utpol #schoolsafety pic.twitter.com/880kK9K7De

— Utah Attorney General (@UtahAG) May 17, 2019

SafeUT won the Utah HIMSS Innovative Health IT project of the year and has been covered by news outlets throughout the state. The demand for the service outpaced original projections, which led to the need for more than the original budget.

I spoke with Will Leavitt, Project facilitator at SafeUT, about why it is important for the service to be online. “Kids these days have grown up with technology and feel comfortable using it,” he told me. Plus, this familiarity with technology is “why it was important for us to create an app where users can text or call us if they or someone they know are in crisis, with the added ability to submit safety concerns via tips confidentially and


without fear of repercussions when they are just trying to do the right thing.”

Adolescents are more likely to share their mental health concerns with someone who is not a close friend or relative; this makes an app ideal to increase accessibility for teens. According to Pew Research, eight in 10 teens feel more connected to their peers through the internet, despite fears of online bullying. Providing an online solution helps ensure that support is available, particularly in a place that has potential risks and benefits.

Patients who have a provider might go days between appointments, and an app like SafeUT would be a great addition to a safety plan. If a patient can’t reach their therapist, SafeUT can provide interim support that is easily accessible for patients. One unique aspect of the SafeUT program compared to other programs is that it actually connects people seeking help with trained clinicians. The average number of threads in the text communication is 22, so the messaging provides support without replacing therapy.

What’s Next for SafeUT?

When asked about the future of the SafeUT program, Leavitt expressed his main hope: that one day, an app like this one will no longer be necessary. “Our hope for the future is that SafeUT will not be needed, that everyone will feel comfortable talking about their struggles with loved ones and close friends,” Leavitt said. “However, until that time, we will be there, 24/7/365, for any students, parents or educators who need to reach out for help.”

Digital health tools like SafeUT app are making prevention more effective than ever in Utah. They offer more resources and facilitate mental health support in a sphere where many youth are already socializing, which is key to connecting them with resources and ultimately providing better solutions for students suffering from depression and mental illness.

National Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

University Neuropsychiatric Institute Crisis line: 801-587-3000

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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