Spencer Cox: Let’s talk about suicide

Feb 26, 2018, 10:04 AM

SALT LAKE CITY — Let’s talk about suicide.

Does that sentence make you uncomfortable? That’s ok. It made me uncomfortable for a long time too.

Not long ago I was asked to speak at a community suicide prevention meeting in Tremonton. My staff had provided me with some talking points and statistics. I thought it would be simple: Get in, show I knew a few things, then get out and make the 170-mile drive home. I got there a few minutes before the meeting started and began talking to volunteers and others who had shown up early.

It didn’t take long to realize that this was different than other speaking assignments. This was real and raw.

When it came my turn to speak, I was extra fidgety. I started with the stats and talking points that had been prepared, but felt it wasn’t right. I was scared.

I finally decided that, for the first time publicly, I needed to tell my story. This is what the local newspaper wrote after the event:

For starters, his parents got divorced when he was 10 years old. It was the mid-1980s when broken marriages were rare, especially in the conservative, Mormon town.“It just didn’t happen very often.The bad kids in school were the ones who had divorced parents,” Cox said, concluding that “I must be one of them.”

Then middle school happened.

The first week, these strapping young boys grabbed me in the hall and stuffed me in a garbage can. I’m sure it was fun for them,” Cox reminisced, adding that “I got glasses about that time — not the nice ones like people wear today. These were big, round and thick, and I was really little, and kind of a nerd.”

At times, Cox said he thought about “what it would be like if I wasn’t here anymore, and how much better off everyone would be if I wasn’t here.”

That led to thoughts about how he would do it.

But Cox said he never got to the place where he attempted suicide. And he never spoke about it either.

Fortunately I was surrounded by incredible people: friends, family, church leaders and an especially loving step-mom. But until that night almost 30 years later, I had never really talked about those dark times.

That night was life-changing for other reasons too. I listened to experts and survivors and family members of people who had died by suicide. Honestly, I learned more about suicide prevention in one evening than my previous 40 years combined. But mostly, I learned that we simply need to talk about it more — and that contrary to what you may have heard, there is NO evidence that talking about suicide makes it more likely to happen.

I went home that night and went straight down to my teenage boys’ room. We talked about suicide for the first time. It was uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure my kids thought I was crazy, but it was an important start for us.

Unfortunately, our state recently received some bad news. The rate of teen suicide in Utah is increasing much faster than the national average. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among young people here. And 17 percent of our youth report seriously considering a suicide attempt.

In light of these alarming statistics, last month, the Governor asked Rep. Steve Eliason and me to chair an emergency Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force (you can read our report to Governor Herbert here).

Meeting with experts and advocates was a revelation to me. In our first meeting, Taryn Hiatt, regional director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, gave one of the most powerful presentations on suicide prevention I had ever heard. I learned that no one wants to end their life — rather, they want to end their pain.

I learned that we all need to lock up our guns, and that everyone needs to download the SafeUT app. I learned that our LGBT youth are at much higher risk for suicide ideation and completion. I learned that connection is the best prevention. And I learned, again, that we need to talk about it more. Much more. We need to talk about mental illness and suicide the way we talk about a cold, or a broken bone, or the flu.

So I’ve started talking about it more. And I hope you will too.

I routinely meet with student groups who come to the Capitol to learn about government and legislating. They make their way to my office to learn what a Lt. Governor does. I make the obligatory jokes about doing the governor’s dry-cleaning and being the keeper of the Great Seal (and being disappointed when I found out it wasn’t a zoo animal … I know, they don’t usually laugh either). But now I’ve started talking to them about suicide too. They don’t expect it. And it’s a little uncomfortable at first. And until recently, I’ve wondered if I should do it. But then something happened.

A few days ago I was with a group of 30 or so middle school students. We talked about the legislative session and all the bills we should veto. And then we talked about suicide. I told them my story. I told them that, statistically, five of them, were seriously considering a suicide attempt. I told them that they weren’t alone. I told them to find someone to talk to — a friend, a parent, a teacher, anyone — and if they couldn’t find anyone, they could talk to me.

As the students were leaving, a 13-year old girl asked if she could give me a hug. “Of course!” I replied. As she hugged me, she whispered in my ear, “Thank you for talking about suicide. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and I needed to hear you say that today.”

We moved to the corner and talked for a minute. I told her we desperately need her on this earth. She promised me she would stay. She cried. I cried. We hugged again. I grabbed her teachers and administrators, and they promised they would follow up with her and get her the help she needs. I went back to my office with a lump in my throat and cried some more.

Life is so precious. Kids can be impulsive.

So, let’s do this together. Let’s lock up our guns. Let’s all download the SafeUT app. Let’s put away our phones and start connecting more. And  —  seriously  —  let’s start talking about suicide.

Resources to help:

  • Utah Suicide Prevention: 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1–800–273-TALK (8255)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah: Statewide Crisis Line 801–587–3000
  • Trevor Lifeline: 1–866–488–7386 – The Trevor Project provides support to LGBTQ young people 24/7.
  • Veterans Crisis Line: 1–800–273–8255 / Press 1. Text to 838255.
  • Utah Domestic Violence LINKLine: 1–800–897-LINK (5465)

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Medium.

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Spencer Cox: Let’s talk about suicide