HEALTHY MIND MATTERS

Utah Steps Up Help For Families Facing Grief From Suicide, Drug Overdose & COVID

Oct 23, 2020, 8:27 PM | Updated: Oct 25, 2020, 11:16 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — A number of families across Utah are facing grief at a time when being connected feels dangerous because of COVID-19, so the state is stepping up efforts to support families in the critical days after a traumatic loss.

Their work is about much more than outreach.

“I wanted to be just like him,” said Emily Hoerner who lives in West Jordan.

When the unimaginable happened, Hoerner didn’t know where to turn.

“He was the life of the party.”

Her brother, Jed, died from suicide in 2009.

“Complete shock, out of nowhere,” she said. “I was really mad at the world.”

Hoerner experienced complicated grief and struggled to find resources.

“It is very hard to dial a phone number and ask for help in those days right after,” she said.

For the past two years, the Office of the Medical Examiner has tried to reach out to suicide loss survivors within two weeks of a death to provide emotional triage and connect families with childcare, support groups, or therapy.

The call is about more than simply helping with the grieving process.

“This really is suicide prevention,” said Michael Staley, Ph.D., Office of the Medical Examiner. “But we know people are at higher risk of suicide or increased substance abuse or use — all kinds of negative outcomes when they’re not connected to good resources.”

Surviving relatives are about twice as likely to suffer from a mental health condition like depression. Surviving spouses have a 22-fold increased risk of suicide, according to The International Handbook of Suicide Bereavement Support.

“That, to me and to my colleagues, in suicide prevention is a call to action,” Staley said. “These are people who we know are at risk and we have their phone numbers. We can connect with them, so this is a real opportunity.”

With federal CARES Act funding, they now hope to expand the program. By adding two full-time employees, they plan to reach more survivors, and to include support for accidental drug overdose deaths and loss from COVID-19.

Taelor Johnson, a research intern with the Office of the Medical Examiner said, “Our calls give them a safe place to talk about their loved one and really to express some things that they’ve been feeling, or that they’re worried about.”

For Hoerner, a grief support group made all the difference.

“I have credited them with helping save my life,” she said. “We learned that we’re not alone, and that there were a lot of people who understood what we were going through. Just knowing that someone gets it, and you can talk about it and it’s safe, and you don’t have to worry about the judgment and the stigma and those kinds of things was huge.”

Helping survivors recover from grief.

“I miss his blue eyes, and the twinkle when he was saying something snarky or sarcastic,” Hoerner said.

Staley said, “We are trying to bridge that gap between families and resources, and helping them get back on their feet.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Utah Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.

You can also contact Caring Connections, an eight-week grief support group, at 801-538-9522, or visit their website.

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Utah Steps Up Help For Families Facing Grief From Suicide, Drug Overdose & COVID