'Psychological autopsies' aim to identify suicide trends in Utah

“Psychological autopsies” aim to identify suicide trends in Utah (Photo: KUTV)

The following story deals with the topic of suicide. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. There are additional suicide prevention resources linked at the end of the story.

(KUTV) – The toughest question for people who lose a loved one to suicide is often, why?

The “why” behind suicide is now the job of Michael Staley with the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner.

“We ask, why now, why suicide now, if this person has been struggling with depression for 30 years, why today,” Staley told 2News.

Staley’s work with the Medical Examiner’s Office began in Aug. when he was hired to study Utah’s gradually increasing suicide rate.

The Department of Health's data shows 638 Utahns died by suicide in 2016. The suicide rate in 2015, the last year a rate was available, was 24.5 for every 100,000 people – that’s compared to 15-17 for every 100,000 people during the first years of the century.

“Utah does have a suicide problem, it’s something that we’ve known now for a while,” Staley said. “In the past we haven’t really talked to families, at least in a systematic kind of way.”

Part of Staley’s responsibilities include ‘physiological autopsies’ – a process to identify the suicide victim’s background and any possible factors that contributed to the decision to end their life.

“In the past we haven’t collected data on a person’s religious identity, or their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” Staley said. “Having that will help us understand. Maybe not the full reason why, but if we back up 30,000 feet, why did these 300 or 400 or 640 people take their lives.”

Staley said to conduct a psychological autopsy, he needs to talk to at least four people who were close to the victim.

“We don’t always get answers, but we get more answers than if we didn’t ask at all,” Staley said.

A national study on suicide found Utah’s suicide rate is 51% higher than the national suicide rate. Firearms were used in half of suicides, according to the study.

Suicide prevention advocates in Utah hope Staley’s work at the Medical Examiner’s Office will give a clearer understanding about why people end their lives.

“We’re really hopeful it will make a huge impact,” Utah Suicide Prevention Coordinator Kimberly Myers told 2News. “There’s no position like this that I know of in the country that has access to the data that the Office of the medical examiner has.”

Myers said access to victim’s families will hopefully be able to identify trends in suicide victims.

“We can really change strategies quickly instead of waiting 3, 4 years for data like we often have to do,” Myers said.

The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition has established resources for people who are at risk for suicide and suicide survivors.

The coalition’s website has information for how to get help if you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

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